Friday 14 December 2018

Insiders Visit Theresienstadt

Insider guides, and friends, visited the former Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp recently. Here an overview.

Theresienstadt was set up as a concentration camp in November 1941 when the first transport of Czech Jews were sent there. German and Austrian Jews arrived from June 1942. Danish and Dutch Jews followed in numbers from early 1943.

The inmates in the ghetto initially lived with the local population, until they were forced out completely, and then the ghetto was then self-administered by the Jewish people themselves.

Inside the camp the administration of the site was run by the SS, and the first camp commandant was Siegfried Seidl (executed in 1947). There were approximately 33,000 deaths inside the concentration camp and ghetto. Many others were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other concentration camps.

In the barracks there were horrific conditions, massive overcrowding, and disease was rampant. Throughout the barracks, typhoid scarlet fever, lice were prevalent. There were untrained nurses to help with the sick, but with all the deportations taking place by 1944 the nurses were looking after 60-65 patients each, and working 18-20 hour a day. The inmates were working about 69 hours a week, which also took its toll.

Hygiene was a problem for the inmates, very rarely could they have warm water, showers were almost always cold, and cleaning the clothes was done with the steamer. They had to put their clothes back on whilst still damp, which was bearable in the Summer but torture in the Winter.

The above statute depicts the life in the camp, children, the elderly, families - a very stark reminder of how fragile life was/is.

Despite all the efforts of the Council of Elders, and the camp ghetto inhabitants, to make the best of an atrocious situation, living conditions in the camp were harsh. There was very little food, medical supplies and basic services. With massive overcrowding the death rate was comparable to other concentration camps like Buchenwald or Dachau. The death rate was so great that a crematorium south of the ghetto was built where around 200 bodies could be burned per day.

At Theresienstadt there were some pretty powerful memorials dedicated to the people who lived, suffered and and died there. The inmates thought that if they made this place a viable economic space that they could be spared, not knowing that the plan was to liquidate the whole camp and make the ghetto of Terezín a German settlement. They were doomed. Still, around 23,000 survived from the approximately 150,000 that went through the camp.

An amazingly interesting trip. Insiders learnt much new information, to compliment their Berlin tours. Where next?

Monday 3 December 2018

Berlin Basics – 7 Fool-Proof Ways to Fit in

Welcome to Berlin! If you are new to the city, or it’s been a while since your last visit you may notice things are a little different here than other European cities. Here are seven basic tips to get you navigating the capital like a local.


1. Obey the Ampelmann

This is the Ampelmann. Isn’t he cute? He was an East German invention designed to make street-safety fun for children.

When he’s green and happy, like the picture above, it means it is safe to cross the street. But when he is red and sticking his arms out, stay off the road.

The trouble is, that the widest streets have two sets of Ampelmanns (Ampelmen? Amplemänner?) – one that will take you to a median between two lanes of traffic, and the other that will take you to the far side of the street. In many cases, these men are not synchronized, so it is key to obey the Ampelmann that is closest to you, and not the one on the far side of the street.

2. Stay out of the Bicycle Lane!

Most streets in Berlin have a separate cycle lane – sometimes it’s a separate lane indicated on the road, and other times it’s a dedicated portion of the sidewalk, often marked, or a different colour. But this doesn’t always seem to be enough and cyclists here have free rein. They’re pretty nonchalant about little things like, darting in between cars stopped at traffic lights, running reds when they think they can get away with it, and rolling through the rest of the pedestrian-designated sidewalk, even when they have their own. But pedestrians beware! Never, ever (EVER!) step into the bicycle lane! Not only do the cyclists get cranky (a bit rich, I know), but a pedestrian hit by a cyclist in the bike lane is considered to be at fault.

3. Always have buy a ticket before you get on the train, bus or tram

It’s oh so ever tempting. There’s one little ticket box at the head of the train platform, and nothing to prevent you simply from getting on the train: no attendants, no turnstiles, no one to see that you haven’t duly paid out your €2.80. The train’s right here and the next one won’t come for four whole minutes…. You could just jump on the train…

But it’s not worth it!

Rather than invest in bulky infrastructure like ticket takers and gates, BVG (the Berlin Transit Authority) feels it’s better to pay plain-clothes ticket checkers. These super-sneaky individuals climb on the train, dressed as everyday people, pretend to look bored and stare at the ceiling, until… Wham. As soon as the doors lock everyone in with them, out come the official IDs and ticket scanners, and “Fahrscheine Bitte, Tickets, please!”

The team splits up and moves to opposite ends of the cars, then work towards the middle. Most people nonchalantly dig their out passes, but a few will start to look panicky, checking and re-checking places they know no ticket exists… and a few try to get out of the way… but you’re stuck on a train, being sandwiched in – there’s nowhere to go! Rule breakers are hauled off the train at the next station for a good old-fashioned public shaming and a fine of €60. This happens often enough that it is unnecessarily risky to try and ride without a pass.


4. Suits are Highly Overrated

Berlin’s dress code trends strongly toward casual. Jeans are easily the norm, as are flat shoes for the ladies, and scarves are less a fashion accessory than a thing to keep your neck warm when it’s chilly. It’s a very rare thing to see a suit, or even what we might call ‘business-casual’ when out and about – even those getting out of the Mercedes and Audis keep it simple.

Wear what you want, wear what is comfortable. Wear you!

5. A Park or Sidewalk Café is the Perfect Place to Spend an Afternoon

It’s 2pm on Wednesday, the sun is shining and the weather is nice and warm. You might think that it sucks that you have to be stuck behind your desk… But not so in Berlin! Sunny, warm days lure everyone out from their offices and computers and into the plethora of parks and cafes that blanket the city. Berlin is definitely not a place for those who live to work, and good weather is not to be squandered. So enjoy a beer or a coffee under the shade of the chestnut trees, or to really assimilate, get your FKK on in the Tiergarten.

Food and Drink

6. Pork Products are the Cornerstone of a Berliner Diet

Pork products of various shapes, sizes and colours are omnipresent. And cheap. You can enjoy cured ham for breakfast, Curry Wurst for lunch and breaded schnitzel for dinner, all for €20 or less. For those who are concerned about the vitamin deficiency that will surely result from such a diet, fear not – most of these dishes come with sauerkraut, or potatoes… or both! So the odds of getting scurvy will be minimized even if your mid-section won’t be.

7. Beer!

Another waistline expander is Germany’s ubiquitous beverage. Beer is cheap, and it is everywhere. For less than a euro you can buy half a litre of beer at the grocery store. It is marginally more expensive in cafes and restaurants, but still cheaper than water or coffee. It usually comes in small size (0.3 litres), but really, it’s more appropriate to go for a normal one (0.5 litres)… and you can start at lunchtime… and drink it pretty much anywhere.

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Insider Stasi Archive Excursion

This Monday Insider guides took an excursion to the Stasi Archive HQ.

The former East German Secret Police amassed an immense and intricately designed system of surveillance on its population, and those visitng East Germany. There where a total of 111km of files, archived all over East Germany. Just under half of the total is still located in the archive in the former Stasi HQ today.

We had access to to the high security area where the actual files have been stored, all very exciting. Still, today on average 40,000 people request to see their file annually, and since 1992 there have been over 7 million applications to view individual files.

The former archive still has a functioning Paternoster elevator, which is not supposed to be used.....aber Spaß muss sein!

Below, the filing cabinets found in the archives across East Germany with the index cards in them. These were also known as pasternoster search devices. There were over 5000 different ways to register a person, either by last name, or address, or area code where that person was registered. There were 43 million cards in these cabinets!

We also saw a reconstruction how the archive was actually found. It wasn’t in a good state with files not properly filed, and the quality of the paper was so bad that it has a shelf life of 50—70 years, so it is very important to preserve these deteriorating files today. The archive is now digitising the files, but with so many to be digitally copied this will take some time!

Our excellent guide there, Linda, informed us how and why people were investigated, and why files would be opened on individuals, and how complex the system was.  The files have been opened to the public for many reasons, some wanted to just to find out why they were spied on, others wanted to find out if their paranoia was justified, were they bugged, watched, and who was informing on them.

Anyone interested in the Cold War, and in particular the methods of East German's Secret Police, will find a visit here fascinating! For more info, see:

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Excursion - Bogensee and Wandlitz

Day trip north of Berlin to Wandlitz, and surrounding environs, on the mission to find an old East German Gaurd tower, Goebbels‘ Villa, East German FDJ international elite socialistic school, and maybe pop in to Honecker‘s old house in The „Waldsiedlung“.

First up, a visit to an old East German guard tower in Weißennsee Berlin. Type BT 4 1970, which stands in the former complex where the Stasi were trainied to guard the East German party leadership and foreign dignitaries. This was effectively the training grounds for the Felix Dzerzhinsky Guards Regiment (the elite Stasi regiment), and armory. The government Motorcycle Escort was housed in the cellar of the building adjacent of the tower. It is a listed site today, and the surrounding area is full of amazing street art.

The adventure continued to the Goebbels' villa 'Bogensee', just on the outskirts of Wandlitz. The villa is still in fairly good condition. It had been a present from the City of Berlin to the propaganda minister in 1936, during the Olympics. This is where Goebbels conducted the affairs of state, or more accurately his affairs with actresses like Lida Baarová. During the war his family moved out there and a bunker was built.

Next door is the impressive, absolutely monstrous international youth school. Here the international socialist youth elite were indoctorinated with the teachings of Marx and Lenin, with the intention of spreading this political ideology throughout the world. The sprawling scale of this complex was a surprise. The Berlin senate has tried to sell the 16 hectare location, which includes the Goebbels Villa, but because of its past history no takers as of yet!

Our last mission was to the old „Waldsiedlung“ where the leadership of East Germany lived......together. The complex was guarded by the Stasi, and to gain entry you needed a special, high security, pass. The houses were nice, but not very luxurious. For the leaders of a country, quite modest in fact. These houses have now been subdivided into apartments for short term let.

All in all an fantastic research day in Berlin and Brandenburg! Hard to pick a highlight but if pushed it would be the East German international youth school.