Today marks Holocaust Memorial Day and, for as long as I can remember, this leads to annual news stories not just about commemorative events, but about the ignorance that a lot of us have around the Holocaust and everyone affected by it.
For a prime example, see the idiotic posers at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, called out by the brilliant Yolocaust web project, which has now been taken down after mixed but generally positive feedback.
Sadly, anti-Semitism has never totally disappeared. There have been reports of Holocaust survivors being abused in the street and, in a cruel modern twist, Jewish Twitter users being targeted and mercilessly trolled because of their religion and heritage. Even Google search results have been manipulated by the far-right.
How do you save people from concentration camps when there’s a war raging across Europe and beyond? It’s a big question, but the answer sounds scarily simple: in the case of Scandinavia, you get permission from Himmler himself, then commandeer some buses, ambulances and trucks, collectively called the White Buses. You use a volunteer network to drive them from Theresienstadt, Dachau and Ravensbrück through war-torn Europe to the safety of Malmö’s medieval castle.
Last year I went to Malmö and saw the extraordinary place where those liberated spent their first weeks of freedom. Unsurprisingly, it gave me the research bug.
Some people have a thing against organised tour holidays. They think there’s no adventure involved, that it’s all about strict plans and blithely following the leader, with no room for fun or independence; I’m going to prove it’s far from the truth. My three group tour experiences were very different, but they all helped me to get more from the country I was visiting, and they were anything but dull.
First I headed to Berlin, Dresden and Colditz with Riviera Travel, a British company that mainly has middle-aged and mature customers – I went with my mum and I was the only one of the entire group not to have either a husband, a pension plan or the symptoms of the menopause. However, I learned loads and had plenty of free time to explore, even making it to Sachsenhausen for the afternoon.
Hermann Goering called it escape-proof… he was badly wrong. Colditz Castle has been immortalised in films, books, TV shows and even in a board game, as a place where brave Allied prisoners kept guards on their toes with pretty much constant escape attempts during WWII. Part tactical distraction, part desperation to get home, it was a full-time occupation for the men held here. I visited the castle to see inside the prisoners’ world, right down to their tunnelling tools and forged documents.
Before you run for the hills, I should warn you this isn’t really a ‘Hygiene Museum’ at all: it’s more like the love child of the Science Museum and the Wellcome Collection (two brilliant London sights for curious tourists). In other words, this attraction is ten times more fascinating and approachable than its name suggests.
For many of us, the word ‘hygiene’ conjures images of hand washing, medical scrubs and stern matrons, yet this in no way represents the current collection in Dresden. Admittedly in its earlier incarnations this was a place for teaching the masses about good health and cleanliness – in a 1930 report, Time Magazine called it ‘exemplary’ and ‘instructive’ for educating ‘lazy, ignorant, indifferent people’ – but now the aim isn’t to lecture visitors, just appeal to their curiosity.
One of my priorities when I visit a new place is to see beyond the main streets and to find the places that don’t make the cover of the guidebook; they’re not traditionally photogenic and they’re perhaps a bit grubby looking, if truth be told, but they’re just as important as the scenic routes.
Dresden is a fairly easy city to navigate your way around and so it wasn’t too difficult to find its alternative side, beyond the stunning Frauenkirche and the art galleries.
As today is Holocaust Memorial Day, I thought I’d show you the poignant memorial statue that I came across in Berlin, which focuses on Kindertransport – the process of evacuating Jewish children to safety, but sadly without their parents. What made it even more touching was that there was a little boy visiting the statue with a bunch of flowers, which he divided into small clumps and added carefully to each of the bronze children and to their suitcases.
The end of the statue’s caption is bleak but honest – it reads: Trains to life, trains to death. Whilst the children were whisked away to be taken in by British families, their relatives back home were left under Nazi rule and, most likely, transported to death camps. The horrible dichotomy of what a train journey could mean for the Jews is expressed simply but effectively.
As promised, here are the more uplifting views of the Berlin Wall from my trip. I loved how individual each section was, with its own idiosyncrasies. Every time I put my camera down I’d come across another photo opportunity two seconds later, as more of the Wall emerged. I did feel like a brazen tourist, but it was impossible not to get snap-happy.
If you haven’t ever been to Berlin then I hope this post gets across how the Wall really is the focal point of the city, in a lot of positive ways as well as the obvious negative ones. It’s now full of things to photograph and you come away feeling like you’ve learned something from each piece (even if you just like the colours or the way they’ve transformed the space). There’s also something brilliant about seeing public art that really has a point. I think the city can be proud of it, rather than fear it as they used to.
It might be a bit stereotypical to focus on the Berlin Wall on my first post about the city, but I think you’re ignoring the elephant in the room if you don’t mention it.
This wall shaped everything in the city and in the divided country, for decades. The side you lived on dictated the car you drove, the clothes you wore and the rights you had. Being a member of Amnesty International, I can get a bit preachy about this kind of thing, but it was incredibly weird to explore the city without that boundary stopping you, yet knowing it was there all the time.
Calavera (Span. feminine noun) = skull. A travel blog with a love of culture, dark tourism and the unconventional.