Author Topic: Three Days in Berlin & Potsdam  (Read 2441 times)

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Three Days in Berlin & Potsdam
« on: January 02, 2023, 12:36:37 PM »
I travelled with my family to Eretz Yisrael for a week+ in September, and instead of flying straight back home to New York, I decided to spend three days in Germany. I was apprehensive about going to Germany due to their track record, and because my grandparents are holocaust survivors- I wasn’t sure that I would be able to appreciate my time there. After speaking to others about their experience, I decided to give it a try- I figured three days is a short enough time that if I hated it, I would still be able to bear it. I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of visiting Germany, or how one should feel about Germans currently- there is no way for them to make up for the past. That being said, I did enjoy my time there and would consider visiting other parts of the country in the future. I did not get the sense that the holocaust is a conversation they try shove under the rug- I’m aware that they have a real neo-Nazi problem, but learning about the holocaust is mandatory school curriculum, and based on the conversations I had with others and those I overheard in various places, it feels like they do take it seriously. Berlin is a diverse multi-cultural city, and it did not feel alienating to me. As with my trip to Portugal (and subsequently Spain) there were many times that I had to pause and acknowledge that I have many questions about pain and suffering that I cannot understand, but this is how Hashem wanted it. Another thing to keep in mind is that Berlin was the capital of the Haskalah and Reform movement, a fact which is largely reflected as a positive step by many local guides and in museum exhibits.

Takeoff from TLV

Transportation: I relied on public transportation for the duration of my trip, which is easy to navigate and efficient. When I first landed it took me some time to figure out how to purchase the correct public transport passes that I wanted, and how to locate the correct train platform, but once I figured it out, it was a breeze. I purchased three 24-hour public transport passes at the airport subway station for €10 each, which included all city busses and subways, transport to and from the airport, as well as to and from Wannsee and Potsdam. Most people in Berlin did not wear masks anywhere, even on public transportation where it is required. Google maps for walking in Berlin is severely lacking- for some reason it considers many streets as non-pedestrian even when they have sidewalks, and the advised route is often a long circuitous one for no reason.

Lodging: I stayed at the Novotel Suites Berlin City Potsdamer Platz. I chose this location because it’s located somewhere between Mitte (the neighborhood where many museums/attractions are at) and Chabad/Bliebergs restaurant- I figured that way I’d never be too far from food or things to do and wouldn’t have to schlep too long in either direction. There’s an S Bahn stop at the streetcorner of the hotel, so getting anywhere was easy. The rooms are great as well- they’re large, the toilet is in a separate room as the bathtub/ shower (and it has both a bathtub and standalone shower), and there’s a third standalone sink in the room- not standard fare for a basic city hotel. Oh, and the best part? It’s usually under $100/night. That being said it might still be a better choice to stay in or closer to the Mitte area, since the only real pull to the West of the city is Blieberg’s and Chabad, which both only have dinner options.

I did not cram a lot of sightseeing into my days (at least by my standards) as I’m wont to do, since I was very busy with work and had to reserve mornings and evenings to catch up. My original itinerary did include a lot more, but I whittled it down on the go as needed. The weather was standard for September- high 50s to low 60s, with both sun and rain at times.

I landed in the evening and after catching up on work I called it a night. The next morning my first stop of the day was to the Jewish Museum Berlin. There was a rather long line due to security when I arrived, but it was fast moving, and it didn’t take long to enter. The museum has two sections- the memorial section, and the museum exhibits. I found the memorial touching. The exhibit starts out with a basic overview of Judaism, which I mostly skipped over. It then moves onto the history of Jews in Germany and the Haskalah (portrayed in a positive light), then onto the holocaust, and finally the rebirth of Jewish communities after the war. I spent about 2 hours here, and very much enjoyed.
I appreciated the prewar posters on display

“Zmanim tzetil”, 1924
as well as the postwar artifacts. Who remembers the nightmare-inducing lamed katchka?

I then headed to the Platz der Republik and the Reichstag Building and did a walking tour starting from here using Rick Steves, combined with some other Jewish walking tours available online. As mentioned, Google maps for walking is a mess here, so I had to chart my own path. I had originally hoped to do an interior tour of the Reichstag Building and the dome, but English tours are sparse here, and none were available for my dates.

At the side of the Reichstag Building there’s a small often-overlooked memorial for the Murdered Members of the Reichstag who tried speaking up against Hitler and the Nazi party.

The Brandenburg Gate

I found the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to be very moving. It doesn't try to fill the space with words when none are possible.

The site of Hitler’s bunker is nothing more than a parking lot today, but a lot of controversy swirls around the presentation of it. There are a few information panels at the site- the city would prefer to remove all panels and let the location fade into obscurity, as they’ve had issues with neo-Nazi gatherings in the area seeking to glorify the spot. On the other hand, they’re also facing pressure from historical groups to post information at the location as a remembrance of Germany’s dark days.

The Bebelplatz memorial is located at the spot where German students burnt 20,000 books that were deemed un-Aryan in May 1933. (the window shows a room with empty bookshelves).

Next on my itinerary was the German Historical Museum. Unfortunately, the actual history museum exhibits were closed (a fact not mentioned on their website), and only one temporary and rather boring exhibit was open. I then passed through Museum Island, an island which houses Berlin’s five most important museums, but I did not have time to check out any of them on this visit.

Next, I headed to Alexanderplatz for a quick coffee break. Alexanderplatz is a massive square surrounded by malls with a large train station. Nearby is the Denkmal Rosenstraße memorial, located at the site of a protest in 1943 where non-Jewish relatives of Jewish and Mischlinge prisoners protested their imprisonment. About 1,800 individuals were released by the Gestapo after this protest (had to double down on the emunah peshutah here).

Rosenthaler Str. 39 is a difficult to locate alley but has a lot going on. The walls sport murals, and it has three museums- the Anne frank exhibit, the Otto Weidt Museum (Otto Weidt hid 30 blind Jews here during the war), and the Silent Heroes Memorial Center. I did not have time to visit these, so I can’t comment on how interesting they are.

Throughout the city there are 2,800 Stolpersteine (translation: stumbling stones) embedded in the sidewalks. They include the name, birthdate, deportation date, and year and place of death of some of Berlin’s Jews killed in the holocaust.

The Grosse Hamburger Strasse Memorial Jewish Cemetery was the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin before it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. It was inaugurated in 1672 and shut down in 1827 after reaching capacity- the Nazis used the tombstones as construction material. Today it’s a memorial park (with one tombstone dedicated to Moses Mendelssohn).

Outside the park there’s a memorial honoring the deported Jews of Berlin.

I then passed by the New Synagogue Berlin- you can schedule a tour to view the interior but it’s a Reform synagogue, so I passed on that. The building is a replica of the one built here in 1866. The original building was destroyed in 1943 by an Allied bombing (this and a few other synagogues- mostly Reform- were not destroyed on Kirstallnacht).

The Deserted Room is a memorial to those that were forced to flee Nazi Germany.

That wrapped up my walking tour for the day, and I headed further out to the Berlin Wall Memorial. There’s an audio tour available online for this memorial, and a lot of information panels here with the history of the wall, escape stories, and testimonies. It’s done well and did a good job of giving me that Soviet era/Cold War/espionage feel (which admittedly was before my time, so it’s something I only know from the movies). Definitely a highlight.

About a block from the Berlin Wall Memorial there’s a KosherLife grocery. They’re well stocked with items from the US and EY. After heading back to my hotel for some work, I went to Bleibergs for dinner. I found the food to be tasty- not Michelin starred-level, but very decent.

The following day I spent in the Wannsee and Potsdam area. There’s a lot to see here- more than you can possibly fit into a day. There are many palaces and historic buildings, and while the Babelsberg Palace (closed for rehabilitation at the time) and Cecilienhof Palace (site where Truman, Churchill and Stalin met for the famous Potsdam Conference following World War II) caught my eye, I simply didn’t have enough time to visit everything I would have liked to. I debated renting a car for the day using one of the car-share services availble in Berlin, but with street parking being close to impossible in Potsdam, which would have meant paying for a garage and then taking local transportation to get to the individual sites, I decided that public transportation would be less of a pain. Indeed, it turned out to be easy to navigate even out of the city, and fast.

My first stop of the day was in Wannsee, to the House of the Wannsee Conference, the site where Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann, and other Nazi leaders met in 1942 to discuss the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. They have a great audio guide available online, and the exhibit depicts the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis (although not too many gory pics). I’m not going to pretend I didn’t feel a certain sense of nekamah walking through that house- a place where a group of monsters signed my grandparent’s death sentences, only for me to walk around in their space 80 years later knowing that we’re alive and kicking.

Next, I headed to Potsdam, to the New Palace. This is a grand palace, so if you’re visiting others in the area, I’d say keep this for last so that you get the wow factor- everything after this will seem less exciting after the glamorousness of this palace. Just to give you an idea, the grand buildings across the street from the palace, which now belongs to the Postdam University, used to be the palace’s service buildings such as the kitchen and bakery.

I purchased a combo ticket here for the New Palace and Sanssouci Palace- both tickets are timed so you need make it work on schedule. I believe it’s the same price no matter how many of the Potsdam palaces you visit once you add more than one site to your ticket. You can also buy tickets online, but it wasn’t high season, and the palaces were mostly empty. They have a decent audio guide for all locations included with the ticket.

Next, I headed to Sanssouci Palace, which is connected to the New Palace via a large park with lots of sculptures, gardens, etc. It’s about a 20-minute walk between the two. There is a bus you can take but it runs sporadically, and the walk is nice. The Sanssouci Palace is a lot smaller and less grand and was intended as a private residence (as mentioned upthread, I recommend doing this and any other palaces you might visit first, before visiting the New Palace).

I then headed to the Sanssouci Picture Gallery (included in the ticket as well, but not timed)- if you’re not into art this is probably not for you, but the interior is magnificent. Unlike most European art museums and picture galleries there is almost no religious art here, as the King wanted this collection restricted to mythology and history.

I had planned on doing a longer tour of Potsdam, including Potsdam’s Dutch Quarter, Potsdam’s historic city center, Nauener Gate, Alter Markt, and Gedenkstätte Lindenstraße 54 (Nazi and Stasi prison) but I had to cut my day short due to a work emergency. I managed to visit Potsdam’s Brandenburg Gate, but not much else.

Due to this work emergency, I also did not get to check out Chabad’s meat restaurant which opened (reopened?) that week.

The next day, my final one in Berlin, was again cut short but I did have time to visit two very interesting sites. The first one was the Topography of Terror, located across the street from my hotel. It’s about a square block, and houses both an indoor museum space and an outdoor exhibit. It’s located on the grounds where the Gestapo, SS, and SD offices were located during the war (none of the buildings survived the allied bombings and the Soviet regime). Again, there were very little gory pictures/videos, but a lot the discussion centers on the blame/responsibility of the general population, how this could not have happened had they not supported the regime, and how they must do better as a nation. There’s an audio guide website availble, but I did not utilize that as most of the exhibit is also in English. There’s also a remnant of the Berlin Wall on the grounds.

Next, I headed to the famed Checkpoint Charlie. It’s a real tourist trap, but still cool. There are informational posters in the area explaining the significance of this checkpoint with lots of stories. (Checkpoint Charlie was a border crossing between East and West Berlin, and the site of a standoff between Soviet and American Troops in 1961).

My flight to NY was via Norse Air. Norse Air is a budget airline, and that means they charge for everything- I paid for a carry-on bag, although I’m not sure they check if you paid for one or not when boarding. They did not offer kosher meals for purchase (yes, you pay for meals as well if you want it), and with the state of KMSLs I wouldn’t have purchased one even if they did offer it. Beyond being nickle-and-dimed, they fly you to your destination same as any other airline. I found the seats to be any time as comfortable as any other Economy product out there (although I’m not one to notice if a seat is 30” vs 32”). I tried checking in online prior to my flight, but received an error that check-in was only availble at the airport- this was due to covid restrictions, as the US still requires a covid test for non-citizens, and Norse does not have an online system for verifying testing status. Since I was worried about the need to check in manually, along with the meltdown in airports across Europe over the summer, I got the airport 4 hours before my flight (a record for me!). All that calmness of knowing that I have enough time went out the window when I realized that the check-in counter doesn’t even open til 2 hours before the flight… after sitting on the floor for 40 minutes (no seating area, no Priority Pass, Amex, or CSR lounges in BER) they opened the check-in counter early, and by that time most of the passengers had already queued up, so it was a long line. After standing in that line for about 30 minutes only for them to confirm that I am indeed an American passport holder and therefore I do not need to show any documentation, I received my boarding pass and proceeded to the security line (Rant: I understand that they’re a budget airline and they’re not looking to spend funds on automating the covid requirements, but can they at least have a dedicated line for American citizens who just need to show their passport?). As feared the security line was atrocious and took close to an hour. After passing immigration I had to go through security a second time (flights to the US from BER all depart from a specific concourse, and US-bound passengers must pass through security a second time before entering this concourse). Thankfully there was no line at this security checkpoint, but since the agents here are chronically bored, my backpack was unpacked, and I was patted down from head to toe. Other than a small coffee shop with inedible coffee, there are no shops in this section of the airport. Thankfully the flight was uneventful, and I made it home without any additional drama.

Looking forward to writing my next Trip Report (and it’s a long one :) )

Offline Thechy

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Re: Three Days in Berlin & Potsdam
« Reply #1 on: January 17, 2023, 10:30:33 PM »
Thank you! Gr8 TR.
Keep them coming.

Online AsherO

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Re: Three Days in Berlin & Potsdam
« Reply #2 on: January 17, 2023, 11:01:31 PM »
Whoa, amazing details and pictures. Thanks so much!
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