Thursday, June 13, 2019

Free Day

Yesterday was our free day, what I dub our “mental health day.”  It’s the halfway point in the study abroad trip and it follows one of the hardest days so far, our visit to Mauthausen.  Students can sleep in, do their laundry, go shopping, whatever they want.

The past two trips I’ve gone to Salzburg for the day, but it’s been a while since I’ve been to the art museums in Vienna and it was time to go back.  Several students expressed an interest in going to the Upper Belvedere Museum, so we went there.

Unfortunately, I turned right into the park when leaving the S-Bahn, not left into the park, and we walked about 30 minutes out of our way until I we realized we were going in the wrong direction.  We took a bus back to where we started and from there another tram to the museum.

To make it up to them for misdirecting them so badly, I personally treated the three students who came with me to the museum.  They loved the views and the elaborate rooms and the art.

The rest of the day, the students went off on their own. Two told me last night that they had gone to the Freud Museum, closed for renovations, in order to pick up some stuff at the gift shop. I’ll find out what the others did today at breakfast.

I went to buy new shoes as I’ve discovered a small hole in the top of one of my shoes.  Unfortunately, the prices were outrageous.  C and A had decent prices (20-30 euros), but no selection.  Footlocker’s prices started at 100 euros and went up from there.  I’ll wait until we’re in Poland and try again there.

After that, I needed a break from the heat and humidity, so stopped into Aida for some much needed kaffee und kuchen (specifically, a “mélange” and a “Eszterhazy Schnitte”), and to read the paper.

Refrshed, I headed to the Albertina, where I’ve seen some amazing stuff before.  The special exhibit was of an artist I had never heard of, and if I never hear of him again, it will be too soon.  Nitsch was a leader of my least-favorite post-war artistic movement:  Vienna Aktionismus.  This involves making art that rips open the diseased body of Western Civilization to reveal its rotting entrails, and thus, somehow, cure it of the illnesses that led to the wars and totalitarianisms of the 20th century.

Nitsch seems to have taken that literally, as he used (animal) blood in his paintings, sometimes ripping out organs with his hands (and his assistants’ hands) to smear it on the paintings.  Some of the rooms had warnings posted about violent images.  In his “brown series,” he used paint designed to look like excrement, smeared with actual blood.  I didn’t spend much time there.

Apparently, I’m no longer all that avant-garde, since I rushed upstairs to see the lovely exhibit “From Monet to Picasso.”  This collection specializes in post-impressionist color-theory art.  Each painting was a delight, with no (actual) blood or (faux) excrement to be seen. 

Perhaps my favorite, though, wasn’t even part of the primary exhibition.  For a limited time, two new rooms have been added with art on loan from the Austrian National Bank.  This art was labeled “The Austrian New Objectivity” – an interwar artistic movement, similar to the one in Germany – but the collection was far too eclectic to fit into that one description.  My favorite piece by far was Robert Kross’ “Terzetta.” 

They didn’t have much information on him or what the painting depicted or even what the title means.  The painting doesn’t much look like the German “New Objectivity” movement, but is rather more expressionist.  The painting depicts a woman dressed to the nines for a night on the town, her thin dress revealing much of her cleavage.  Her blonde hair is done up in the Jazz 1920s’ fashion, and she’s wearing long, elegant gloves.  What struck me, though, is that she isn’t a young woman going out on the town; she’s definitely middle aged, but she’s not going to let that stand in her way.  As far as she’s concerned, she’s just as beautiful, just as sexy as any 20-something flapper out in the clubs with her.  The lighting, which creates a halo around her face, is particularly dramatic.

I wandered around a bit afterwards, getting some pretty good schnitzel at the train station near the hotel.  I met two students in the lobby and heard about their day.  They were hungry and I wanted to get some buchteln at Café Hawelka, so we pooled our resources.  I sat with them and had a beer on the Graben, and then they joined me for coffee and buchteln at Café Hawelka.

One time I described buchteln as a kind of jelly doughnut and the waiter became indignent with me, so I was more careful this time.  “It’s a yeast-based dough filled with plum jam and then baked into pull-apart rolls.”  They aren’t all that sweet and they are particularly good when served fresh from the oven (as ours were).

Slept well last night and today we are off to the Jewish Museum, the Hapsburg out-of-town palace, and perhaps the Welt Museum before we take the night train to Warsaw.

Sunday, June 09, 2019


Lidice is always an emotional day.  Most students have never heard of the town murdered by the Nazis on June 10, 1942.  Tomorrow is the 77th anniversary of the massacre.  Because the numbers are so (relatively) small, the loss is much more comprehensible. 

Following Heydrich’s assassination by Czech paratroopers, Hitler imposed collective punishment on Bohemia and Moravia.  Lidice was chosen because it was small and close to Prague, so that people in the capital would feel it.  The men were shot, the women sent to concentration camp, and 80% of the children were murdered in Chelmno extermination camp.  The remaining children who were young and Aryan looking were given to German couples to adopt.

The letters and postcards from the doomed children to their families begging for aid are heartbreaking.  They were posted from the Lodz ghetto two days before the children were sent to the gas vans.  By the time their grandparents, aunts and uncles received them, the children were already dead.  No information was given their relatives concerning the children’s murder.

The former site of the town is nothing more than green, mowed grass, sloping down to the stream and then up again the other side.  The only structures besides individual memorials are a few fragments of foundations of farm houses.  After the town was burned, the Nazis dynamited all the buildings and bulldozed the rubble until nothing of the town was left.  As one student noted, if a bus dropped you off in the middle of it, you’d have no idea that there was ever a town here at all.

Afterwards, I took the students out to lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in Prague.  I figured we could use a break, and Cukrakavalimonada has a light, fresh menu that appealed to both vegetarians and meat eaters alike.  They also make wonderful lemonades and very tasty desserts and hot chocolate.  The hot chocolate actually tastes like the melted chocolate and mixed it with hot milk, as opposed to pouring hot water over some powder.

For dessert, I had the Hraběnčiny řezy, which roughly translates to “The Countess Slice.”  “Slices,” or “Schnitten” in German, are layered desserts that are served as pieces, as opposed to cut from a torte or cake.  The bottom layer was a simple biscuit dough cake, followed by a layer of chopped and cooked apples, and then the top is covered with layer of meringue and sliced almonds. It was very good.

I had promised all the students I would take them to see the astronomical clock in action, and one still hadn’t seen it.  With only 20 minutes, though, we would have to race from the restaurant in Malastrana to Old Town Square.  It didn’t help that the Charles Bridge was more crowded than I had ever seen it.  With the nice weather we’ve been having, everyone was out for a stroll.  I just bulldozed my way through crowds, cutting off small children and tourists, but in the end, I got the student to the clock with three minutes to spare.

After doing some administrative work for my program, I went off to a coffee shop in the neighborhood to read my novel.  I was startled by hearing some Hebrew as some Israelis came in, talked, and then left.  I think I only met three Israelis in my week and a half in Berlin, but I’ve heard Hebrew every day here in Prague.  Waiting at the Crazy Burrito place for dinner (ok, it’s official name is “Burrito Loco”), I heard some Hebrew and met an archaeology professor from Bar Ilan and his wife, who’s a biologist at the Weizmann Institute. 

I’ve been curious what the students think of Prague.  They agree that it can be a very pretty city, but many of them found the number of tourists off putting.  One was surprised by how many souvenir shops there were.  If you’re on the main tourist drag it can seem that everyone here is a tourist. The strange this is that we’re still not in height of the season yet.  Some of the students also thought that Prague felt a little dirty or seedy, which it certainly can be.

One problem is that I think I bias the students against the city in my perpetual warnings about property crime.  Except, there really is a lot of it here and I want my students to be safe.  It’s a really hard line to walk between telling them to exercise caution and scaring them from enjoying the city. I’m still not sure how to strike that balance. 

Tomorrow, we’re off to Vienna.

Saturday, June 08, 2019


I think the student consensus is that our hotel in Prague is somewhat down market. “It doesn’t feel all that clean,” one student said.  The rooms look like they were furnished in the 1960s and the rather Spartan breakfast is in the adjacent building, which is accessed by walking through the car park.  Still, the price was remarkably affordable (for Prague).  All the other guests appear to be Czech.

We had very good weather for our visit to Terezin (also known by its German name, Theresienstadt).  We began with a visit to the museum in the former boy’s home.  The film they showed this time was a 1965 film that intercut scenes from the Nazi propaganda film with drawings done by the artists showing the reality of what the ghetto/concentration camp was like.  The music at the end was from the “El Male Rachamim” prayer (“God, full of compassion”) for those murdered in the Holocaust.  This is one of those prayers where the melody sounds as if one is crying as one prays.  As it reaches the words “שֶׁנֶּהֶרְגוּ, שֶׁנִּשְׁחֲטוּ, שֶׁנִּשְׂרְפוּ וְשֶׁנִּסְפּוּ עַל קִדּוּשׁ הַשֵׁם” – “who were killed, slaughtered, burnt, and exterminated for the sake of the Holy Name” – the cantor usually sings them almost as a scream, which generally brings me to tears.

One new thing was that they recently discovered in a currently unused building a set of “closets” that were originally used as living quarters for Jewish forced workers.  These have been restored as has a secret prayer room adjacent to it, which had been painted by one of the workmen to resemble a traditional synagogue (with the texts of important prayers decorating the walls).  It was very moving.

Afterwards, we went to the park in the town square to eat our lunches that we brought with us. One student noted that we were walking through a grave yard, where Jews had dropped dead everywhere, so the park seemed the best place, since it was off limits to Jews in the ghetto, and thus no one died there.

Several of the students said that the creepiest aspect of the town is that there are people living here.  While some of the barracks are used for museum displays, others are vacant, and still others are occupied by Czechs.  The Czech government continued to use Terezin as a military garrison through 1996, so people had been settled in the town during the communist period and into the post-communist period.

On the last trip, I noticed a “pension” located just between the inner defensive wall, alongside the moat that separated it from the outer defensive wall (Terezin was built by the Hapsburgs as a military fortification and garrison in the 18th century).  During the Holocaust, the Nazis converted the adjacent section of the outer defensive wall into a morturary and columbarium (where one stores ashes of those cremated).  The road continues to the ghetto cemetery and crematorium. 

I remember thinking, “who in their right mind would book a room next to the ghetto mortuary”?  It turns out the answer is “no one.”  The hotel is now for sale for the bargain price of 3,400,000 Czech Koruna ($150,500).  A steal.

When we got back to town, most of the students napped, while I went out to find a copy of the paper.  I also wanted to find Czech chlebicki: cheap, open-faced sandwiches.  I finally found some and had two (one salami, one lox), a kremroll for dessert, and a bottle of soda, all for 25% less than I paid for my one sandwich the day before.  Good to know for the future.

Last night was Prague’s 16th annual “night of the museums” (second Saturday of June), where over 70 institutions open at 7 pm and stay open late and are free.  I went with all but one of the students to the Museum of Communism, which has recently changed locations.  We ended up walking in a large circle until we found we had already walked past it (I did stop and ask for directions).  The new exhibits still maintain its tongue-in-cheek approach to covering the communist period, as you would expect from a privately owned, for-profit museum of communism. 

We had some fun in the gift shop after one of the students pointed out a life-sized mannequin of Leonid Brezhnev.  It’s set up with his lips puckered for a kiss, like he would give communist leaders when he visited the satellite countries.  I asked the students if they would like to pose kissing Brezhnev, but only one pretended to kiss him (you don’t know, after all, where those lips have been).

I noticed that it was 9:50, which meant that if we really raced, we could see the astronomical clock’s display on the hour, so we ran the several blocks to the old town square and made it just in time.  The students were very happy.

Several of them still hadn’t had dinner, so we walked to Wenceslas Square, where there are always sausage stands.  “What types of sausage do they have?” I was asked.  “Sausage, sausage, sausage, sausage,” etc., I said, pointing at the pictures. “What flavors are they?”  “Sausage flavors,” I replied.  “If you taste anything else, you’re in luck.”   They seemed to like them.

Today, we’re off to Lidice this morning, and then the rest of the day in Prague is free.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Today, I took the students to the most beautiful café in the world.

Today, I took the students to the most beautiful café in the world.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The train ride today was far better than yesterday.  Not only was the weather just cooler in general, but there was no commotion in getting on the train or in getting our seats.  We had lovely views of the “Saxon Switzerland” as the train climbed up the Elbe towards the Czech border. 

Arrival in Prague was relatively smooth and I was able to get our metro passes without too much difficulty.  The weather was warming up, but it was still much cooler than it had been in Berlin last week. 

Our first stop was to get Czech koruna, which went mostly ok.  Then we got lunch and ate it in the lovely Franciscan Gardens in Nove Mesto.  With food in our stomachs and money in our wallets, we were ready to see the city.

We briefly walked through Old Town Square past the Astronomical Clock.  I promised them multiple times that we would come back to see it in action.  Our goal was the Jewish Museum, which is split among several synagogues.  The Spanish Synagogue is closed for renovations until 2021, but the rest were open, including the Alt-Neu Shul. 

After all that walking, I thought the students deserved a really nice rest break, so I took them to Kavárna Obecní dům, the most beautiful café in the world. A stunning Art Nouveau masterpiece, it nearly moved one student to tears. They all ordered cakes or ice cream and sat enjoying the ambiance and live music (there was a pianist and saxophone player who performed a rather eclectic mix of Ennio Morricone (the main theme from Once Upon a Time in the West) and others. 

After we were fully rested, we headed back outside to see the Charles Bridge and explore a little of the Mala Strana side.  Along the way, we saw a huge group of Bulgarians drinking and singing (the same song, over and over).  I only figured out just now that they were Bulgarians as they were waiving an enormous white, green, and red flag, which the Google tells me is the Bulgarian flag. 

“Here we have the mating call of the drunk human male,” I told the students.  “Notice the prominent display of plumage in the hopes of attracting a female.” 

What I love about Mala Strana is how much quieter and peaceful it is from the mad cap nature of the Stare Mesto.  There are green parks, little canals, and quiet lanes.  We saw a park filled with people picnicking or lying out on the grass and one student asked how it was different from an American park, as she felt there were clear differences.  Besides the length of the grass, you just rarely seen Americans lying out or picnicking in the same way (except perhaps in Central Park, New York). 

I arranged for dinner at a good vegetarian restaurant nearby.  One of the students wanted a Shabbat meal, but it was just too difficult to buy it in advance, nor could I tell online when the meal would even be served.  I asked her if she would be ok with the vegetarian place and she said yes.  I paid for any student who wanted to come.

I asked the students how they felt about the differences and similarities between Prague and Berlin.  Several said they preferred the diversity of Berlin and felt that the huge amount of tourists and tourist traps in Prague made it feel less safe.  One student said that while she felt comfortable walking around Berlin alone at night, she didn’t think she would feel the same way about Prague.

Tomorrow, we head to Terezin (aka Theresienstadt).

Thursday, June 06, 2019

"Go Git 'em!"

After one last sticky night in Berlin, we made our way to Dresden. At the Hauptbahnhof, I was surprised to find that our train wasn’t on the lowest platform (as usual), but on the highest. They also didn’t have a diagram of the train posted (so we could know where our wagon car would be).

I managed to find a place on the platform that turned out to be quite close to our wagon, but the crush getting on was intense. After much pushing we found people in our seats. At first, they didn’t want to leave. One problem was that normally when you reserve a seat, there’s a piece of paper marking it, but none of them were right.

After about 15-20 minutes of arguing, I was able to get all the students into their seats. The aisles were jammed with people trying to get from one car to another with all their luggage. People had thought first class would be in the front of the train, only to find it was at the back. In fact, I think the train was reversed, because I had arranged for most of our seats to be facing forward, but most were facing backward.

A group of 8 German college girls were trying to get into their seats in the rows behind us, but the people occupying them wouldn’t leave. Some of them didn’t speak German, so I volunteered to explain in English that the German girls had seat reservations. They only had train tickets, not reserved seats, so they couldn’t sit in seats that had been reserved by others. “Go git ‘em!” one of the students yelled to me.

Eventually everyone found a seat and the heat lessened on the train. The conductor came around and offered everyone bottled water as compensation for the delay and the trouble.

In Dresden, we had a twenty-minute walk to our hotel. I had thought we were staying in one of the Ibis hotels on Prager Straße, but this is the Ibis Budget hotel, just opposite the Altstadt. I was worried about the quality, but it turns out to be fine. Real beds, A/C, a nice shower. The students couldn’t be happier.

After lunch we went to the New Green Vault in the Residenzschloß; this is the tchotchke collection of the kings of Saxony. Over and over I heard the students go ‘wow’! when they saw all the gold and jewelry. They have 41 carat green diamond on display, the only one of its kind in the world.

One of the students noticed the various racial stereotypes displayed in the art (e.g,, the depiction of “Moors”). She thought they should be put in a separate room where their racism could be critiqued.

For several of the students, their favorite part wasn’t so much the various precious objects in the New Green Vault, but the armor on display in the Rustkammer. Then their jaws dropped when the saw the immense chandeliers in the small ballroom.

Around then the rain started. For a while, we could hear it intensely hammer the roof. I was a little concerned because I had tickets for us to be on a steamship cruise on the Elbe for an hour and a half, but then the rain passed.

The cruise turned out to be rather cool and pleasant. A few of the students were actually cold, a nice change from yesterday when we were sweating. I bought them all desserts and non-alcoholic drinks (I cannot be reimbursed for any alcohol purchases by students), and they all seemed to have a good time.

A few of the students asked about where to find an expensive place to eat, so I googled and yelped it, and it turned out to be a currywurst place across the street from our hotel. The food was tasty and the students were pleased. At a certain point, a group of people started filming something in front of the currywurst stand. One of them was wearing a mask and they were doing something with the curry wurst, but I couldn’t tell what. One of the woman came out and made them move away from the stand and then leave.

I asked her what they were doing and she said that it was for the internet. I asked what and she muttered that “das ist nicht koscher!” I later asked if it was something political and she said “no,” that they were trying to make it seem like the curry wurst they sold didn’t taste good. I asked if the mask was of a famous person and she said no.

I’m so tired. Even though I had nearly 8 hours of sleep last night, the last week of poor sleep due to heat and humidity has really sapped my energy. I’m going to go to sleep early tonight (I hope), so I have more energy when we get to Prague tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Hot and Cold

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.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

It's Always "a Hard Day"

I feel like I could begin every one of these entries: “today was a hard day.”  Unfortunately, that’s generally the case in a Holocaust study tour; it’s only the reason that changes day to day.

Yesterday, the reason was the heat and humidity, and the noise at night experienced by the students.  The weather started off much better today.  It rained during the night leading to the people smoking and talking under the students’ windows to come inside.  The rain also meant today was cooler and dryer. 

So things started off well.  We headed off to Alexanderplatz to catch the bus to the Staatsoper.  This is where our walking tour began, first with the Neue Wache and the statue based on one by Käthe Kollwitz, followed by the memorial to the book burnings on Bebel Platz.  On our stroll down Unter den Linden we posed for pictures in front of the Ampelmann store and compared embassy styles with the contrast among the Russian, British, and American embassies.  Finally, we reached the Brandenburg Gate. 

The square in front of the Gate was more low key than usual: no actors posing as soldiers, no American celebrities.  It was starting to warm up, so we stuck to the shade on our way to the first of the four Holocaust memorials we were here to look at:  the memorial for the Roma and Sinti.  The students were moved with the simplicity of memorial. I also brought a text for us to read:  the account of one German Sinto (an ethnic subdivision among Roma) and his sufferings in various concentration camps to which he was sent (included the first one, Sachsenhausen, that we visited this afternoon). 

After a short visit to see the Reichstag, we headed up to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  I asked the students to spend 10-15 minutes wandering through it.  Several of them asked which came first:  Libeskind’s Jewish Museum with its Garden of Exile or Eisenman’s Memorial (Libeskind came first).  We talked about the similarities and differences, whether the stelae should be read as graves or wheat or anything.  We also talked about their experiences being inside the memorial (I don’t go inside as it makes me motion sick).

Our third memorial was across the street: the Memorial to the Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals.  They’ve modified the film clip showing inside the memorial to include more than same-sex couples kissing, in particular, historic newspaper headlines.  We talked about the way the memorial references the Jewish memorial, yet also diverges.

Our last memorial involved walking a few blocks, which was becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the heat rose.  This is the Memorial to Victims of the T-4 program.  I brought a pair of letters for us to read, one written by a deaf man to his former principal in 1960, recounting how violated and betrayed he felt that this principal had stood by and failed to defend him when he was forcibly sterilized at the age of 13, the other written by the principal in his reply a year later.  What’s astonishing about the latter is when this former principal of a school for the deaf tells his former pupil that it was better that he be sterilized than have a deaf child.

I found a bakery near Potsdamer Platz that had sandwiches and tables and made a good lunch stop.  Then around 1 pm, we headed up to Sachsenhausen.  It wasn’t too hot on the train, and the bus we got in Oranienburg was air conditioned, but the camp itself is not.  The sun was intense and for all but one of the students, this was their first visit to a concentration camp. 

I decided to keep the visit relatively streamlined and focused.  We only had just under two hours before the bus back to Oranienburg (otherwise we would have to walk 30 minutes in the heat).  I focused on the main elements:  the gate to the camp where prisoners were inducted, the electric fence, the test track for shoes (the prisoners were used as slaves to test the soles of shoes manufactured by German shoe companies), the so-called “Jewish barracks” built after the November pogrom of 1938 (and partially burned by an anti-Semitic arsonist in 1992), the camp’s prison, the prisoner kitchen, the DDR-era memorial, and the place of execution.  All these are deeply emotional and intense places to visit and see.

As uncomfortable as it was to be in the barracks on this hot day, I told them, imagine when it was filled with men in bunks in the summer, when the days were even hotter. It was actually cooler in the blazing sun outside than in the empty barracks.  In the basement of the prisoners’ kitchen, were original wall art painted by the prisoners, showing animated vegetables preparing themselves to be eaten.  It’s more than a little creepy.

Finally, we saw the trench used by firing squads, the remnants of the small gas chamber, the foundations of the “neck-shooting” facility, and the ruins of the crematorium.  Not much conversation in that room. Finally, we left and headed back to Oranienburg.

It was warm on the train and everyone was more than a little sleepy and wiped.  As I said, it was a hard day.  Most of the students are struggling to cope with the heat and the walking.  Unfortunately, we won’t have any relief until Thursday when we’re in Dresden.  First, a cold front is expected to come through, dropping temperatures by nearly 20 degrees.  Second, all we need to do that day is tour the Green Vault and take a cruise on the Elbe.  My only fear about the latter is that thunderstorms are forecast for the afternoon, and I fear we may be blocked by the weather (I’m hoping for the best).

Tomorrow, though, we are underground (at least in the morning) or in the Pergamon (in the early afternoon).  We still have a two-hour Syrian refugee-led walking tour in the afternoon, when it will be even hotter than today, but as I said, every day is a hard day in some way.