Museums, tours in Germany, Czech Republic and elsewhere offer glimpses of life under communism

Monday, October 12, 2009

Attractions offer glimpses of life under communism

BERLIN — If you’re interested in the history of Eastern Europe under communism, a number of places around the region offer glimpses of life before the Berlin Wall fell. Here are a few of them, ranging from somber museums to historic sites to themed attractions that are downright kitschy or bizarre.

One must-see for tourists visiting Germany is Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, the former border crossing where U.S. and Soviet tanks dramatically faced off after East Germany sealed its border by building the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Gates along the wall were opened on Nov. 9, 1989, and crowds began to tear down the wall. This year marks the 20th anniversary of that event, which has come to symbolize the end of communism in Eastern Europe.

The DDR Museum, opposite the Berlin Cathedral, focuses on everyday life before the wall fell. The entertaining, interactive exhibits include a typical kitchen in an East German apartment, TVs where you can choose between East and West German programs, and a simulated ride in the once-ubiquitous but notoriously unreliable Trabant model car;

The Germans also use humor and a retro-chic sensibility to make fun of the past and shed light on the bleakness of that era. Zur Firma is a bar themed on life in East Germany under communism; its name translates as “at the firm,” an allusion to German slang for the Stasi secret police. It’s located at Normannenstrasse 5 A, in the Lichtenberg section of Berlin. Or you can stay at the budget Ostel hotel, located at Wriezener Karree 5, with communist-era East German furnishings,

In Prague, in the Czech Republic, the chilling Museum of Communism describes itself as portraying “the dream, the reality and the nightmare” of life under totalitarianism from 1948 to 1989. Visitors will see an interrogation room, propaganda and artifacts, from statues and flags to a noose, A Nov. 17 concert in Prague’s Old Town Square will mark the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia, when six weeks of peaceful protests between Nov. 17 and Dec. 29, 1989, led to the demise of the Soviet regime there.

In Poland, an exhibit in the city of Gdansk — located at Waly Piastowskie 24, — tells the story of the Solidarity movement. These pro-democracy strikes began in the city’s shipyards in 1980, led by a worker named Lech Walesa who later won the Nobel Peace Prize and served as Poland’s president.

In Riga, Latvia, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia documents life from 1940 to 1991, described on the museum’s Web site as a “50-year-long subjugation” of “Soviet and Nazi terror,”

Latvia also invites tourists to visit a former military prison, Karosta, in the city of Liepaja. Billed as Latvia’s Alcatraz, Karosta offers audio tours in various languages and even a night’s stay in a dank cell, complete with prison guards, a toilet that consists of a hole in the floor, and a bed made from a plank. Because fall and winter are the slow season for tourism, visits are only available upon request from October to May. Click on “EN” for more information in English at

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