Nothing is as it seems when you are on the outside looking in

I’ve barely dipped my toe into Berlin and already I am off to Warsaw. I’m told it is the way Americans travel. Good for seeing a lot of a little. In my case it is like having snippets of conversations and stories started and then left unfinished. Somehow I think the only thing that should be left unfinished is desert and insults, well maybe just insults.

Berlin is full of Jewish life though the ghosts outnumber the living souls and their memories are everywhere and easier (for me) to find. Ghosts’ stories are known, collectively if not individually. Stories of the living are buried and must be painstakingly unearthed I’m told, after years. The ghosts stories are memorialized in unexpected places, if you pay attention. Or in my case have a personal guide. Diane Engel, a Berliner since 1983, a friend of my hiking buddy Ira Haronson in NY, took on that role. In the (once) Jewish Quarter where the Neue Synagogue is located, looking down you see brass ‘stones’ embedded in the in the (once) sidewalk memorializes those lost identifying them by name, profession, residences and where they died. A French artist placed large plaques on building walls outside of victims’ apartments. They reminded me a little of NYC street signs in memory of 9/11 victims. We were even able to point these plaques to an Israeli mother and daughter. This morning as I walked to the organic market not far from my hostel I passed metal gates with two stars of David carved out of each door. Inside the gates was a placard in German memoralizing the story of the Jews who had lived there. I should add that I get lost quite often, more than once in the last few days. Referring to the Jews as being lost, though so much was lost, is a misnomer. They were killed.


Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

The Holocaust memorial is steps from the Brandenburg Gate, separating east from West Berlin. The memorial includes 2,671 slabs, the same width and length with different heights to represent the different levels of accomplishment. Our Irishman guide told us why there were so few slabs. As the sun shifts, especially as it sets at dusk, thousands and thousands of shadows are cast representing the souls of the more than 6 million. Kids were racing between slabs and we could hear and see bodies pass as if catching a glimpse of a family member who then disappeared while never knowing if you’d see each other again. Our guide once told an older couple to ‘get lost’ as they explored the memorial. The woman came back in tears, embracing him, so glad she knew they’d see each other again, then pulling up her sleeve to reveal her tattooed number.

But I’m here seeking the living… Berlin’s story is on hold, but Warsaw’s will follow soon.

I had to keep asking if I was in East or West Berlin. To me that seemed important, if for no other reason to get my bearings – really though I wanted to see if I could tell the difference. For three days I rarely ventured west of the invisible wall – not because I couldn’t, but because everything I wanted to see was there. I now know that the tram operates in the former east but not in the west. When the four powers (France, Russia, U.S., and Great Britain) divided the city, the west tore up and paved over the tracks. I guess the other big difference is the GDR definition of beautiful architecture: box buildings with tiny windows – street after street of them. Yes, they are as (un)attractive as they sound.

But nothing is what it seems even when it comes to the old, architecturally beautiful buildings that dot the river Spree and found throughout the center of the former east. I couldn’t believe they had survived, nor should I have – they didn’t. Many (I don’t know percentages) of the buildings were carefully rebuilt in the 1970’s and beyond from original building plans and pictures that existed. Old statues that stand guard on roof tops and in squares, at least some of them, though were taken and placed in basements for safekeeping so most of those are original.

Almost 20 years after reunification is the city truly unified? I wondered if there was a cultural difference between people since they share the same DNA and phenotypes. While I was tempted to take a poll and ask people how they felt, I contained myself (for the most part). Diane moved to Berlin in 1983 and just accepted the fact that a wall divided the city, as it seemed many people did. She had opportunity to cross over to the east for work and also to visit a friend. What did that friend want? Coffee! Someone else said they had it good over there: daycare and days off. The volunteer at the Calvin Church (totally destroyed and rebuilt!) in Gendarmerie wasn’t so thrilled with unification and was happy to tell me she felt people in the east were lazy and used to getting everything for nothing. Even mail carriers had ‘degrees’ and after the reunification they were paid more than carriers in the west.  And now master builders won’t work for the offered money, so the ‘lower level’ workers (the Turks) do the work for little money . Out goes the middle class leaving the rich with the poor to pick up the table scraps. Sound familiar OWS? Not that she thought Germany was in as poor shape as the U.S. As far as bad blood between the east and west, it will take another generation to be rid of that attitude since parents are imprinting these impressions onto their kids. And what does this generation know? I asked one twenty-something where I could find the wall remains and she seemed cloeless as to what I was talking about – and yes, she spoke English.

What do  people really know or care about when in comes to past history?    One side of the story: when I told  a young Polish woman (a tutor) in my Warsaw hostel I wanted to talk with Jewish communities, she asked me what Jewish was.  She learned about the Holocaust in school, but forgot.

I’ll leave you with that.


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