Unpacking Berlin before Packing Me (up)

I didn’t quite get the fuss over Berlin before today.  Maybe it is because I kept hearing about the 3 day electro-pop concerts in ‘ruined bars’, the abandoned historic buildings that are rented for a song then filled with speakers and hipsters.  Not quite my scene in any city.  Besides, these past few weeks I’ve defined hip spots as synagogues not bars, being the cool trendsetter than I am.  Today, I embraced the warm sunshine and went from flea market to walking tour uncovering the layers of history this city has experienced.

Berlin, like Vilna has great second-hand stores, a good indication of the quality goods that propel the economy.  Every Sunday in a local park, what never makes it to these stores ends up in a flea market where old and new ‘stuff’ is crowded into small stalls and scoured over by bargain seekers.  Old treasures always seem so telling about a place and people, and here, the market was filled with lamps and lamp shades that conjured up Berlin’s cabaret years.

Limited by money and suitcase space, I stuck to a Turkish lunch and good conversation with Sarah, a young Korean American woman from the hostel.  Sarah’s spent the last three years abroad, first working as a film assistant in Bollywood for a year and the last two years working in a Korean kindergarten.  She’s traveling through Europe visiting friends while working her way back to California and family.  When I shared my trip mission of having conversations with Eastern European Jews about identity, she had lots of enthusiasm and thoughts that resonated with what I’ve heard these past weeks.  The issues of identity are so central that they transcend religion, place, and age.

For Sarah, her identity is 100% Korean and 100% American, like Stawick in Krakow’s identity of  100% Jewish and 100% Polish.  She also stressed how important it was to understand where she came from and how it defined who  she was.   Most of all it’s important to be able to explain the key of that identity when asked.  In high school she (re) learned to speak Korean, later realizing how important a common language is to connect and communicate with  relatives and listen to stories.  This reminded me of what Andrea in Budapest said about American Jews needing to come to Eastern Europe to understand where they came from. and. who they are.   She also said Jews should know about Judaism and be able to explain what it means to be a Jew – or in her words, ‘to be a Mensch’

I shared my interest to broaden my conversational journey to the rest of Europe.  If anyone knows where and how to get funding, please let me know!

When I started my travels I wasn’t sure how forward I should be in my quest and focus on connecting with Jewish communities.  After all, most travelers are connecting with historical and cultural sites aka bars and restaurants and I wondered if I would be a conversation stopper.  Much to my delight, I’ve found the opposite.  When I’ve shared my mission, most people have asked questions and/or shared their thoughts and experiences with Jews, questions of race and racism, and identity.  I haven’t shared most of their conversations yet, but these stories will be coming in the next few weeks.  Even more interesting is that most of the people I’ve met have been younger.  Not just younger, they have been young, under 30, and hungry to talk and be listened to.

Berlin’s identity has been shaped by leaders like Frederick the self-proclaimed Great, from the mid 1700’s  who took breaks from being a military whiz to writing over 100 concertos and learning eight languages while turning Berlin into an open, innovative cultural mecca.  Theo, our tour guide, an Australian artist and guide who has lived here for 8 years, was a wealth of information and among other things said there are more museums here than in London and Parks combined and more art galleries than Manhattan.  Maybe that’s why I’ve seen T-shirts boasting that ‘First I’ll take Manhattan and then I’ll take Berlin’.  Culture aside, Berlin is a city that has  resurrected itself more than once and this reunified city has proven itself again.

Before Berlin was the center of Nazi leadership,  before the Allies entered and took ownership of  quadrants of the city, before 80% of the city was bombed as the Soviet Army captured and forced the end of the regime resulting in the suicide of Hitler and Eva Braun, and, certainly before the Soviets turned from liberator to oppressor while their fear lowered the Iron Curtain  encapsulating the eastern half of the city like caged animals and turning the city’s beautiful landmark Brandenburg Gate into a ‘death strip’, the area separating the wall and the inner wall, Berlin was a captivating den of iniquity:  drugs, sex and cabaret where cocaine was snorted as freely as oxygen was breathed.  1920’s Berlin found a daily devaluation of its currency so ‘today’s’ wage would be worth less tomorrow which everyone ‘nose’ (sorry) is an invitation to live every day like it’s New Year’s Eve.   Theo recommended seeing the movie ‘Blue Angel’ to get a feel for the time and depravity, and probably a great winter movie night option.

Berlin is physically united, but as I wrote my first time here, there is a divided identity of those from either side of the wall.  How can there not be considering those in the east were held captive for over 20 years?  Though like all those in captivity they were provided their basic needs including food, cheap shelter and job security, they were deprived of the freedom of thought and expression that which truly makes us human.  But of course it’s complicated.   I asked Theo about anti-Semitism and he said that young Germans are happy and interested to talk about the war.  There is also the guilt they feel about what their grandparents did before these 20 somethings were born.  Strange to feel guilt about what someone else did and I  have to wonder and how this impacts people.  Education has  helped but of course it’s not even across all people and all generations.  After all, a 60-year-old who has lived behind the curtain for most of his life, suddenly released from one way of thinking and feeling can revert back to a (destructive) way of thinking like a rubber band released from a stretch.  That racism and anti-Semitism is there, hidden.   As  I talked about yesterday when the five Rabbi’s down the street were yelled at, anti-semitism here, like everywhere is still alive.

American optimism is part of the American identity.  In the east, people have shaken their heads at my positive words, in conflict with their glass is  half-full views of the world.  Checkpoint Charlie, the iconic entry to the west, and freedom. was certainly marked by  American’s optimism in rebuilding Germany and healing war-torn Europe.  After weeks of stories, I’d like to think that optimism is infectious and that conversation and old-fashioned listening will be, can be the key to breaking down walls and building relationships.


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