I was really excited for the start of our second day. We were checking out Underwalten. They offer tours of Soviet era bunkers right under the city. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed, since many of the articles on display during the tour are lent out from their original owners. In fact, Underwalten is very much a collaborative effort among the people of Berlin. It was volunteers who dug out the bunker upon its discovery. It was volunteers who donated their photos, suitcases, and belongings from the War for the tour. This place commemorates the survival of the German people during a frightening time in their history.
Trevor and i actually got really lucky this particular morning, because the website stated that one can’t pre-book tickets; you have to show up early the day of in order to secure your spot on the tour. Despite leaving a bit later than I had initially planned, my stomach wouldn’t allow me to ignore the doner shop on the way to the museum.
By the time we got to Underwalten, there was only about 20 minutes left until the start of the tour. The website had suggested you arrive an hour early.
We got in line, and there was a couple ahead of us. I looked at the board, and there was one spot left for the morning tour. One. That meant the couple in front of us couldn’t possibly book the tour. But then some jerk tried to jump the line! I was freaking out!
Turns out he was just asking a question.
Thankfully, Trevor gets in everywhere for free, so we were able to score the last ticket for me. Literally the guy right behind me asked for that same ticket, and the girl at the counter had to break the news to him that her colleague had just sold the last ticket. That could have been me!
But it wasn’t! We were gonna check out some bunkers!
The staff were nice enough to leave my luggage in their staff room since all of the lockers in the subway station next door were full. And away we went.
The start of the tour was the washroom. The tour guide explained that the word on the door was an old German word for washroom–though it technically had roots in Latin. The reason the Soviets used the word was because they wanted to use only German language “and schize haus didn’t sound that great.” The toilets basically used dirt to mask the smell.
Much more interesting than the toilets themselves were the photographs directly above the toilets. They were photographs of bomb shelters from World War II. These things were massive beasts. When the Soviets initially took control of Germany, they decided to blow one of these bad boys up. They barely managed to get it to crack.
The English wanted to do the same–get rid of all remnants of Nazi Germany. They brought in reporters and photographers to document them blowing up a different bunker. They even catered the event! This was a celebration!
Explosives went off, and a huge cloud of smoke covered the structure entirely.
When the dust settled, the fortress still stood intact. It was an utter failure.
England would later try to blow the shelter up again, however this time they did it in secrecy and didn’t bother to invite reporters.
Another room was meant to be a means for quick escape to the outside world. It was covered in a special paint that glowed in the dark. This was because in the beginning, people were terrified of sitting in absolute darkness for an entire hour during air raids–especially when you could hear absolutely everything happening right above ground.
When the bunkers were actually in use, the paint was bright enough to read down there. The walls also provided entertainment for the children. Our guide showed us how you could create silhouettes imprints on the wall using a flashlight.
Another room featured benches to sit and could easily accommodate 30 people. However, during air raids, there were usually 60 people in there. Every bunker was always filled far beyond its capacity. There weren’t enough bunkers to go around.
While we were in the room, the guide explained that while people waited for the air raid to finish in this room, they lit three candles. They placed one on the ground, one on the bench, and one on a shelf. As the oxygen levels in the room decreased, the candle on the floor would be the first to go out. Then mothers would place their children on the bench. When the candle on the bench went out, the mothers would stand and put their children on their shoulders.
I say women because obviously, the man’s place was out on the battlefield. Bunkers were only for women, children, and the elderly. And a woman’s job during the war was to give Hitler as many babies as possible. Hitler would actually pay a woman a personal visit if she gave birth to her tenth baby.
Before the war, German women had become quite independent in society. The war, unfortunately, threw them right back into the kitchen.
Women would typically bring a small suitcase full of jewellery, photos, and identification papers with them. They’d also throw on every nice article of clothing they owned, including their fur coats.
In one of the last rooms, we learned of the ingenuity of the German people following the war. They turned bazooka shells into cups, helmets, into strainers and bowls, and so on.
Much of the city was in rubble at the end of the war. School was out, and children would run around playing in their own Mad Max-inspired playground. Unfortunately, many children died during this period, since many bombs had failed to detonate during the war. (Apparently Germany has very soft ground, and so oftentimes bombs would just sink into the ground rather than go off. ) The children would be climbing over and under rubble, and suddenly a huge explosion would go off. Our guide said that more Germans died after the war than during the war.
The guide also claimed that to this day, one bomb goes off per month in Berlin. AND, if you find a bomb on your property, the financial onus falls on you to pay for its removal. Crazy, no?!
Despite all of the tragedy, the tour ended on a positive note. She led us to a room that held a large filing cabinet of sorts. Inside were metal plates. These were identification plates. After the war, many Jews who had been kept as prisoners and slaves by Nazi Germany were sent to their native countries, such as Ukraine, where they were then treated as defectors and betrayers who abandoned their country. They left from one nightmare to a brand new one.
As a result, many burned teir identification papers and simply made up stories for where they’d been for the past years.
Unfortunately, years later, Germany finally offered to pay reparations to these individuals, but the people were required to show those very identification papers that they had burned a lifetime ago as proof. As a result, many of them were unable to receive the money they were rightfully owed.
Thankfully, the people at Underwalten were able to track down the people those metal plates in their filing cabinet belonged to, and those individuals were able to receive their reparations.
Continuing on with the theme of World War II, Trevor and I visited Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind. This man was a real hero. This man was badass. This man was partially blind, and managed to save countless Jewish lives from concentration camps.
Weidt employed blind Jews, gave them food and advice, organized hiding spots, used bribery and lies, all to keep them from persecution and deportation. He had three Jewish people working in his office, which was illegal. However, whenever the Gestapo would come for a visit, they would hear a bell go off as a signal to go hide.
Like Iron Man, though, Weidt could not do everything on his own. He needed his Avengers. There was Hedwig Porschutz and Karl Deibel, who provided Jews with shelter. Porschutz also got them food from the black market. (She was later imprisoned for 18 months for these actions.)
Hans Rosenthal offered Weidt useful intel like a warning about a mass roundup called “Operation Factory.”
Dr. Gustav Held and his wife, Inge, provided medicines for people in hiding.
Theodor Gorner provided forged identity cards through his printing press.
These people are all amazing heroes, and they deserve to be recognized and celebrated by more people for their efforts.
The workshop is actually located in the Haus Schwarzenburger alley, which houses some awesome graffiti.
And speaking of graffiti, we were hoping to visit the Art of Banksy exhibit this day, but we ended up spending way too much time at the Bear Pit Karaoke at Mauer Park.
Every Sunday, the park hosts an awesome market full of vendors and delicious food trucks. However, the real attraction is the Bear Pit Karaoke. It’s hosted by Joe Hatchiban. It’s him, a laptop, a mic, and his buddy manning the sound system.
People sit on benches around this hill called Bear Pit and volunteer to come sing their hearts out in front of hundreds of strangers. I desperately wish I’d thought to pull out my phone and record as soon as we got there, because the first guy we heard was an extremely talented old man belting the hell out of Sinatra’s “My Way” in German. Dude was phenomenal!
The real stars of the evening, though, had to be the people who went up to sing and had absolutely no singing talents. Thankfully, the crowd was very merciful and always cheered those people on.
I was having so much fun that we ended up sitting there until all of the festivities came to a close.
Somebody in Toronto needs to make this a regular thing over there too. Hatchiban organizes this all on his own on his free time. I think he’s a dentist or something during the week. He went around while people were performing asking for money that goes to pay for the permit that pays for him to use the park area. Local hero, if you ask me.
Trevor and I went back to our host’s place and got ready to go out for the night. We went to a local bar called Madame Claude, where they have an open mic night every Sunday. The bar has a Twin Peaks theme to it and features a bunch of stuff hanging upside down on the ceiling. Very cool place.
After the music was done for the night, I headed upstairs and befriended some Americans: Melanie, George, and Charissa. (It seems people named Melanie tend to be pretty awesome.)
Another great day in the bag!