Berlin is vibrant, friendly, diverse, and relaxed. I soaked myself in history for two days, and it was a relief to see the bright optimism of Berlin today on every corner. People there are loud. They laugh a lot. It’s relaxed. It’s a happy place. There’s a sense of non-conformity, lots of organic food, and soft, chewy pretzels. I absolutely didn’t want to come home after my weekend. Just one more week! This trip, I didn’t even begin to explore Berlin’s arts scene. I’ll have to go back soon. Today at school, I found myself daydreaming about it…
I need to be completely honest about my concept of Berlin before the weekend. I’ve got to talk about the war. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew I wanted to see significant sites from World War II, but I also didn’t want to see them. I’ve always been drawn to the holocaust. It’s horrible, but it pulls me. A big part of it is that I just don’t understand it. Who can? One of the good things about going to some of the key sites in Berlin was that I got to see the history, and touch it, and experience it as much as you when you arrive 75 years after the fact. That it happened at all should terrify anyone in any place in any time. Italian writer Primo Levi’s quote is the first thing you see in the Holocaust Museum:
“It happened, and therefore it could happen again; this is the core of what we have to say.”
This is going to be mostly photos.
My bus got in very late on Friday night—it’s a four-hour trip from Prague. On the way I made a friend! The young guy next to me was from Hong Kong, so we had a two-hour chat about typhoons, gai dun zai, CY Leung, the central government, seaweed snacks, and lots more. It made me quite homesick, but it was fun. New facebook friend:)
Arriving in Berlin, I felt the familiar thrill of landing somewhere and not really knowing where to go, with no local currency in hand, and not speaking the language very well. I’ve got to say—I love that feeling.
I’d had trouble finding an Airbnb that was cheap enough, central, owned by a woman, and able to take a late arrival, so I decided to give up and book myself into the Marriott for two nights. Happy Mother’s Day! When I got to reception, the guy on the desk said that he was very sorry, but they’d overbooked, and they were going to send me to another hotel. They promised me free breakfasts on both Saturday and Sunday and covered all the taxis necessary. I was tired and grumpy, but I didn’t realize I was getting a huge upgrade.
Outside the front door of the new hotel stood men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns. I had a feeling this was going to be good… Hotel de Rome was probably the most luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in. The bathroom had a chair and a bidet and heated towel racks and a beautiful bath and a rain shower shower-nozzle! It was 2 am, and I was seriously tempted to sleep in the next morning and just hang out in what I was sure would be a gorgeous restaurant (it was) for the morning, but I pulled myself together and reminded myself that I had a lovely bath at home, and my bed was possibly more comfortable (thank you Ikea for my mattress topper), and I had better get on with this adventure and not flake.
The next morning, after a lovely breakfast, I went on a walking tour. It was excellent. The guide was an entertaining Londoner with a MSc in Politics. He was great.
This is a very fun restaurant whose loo I used before the tour, which started at Hakescher Markets, where I almost bought a bangle made out of a fork.
The Old Museum, on Museum Island: the columns are pocked with bullet holes, but it wasn’t bombed.
Berliner Dom, also on Museum Island: An unusually ornate Lutheran church.
The Gendarmenmarkt. This is the Concert Hall. On one side of the square is a Catholic church built as a gift by the Protestants, and right opposite is a Protestant church built as a gift by the Catholics. Very friendly:)
A hasty pic taken while crossing the road. Our guide, Barnaby, said that when Berlin (and Germany) were still divided, the Soviets installed this ‘don’t cross’ signal on the east side—a red figure with outstretched arms. The ‘cross’ signal is a walking green person. Apparently after the wall came down, all the crossing lights were changed to be similar to those on the west side, but the east-siders wanted their old signals back, and so the red person with open arms is all over the east side. Barnaby said that in Berlin, jaywalking is a SERIOUS offense, and Berliners never cross on a red light. He tried to find out why, but everyone just said, ‘to protect the children’. One of his friends crossed on a red light one day, and an elderly woman yelled at him ‘Child murderer!’
This is the site of Checkpoint Charlie. The sign, the checkpoint, and the photos are not real, but it is the actual site of the crossing between east and west.
“To the Victims of War and Tyranny”: Mother with her Dead Son by Käthe Kollwitz.
The Trabant car, popular in East Germany. You can rent them and drive around Berlin.
Bebelplatz is the site of the nazi book-burning in 1933. Set in the square is a subterranean memorial titled ‘Libray’—a room of empty shelves which could hold about 20,000 books—the approximate number of books burned in 1933.
The Reich Ministry of Aviation was second in size only to the airport during WWII. Inside, the nazis planned everything. Interestingly, the allies never bombed it. I took a pic of this empty circle because in WWII it had a swastika inside. Today in Germany, anyone who displays a swastika is arrested. It’s illegal to raise your hand in a nazi salute, or goose-step. Germans do not sing the first verse of their national anthem any more.
Around the other side of the building are two giant pieces of art. On the wall at the back, is the Lingner Mural, 18 metres long, painted to demonstrate the joys of the Socialism. Zoom in. In front of it, you can see an 18-metre enlarged photo, set into the ground, of people protesting in the 1953 ‘People’s Uprising in East Germany’. It’s a stark, powerful contrast.
This was absolutely the eeriest part of the tour. It looks like a peaceful car park. It’s the site of Hitler’s bunker. We stood near the spot where Hitler’s body was burned. Our guide told us the story of his marriage to Ava Braun the day before he died. They found a celebrant of excellent Aryan heritage. I feel sick writing that. The guide told us of their suicide the next day, and then the burning. Apparently there is so much concrete and steel under the ground that they couldn’t lift it out, so they filled it in. There’s a small sign (where the people in the photo are gathered) explaining the site. Our guide said that Berlin had to find a balance between making the sign too big (thereby glorifying what happened) and making it too small (thereby trying to ignore the horrible truth). It was a truly creepy experience to walk where Hitler walked.
Next we went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s a large area covered in over 2,700 blocks of concrete, or steles, in various sizes. The idea is that you walk amongst the steles. I found it overwhelming. When you walk up and down, you are actually in the memorial. It was powerful.
Controversy surrounds the memorial, constructed by New York architect Peter Eisenmann. One of the problems stems from the fact that the steles are specially coated so that if anyone paints grafitti, it can be easily cleaned off. The issue is that the company who makes this product also made the gas that was used to exterminate Jewish people in concentration camps during the war.
Below the memorial is the Information Centre, which is really a small museum. It’s designed to echo the steles above. Its purpose is to remember the Jewish people who were killed. I read many stories of families who were victims of nazi insanity. I remember one point vividly. In Jewish culture, remembering is very important. You need to remember your family members who have passed on. In some instances, whole families were destroyed by the nazis. There is no one to remember them. The museum aims to construct a list of everyone who was killed, and to remember them.
The stories of the Berlin Wall were scary too because the wall was still up just 27 years ago. Our guide told us all about how the area between the outer wall (pictured) and the inner wall—no man’s land— was designed to catch anyone trying to escape from East to West Germany. The wall was painted white so guards in towers could easily see anyone who made it as far as the outer wall. Our guide said that just 27 years ago, had we been standing in the same spot, we would have been shot. 27 years…
The final part of the tour was the famous Brandenburg Gate. Napoleon came through this gate (and stole the sculpture on top, but the Germans chased him and dragged it back). The nazis used it. It didn’t get bombed but was damaged during the war.
On the other side of the place, almost opposite the Gate, is the hotel in which someone made a very poor choice a few years ago and dangled their baby (who survived) over the balcony. Remember?
Throughout the weekend, I came across many markers showing where the Wall once stood. Berlin has used double cobble stones to show the line where the wall used to be.
In the afternoon, I wandered off to find the Topography of Terror museum. I found myself on Potsdamer Platz, where Jewish businesses were destroyed on the Night of Broken Glass in 1938. I still vividly remember hearing our history teacher tell us about it in eleventh grade.
Somehow I stumbled upon the last remaining watch tower. I don’t know what possessed me to climb the ladder to the lookout area. Maybe it was the very eager attendant at the bottom who wanted so badly to explain it all. He had pictures of what the view looked like 27 years ago, stretching out over No Man’s Land. Inside, the lookout area was covered in graffiti. I tried to imagine the soldiers up there, scanning for hopeful escapees making a run for it. It was chilling.
The Topography of Terror museum is a brutally honest accounting of the horrors of the war. Like every other historical site I’d been so far, it was free. I noticed that a large section of the museum, which is right next to a remaining stretch of the Wall, focused on the perpetrators in detail. I couldn’t stop reading about the nazi war criminals. It’s just unfathomable. These men, many of them young, handsome, and seemingly wholesome, were the children of teachers, lawyers, and other educated people.
What happened to them?
I watched some of the Nuremberg Trial proceedings, and listened to their testimonies. They blamed Hitler. Some of them escaped and lived under assumed names. Some were captured late in life, or it took so long for them to get to trial that they were deemed unfit to stand because of their age and frailty.
The world is a bit crazy, don’t you think?
I passed through the Berlin Mall (as opposed to the Berlin Wall—do you think they meant that?), and an artist had painted a huge floor mural (?) which you could only see in perspective from a platform, through a curved lens. Rather cool.
Food had barely been my focus so far, so I thought I’d look for some street food, since Berlin is famous for it. I ended up in a very gritty part of town…
In the end, I found a little vegan cafe, and ate a scrumptious wrap. On the way home I grabbed a pretzel. So yumsa.
Night number 2 was back in the Marriott.
The next morning, I took a bus to church by the Tiergarten park.
It was fun to sing hymns in German:)
After church, I walked along the river.
I grabbed a toasted cheese, tomato and pesto wrap, and went into Neues Museum. I saw the 3,300-year-old Nefertiti Bust! Not allowed to take photos, unfortunately, but look it up. It’s beautiful. The museum has one of the greatest Egyptology collections in the world Tons of fun.
I was so sad to leave Berlin. I did have the extraordinary good fortune to find myself next to two BYU grads who were in Europe auditioning for music master’s programs, so the trip home was enjoyable. One of them was an amazing organist, and I got to listen to his senior recital. Wow.
Lola the mini-schnauzer was happy to see me:)