Wannsee, Potsdam, Sachsenhausen (Germany)

I really have enjoyed Berlin. Cities are where I feel most at home but I’ve really been looking forward to checking out a couple of recommendations outside of Berlin. I spent Monday and Tuesday doing day trips to Sachsenhausen and then to Wannsee/Potsdam. I’ll leave Sachsenhausen for last because while it was very important to visit, it’s rather heavy emotionally.

Wannssee

Wannssee is a Berlin suburb that sits on the S7 S-Bahn line a couple of stops east of Potsdam. It’s a quiet residential neighborhood with tree-lined streets that’s managed to keep itself relatively devoid of tourists. It’s a completely different feel from Berlin – you can be walking down the street here and not see another person around (great for solitude but awful when trying to figure out if you’re walking in the right direction). While being able to hear yourself think is as good a reason as any to visit, there is one historical site in Wannsee that makes this a meaningful sidetrip – the House of the Wannsee Conference. If you’re unfamiliar with what this is, it’s the building where in 1942 the Nazis held a conference to discuss the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’. It’s now a memorial museum with a permanent exhibit about the meeting, the participants and the implementation of the ‘protocol’ throughout Europe during WWII.

The view from the back of the house overlooking the lake.

The memorial is located on a suburban residential street. It actually reminds me a bit of the Hamptons with cool breezes and rustling trees and not much else to distract. The house itself (the word ‘villa’ is perhaps more well-deserved) sits up on a hill overlooking Wannsee Lake and is surrounded by quiet well-kept gardens. For a tourist attraction, it’s not a busy site; in the far wing of the mansion there’s a group of schoolchildren listening to a lecture but besides them there’s probably less than a dozen other visitors. When you’re in Berlin, you can more or less stumble upon memorials and museums related to the Second World. With the Wannsee House, I felt like because it was a train and bus ride away it only attracted people who knew what the Wannsee Conference was before they set foot in Berlin.

Wannssee House: Very uneasy about how unassuming the villa looks from the street when you consider what was planned within those walls.

In addition to the permanent exhibit, there is an outdoor exhibit with the protocol from the Wannsee Conference translated into English (somehow one out of the thirty copies managed to survive the war and was used as evidence in post-war trials). Inside, they’ve got a couple of rooms tarped off for restoration but about 75% of the building is still accessible to the public. My biggest takeaway here was of how eerie the location is – most of the rooms face out to the lake making for a weird juxtaposition between the beauty outside and the depictions of evil indoors. It is a place definitely worth seeking out.

Potsdam

After backtracking to the S bahn station, it was only a handful of stops until I got to Potsdam. More tourists than Wannssee but certainly by no means as crowded as Berlin. While I don’t speak German, I can tell when it’s being spoken and that was what I almost exclusively heard while in Potsdam.

Boat tours: I took a river boat tour when I was in Istanbul and it kind of put me off doing more boat tours for a while. One day I’ll do a boat tour again. But today wasn’t that day.

The city has public transit but it really wasn’t necessary to use it. From the train station I kept the dome of the church in view and followed it a short ways to what I think is the main square. When I got there, I found that about half of the buildings appear to be under renovation. Compared to Alexanderplatz and the other open spaces in Berlin that are full of buskers and performers, this was rather deserted. The church was not being renovated and was nice enough to look at for a couple minutes (I’m probably the wrong person for opinions on churches – my brain has been suffering from church overload since a trip through Europe a couple years ago).

I was able to see the church when I got out of the train station so I used it as a guide to get to the main square. This was one of the few buildings that weren’t under construction.

Coming back outside from the church to the square, I decided to make my way up to Schloss Sanssouci, perhaps the main tourist draw of Potsdam overall. Sanssouci was a summer palace that was built in the 18th century for the King of Prussia and has the feel in a lot of ways of Versailles. On the way, I got a falafel sandwich and proceded to get into a memorable fight with a yellow jacket over whose falafel sandwich it was. I emerged victorious.

Okay so this wasn’t the main palace. But I really loved the style of this building and it was closed to visitors so not many people passing by. I almost stopped to read here but another girl already had that idea.

Much like churches, I think I’ve lost any ability to objectively judge palaces/castles/etc. I haven’t been able to shake the impression of them as an endless series of stale staged rooms with the occasional absurd-looking clock thrown in. Whenever I go to the Met in New York I always blow through the antique furniture section – I just can’t appreciate it. I respect the artisans behind the pieces but it was never something that I could really get into.

One of the many buildings on the grounds of Sanssouci that I didn’t go into.

So while the main draw in Potsdam is Schloss Sanssouci, I really can’t tell you a lot about it because I didn’t go inside of it. It’s very impressive looking at it from the outside but I was afraid that touring the interior would make me like it less. Luckily, the palace is surrounded by a myriad of well-kept gardens where I spent a couple hours getting lost. There was a long secluded tree-lined path leading up to one of the buildings that was quiet except for the occasional runner. I parked myself on a bench for I don’t know how long. I can only say that I am now about 100 pages further into my book than I was before.

Finding a quiet place to read on the grounds of Sanssouci.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

This was a long, draining day.

Entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum.

I’d been to two other concentration camps prior to visiting Sachsenhausen – Dachau, which is outside of Munich, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is a short trip from Krakow. For both of those visits, I went with guided tours (for the Aushwitz visit there was simply no option to explore on your own). I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with guided tours when travelling – I absolutely take advantage of free walking tours when visiting a new city (they’re free but you’re expected to tip what you think the tour is worth). The purpose of those though are usually to orient myself in a city I know nothing about so I can get oriented to what’s where. But I think if you know enough about the subject of the tour (be it a city or a subject) it’s a better to explore at your own.. When planning my visit to Sachsenhausen, I checked that you weren’t required to go with a guide (you’re not) and so I made the decision to pick up an audio guide when I got there and just wander. Based on my day at Sachsenhausen, I think if I had the opportunity to re-vist Dachau I would skip the guided tour there as well.

Inside Sachsenhause: (from left to right) The tall structure is the memorial the Soviets put up after the war (who is remembered and how is very interesting). The guard towers are the three buildings along the wall. On the grass, there are gravel rectangles which are the foundations of the housing barracks where the prisoners of the camp lived (those buildings were torn down).

Not sure there’s anything I wish to go over here. I’m actually rather hesitant to share pictures but I’m not sure how many people will have the opportunity to visit here in their lifetime. It’s heavy. I spent almost 5 hours at the camp and by about the 4th hour I was emotionally done and sped through the last five stops on the map. The audio tour talks about Sachsenhausen under the Nazis and then under the Soviets. The memorial does an excellent job of making sure both are discussed in depth, not just relegating everything that happened after the war to an aside. It was really well done.

The memorial does a lot of individualizing. In addition to talking about the horrors as a whole, there is a lot of time spent introducing you to individuals and their stories: who they were, why they were brough to Sachsenhausen and what happened to them after the war.

Observation: I had a couple of cringe moments when I saw people having their pictures taken in front of different parts of the camp. Nothing as outlandish as some of the ‘Auschwitz selfies’ but still, I can’t help but think it’s in bad taste to have your picture taken in front of a mass grave or in a pit that was used for executions. Words fail.

This is terribly dark so I wanted to make sure I added one bit of levity. I’m well aware of Germany’s reputation for amazing public transit infrastructure. Therefore I was a bit taken aback at this mess trying to get to Oranienburg on the S Bahn. Looks more like amateur hour on NJ Transit.

I really have no idea what I was supposed to take away from this except the clear knowledge that my train wasn’t going where I wanted it to go.

One comment

  1. Love you kid. Have a great time and what a great narrative. Keep the updates coming. Can’t wait for an update. Love Dad

    Like

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