Mr. Steger-Hoey and Mrs Hegarty accompanied a group of 17 pupils to Berlin between 14th and 18th of September. It took a long time to prepare but finally the day arrived and on Monday 14th, just before everyone else arrived for the start of another school week, a group of very happy pupils and two very happy teachers departed the school gates bound for Dublin and a two hour flight to Berlin, capital of Deutschland.
We arrived at our Hostel at around 7.30pm just as lots of other groups were gathering at the reception area to head out for the evening and we were all a bit overwhelmed by the noise and general commotion going on, but we were soon to realise that once the crowds had dispersed it was a very well organised place.
We were up every day at around 8am and ready to head out on the day's activities after a good hearty breakfast.There were hundreds of other students there, mostly from Germany but some from France.
The first half of the day was taken up with a coach tour with our guide Tatjana. She was great and gave us lots of information on the sights we stopped at. First stop was called East Side Gallery which is part of the original Berlin wall separating East and West stretching about 1km and covered with art work. Then we hopped back on to the bus and drove around a bit until we came to the Brandenburg Gate (renamed the Brandywell Gate) which is the symbol of Berlin. The Berlin wall used to run just behind this picture and is marked in the road by a double row of cobble stones, right the way round the city. It is hard to believe that between 1961 and 1989 no-one could walk here, apart from border guards who were ordered to shoot to kill if anyone tried to leave the East, and now it is completely open to everyone.
Just before that we stopped off at Checkpoint Charlie, no not the shop in Derry, but yet another crossing point between East and West. It is a bit like the sectarian walls dividing Belfast but instead of civilians being kept apart, two super powers the U.S.A and the Soviet Union were kept apart. This was the time known as the Cold War when there was a great fear of nuclear weapons being used. Nowadays, you can get your photo taken by pretend soldiers. One of them swept Mrs Hegarty off her feet and proposed to her on the spot!!
That was only the half way mark on the first day and we had done and seen so much already. Next came a visit to the Olympic Stadium which is both the home of Herta Berlin football club and also a museum, famous for its staging of the 1936 Olympic games, at which Jessie Owens won gold, much to the displeasure of Herr Hitler who was hoping that Germans would sweep to victory in field and track.
We drove an hour by coach to the KZ Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp during the second world war. 200,000 prisoners were held here between 1936 and 1945 and tens of thousands died of starvation, disease and forced labour or were murdered systematically by the SS. Sachsenhausen is now a museum visited by thousands of people every year. We were then dropped of by Dieter our driver to another museum commemorating the divisions caused by the Berlin wall erected after the end of the second world war, which had a happy ending on November 9th 1989 when East Berliners finally breached the wall and took a trip to the other side. The museum stands at Bernauer Strasse where the wall ran right through the middle of a residential area before it was cleared of residents and replaced with barbed wire and lookout posts on the so called death strip. Following our visit to Bernauerstr and a shop for souvenirs, we took our first journey on the U-bahn, the underground. Everyone knew what to do in case they were left behind on the platform but thankfully there were no problems and by the end of the trip we were experts at getting tickets from the machines and knowing which line to get and when to change, except for one occasion when Mrs Hegarty was too busy talking to Daragh and didn’t see the rest of us going underground. Mobile phones are a great thing and they were soon located.
Before returning to the Hostel, Dieter dropped us off at the Soviet memorial in Tetrow in the east of the city. The Soviet red army liberated Berlin at the end of the second world war.
We were supposed to visit a local school near Berlin but this had to be cancelled at the last minute and instead we all headed to the zoo. The weather was great and everyone was very relaxed and enjoyed the couple of hours we had there. We travelled across the city again to the TV tower where we took the very fast lift to the top giving us magnificent views across the city. On our way back from the tower we crossed over Alexanderplatz and were amazed to discover a brilliant busker from Donegal of all places. He was amazing and a few of us bought his CD.
On Thursday evening we finally arrived at Berlin Hbf, Berlin central railway station much to the relief of Mr. Steger-Hoey who had spent what seemed like hours running around the Ostbahnhof trying to find the right platform to take us to the other side of the city. If he only knew, all he had to do was ask Sean, because Sean always knew where he was going! At least at the central station we were able to get some ‘proper food’. Then a short walk in the pouring rain to see the Brandywell, sorry Brandenburg Gate all lit up at night, which is located not far from the parliament building, the Reichstag, which we visited the next day. We walked round inside the glass dome to the top and relaxed in the lovely sunshine.
We just had time for one last stroll around the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Finally back to the airport and the flight home but many have vowed to return!