Today we had some of the coolest indoor experiences mixed with one of the hottest outdoor days.
We started with a visit to the “Trains to Life/Trains to Death” sculpture at Friedrichstraße Station. This train station was used both for the Kindertransport of some 10,000 Jewish children to the UK between December 1938 and September 1939, but also for the deportation of some 45,000 Berlin Jews to the ghettos and death camps after October 1941.
For the morning, we visited the Information Center beneath the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It wasn’t that we had that many people in front of us, rather larger groups and reserved entry and were able to cut in front, pushing us back in line. Next time, I’ll have to make my own reservation.
The Information Center is fully air conditioned, something we needed on the hottest day of the trip, when the temperature hit 94. The students were all deeply moved by the individual stories on display. One drew a connection between the stelae of the memorial above with the blocks of text on the floor of the Information Center (they are the same dimensions). It was if, he said, that each stele represents one person or family of those murdered.
When I was in the book room with some of the students afterwards, one of them pointed out a German high school student who was sobbing and being consoled by one of his teachers. I had to leave the room or else I would have burst out crying myself.
I took all but one of the students to a bakery near Museum Insel for lunch (the afternoon was free and included an optional visit to the Pergamon, but one of the students wanted to do something else). I noticed that the bakery had the sounds of jungle birds making bird calls and I asked why. “It scares away the sparrows,” they told me. Only a little, however, as many flew in and out.
To keep cool, the bakery had both doors open to create a cross breeze (something I so wish I could do in my hotel room). But there’s so much tree pollen in the air, there was a lot of it floating inside the bakery.
Even though I wasn’t able to reserve a tour, the Pergamon Museum accepted the letter from the chair of my department and let us enter for free. I felt a little like I was rushing them, but they still were able to see everything in a little more than an hour. Two gasped when they exited the stairs and saw the Ishtar Gate from Babylon. Another student gasped when I told her not to turn around but led her up to the observation platform opposite the market gate for the city of Miletus.
I pointed out paleo-Hebrew inscriptions for the two students who had a little familiarity with Hebrew (though not paleo-Hebrew). I also made sure they went upstairs to see the red room from Aleppo and the treasures of the Islamic collection. One student later told me that he doesn’t really care for museums of ancient art but he really liked these.
I wanted to take the students for ice cream, but we only had 45 minutes before we had to meet our guide for the refugee-led tour. We passed a frozen yoghurt place and bought them whatever they wanted. It helped against the heat.
We made it to the u-bahn stop for the meeting with just a minute to spare. The fifth student was waiting on the platform and we climbed the stairs into the hottest part of the day to meet our guide. Only he wasn’t there. I kept going up to random people and asking “Mohammad”? After five minutes, he arrived. They missed their train.
The tour was very similar to what we did two years ago, down to the same guide. I had heard his story before but it was new to the students. I found it moving, but several of the students felt he had soft pedaled the horrors experienced by migrants coming across the Mediterranean. He said that he didn’t want to see himself as a victim. Meanwhile, the heat, even in the shade, was nearly unbearable.
Hashim took us to the Syrian restaurant in Wedding. Before we left, however, I arranged a bathroom break. We were next to Rausch and I knew they had bathrooms at the café level, so I told the students to go up use them. They came down after a few minutes having been deflected by a waiter. “Don’t give up!” I told them. “I’ll take care of it.” “No, no, it’ll be all right,” they answered. “Just follow me!” I told them.
We took the elevator up to the café, which was mostly deserted. Now, I remembered where they were and I just walked firmly through the café as if I were a customer and deserved to be there. The students followed and I pointed out the women’s room, while I went to the men’s.
Back downstairs I talked to Hashim. He met Mohammad as they are in the same program at the university. After spending two years in a smaller west German town, he was clearly happy to be Berlin. He was also excited to find that some of his credits from Damascus University will transfer.
It was the same restaurant as two years ago, but we couldn’t sit inside due to the unbelievable heat. Even sitting in the direct line of the setting sun was cooler than inside. Finally, there was some cooling after the sun set. After some hesitancy over the cleanliness of the napkins and utensils, they enjoyed the food.
Now, we’re all back at the hostel. I’ve told the students to bring their suitcases down to breakfast as we’re leaving at 8 am. The fact is that we won’t need an hour to get to our train at Hauptbahnhof, but I’m assuming we will experience some delays in the morning and I wanted to leave myself some room for error.