The Portrait on the Wall

Let me tell you: Berlin was a dream. At every meeting leading up to CR, we were told about how this trip would push us to our limits – mentally, physically, and emotionally. I believed that, but I never imagined it to this capacity. Our days are exhausting, and lend little to no time to sleep, rest our feet, call home, or blog (sorry Mom and Dad!). However, I have never in my life been so grateful for the exhaustion. Our days are full of adventures and our nights are spent in conversations that push the boundaries of relationships. Every day is everything I could ask for and more.

Our Berlin groups were a success! All semester, the sixteen of us have been eager to see who Dr. Pitcock would choose for us to travel with in Berlin. Team Bravo – consisting of Matt, Madeline, Lance, Riley, Davis, and myself – conquered Berlin with great fun. Together we tasted new German foods, explored incredible cathedrals and museums, discussed faith and our ideas about eternity, and walked a distance equivalent to two full marathons. Every second with them was a blast. Munich groups have big shoes to fill!

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On Friday night, Dr. Pitcock took us on a night adventure to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Dr. Pitcock explained that he felt a profound difference in atmosphere when exploring the memorial at night as opposed to during the day. We all set off, alone or in pairs, to walk through the maze of cement blocks. Walking alone in the dark, the eeriness of the place was inescapable. The shadows and the towering blocks obstructed my view of the surroundings, and every turn stirred suspense that I would encounter someone or something unexpected. After exploring alone for some time, a group of us gathered among the blocks to discuss how we were feeling. The conversation is one that will stick with me for a very long time. It was in that moment that I was truly overwhelmed with appreciation for the thoughtfulness and intellect of my peers, reflected in the observations they made. Matt pointed out that the blocks were not perfectly rectangular, nor perfectly lined up in rows; had they been, the memorial would be satisfying to look at. Instead, the misshapen angles make the scene hard on the eyes – things are tangibly disturbing. Will commented that walking among the blocks alone in the darkness made him feel helpless, as if he had no way of knowing what was around the corner, but had no choice than to keep moving. He elaborated that his feelings in the moment could never measure up to how helpless and out of control the imprisoned Jews must have felt in the concentration camps. Madeline pointed out that the blocks extend so far into the ground that they can even be seen inside the museum located underground; this could be symbolic of the depth of the Holocaust, even deeper than how it appeared to the unvictimized Germans. The blocks are all identical, reminding me of the way the Jews were stripped of their identities and regarded as nothing more than a number. Our conversation discovered beauty from tragedy. We recognized the symbolism in the memorial that allowed us to remember the lives lost with the value that they deserve.

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The Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum) was also on our agenda for Friday. In one area, the museum displays a collection of portraits, similar to mug shots, of Jews booked in the concentration camps. One portrait in particular stood out to me. It was a photo of a young boy, probably around ten years old, with a shaved head and big brown eyes, dressed in the infamous striped outfit. His eyes reveal his terror, his confusion, his innocence. The photo caught me. I stood for a moment, then realized. The photo was my little brother. It was Aiden. It was his afternoons playing street basketball with the neighborhood kids and his evenings at the kitchen table working on his fifth-grade homework. It was his dreams for the man he will someday become, his love for others, and his excitement for the life ahead of him.

I thank God that it wasn’t truly my little brother in that photo or in the concentration camp many years ago. But in a different stroke of luck, it could have been. It could have been him, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. There is a quote in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by Primo Levi. He stated, “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.” My prayer for this world is that it never does happen again. No matter who the face in the photograph is, that person is someone’s Aiden. That person is someone fully known and fully loved, and whose life is more than someone could bear to lose.

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This week has been tough. It has been emotional and touched by moments that took my breath away. No matter how difficult, I fully believe that every experience is stretching me and shaping me into someone more willing to walk alongside my peers through the tough times, as we wrestle with our beliefs and our notions of history. I look forward to all that Munich has to offer. Until next time.