Every conversation has a beginning and an end and for my journey that was Berlin. From the glass shattering beginning of World War II with Kristallnacht to the capture of Berlin and Hitler’s suicide to the fall of the Berlin Wall announcing the close of the Iron Curtain Berlin has been an unwitting character in the stories of Eastern European Jews. Finally, as promised, PICTURES of the brick and mortar crushed and crumpled! Now restored to pre-destruction beauty, Berlin demonstrates human kind’s resilience in overcoming unspeakable destruction.
It took me a few days to realize the best in beauty, architecture and history Berlin had to offer was in the East. As liberators, Russia got first dibs quickly claiming the city’s heart and eastern half as compensation for the destruction and loss she’d endured. Fellow Allies U.S., France,and Great Britain took ‘ownership’ of saving and resurrecting the western half. Checkpoint Charlie is easily the American symbol of our post-war presence, now manned by actors portraying American and Soviet soldiers. The McDonald’s is new.
When it comes to the Soviet Union’s mark in metal and flesh, and carrying more irony than weight, there is the Memorial to Soviet soldiers slain when liberating the city in April 1945. Located in the West’s Tiergarten found by slipping through the Brandenburg Gate, this memorial built by Germans for Russians was off-limits to Russians till after reunification. Post-war,the Tiergarten, Berlin’s Central Park was in Britain’s sector. With 70% of trees cut for fire wood the British parceled off land for people to grow potatoes. I strolled past replanted trees on a Saturday, passing ‘Occupy Berliners’ dressed in their 1% finery carrying signs accompanied by tambourines! Hungry, I wandered over to a one of the ubiquitous pretzel vendors. Rummaging through fistfuls of change at dusk (without glasses) I offered my money only to have it thrown back with disgust. An elderly woman scolded the vendor reminding him I was a foreigner and needed help with the currency as she patiently picked out the correct change (from five different currencies) while a small crowd watched with amusement.
The grandest symbol of Berlin’s power under the GDR into the present is the TV Tower at over 600 meters. Built in the 1960’s, this was absolutely a demonstration of ‘my tower is bigger than your tower’. I could see this tower from outside my hostel and from the river ! People line up and wait to zoom up the tower and view the city – and yes, I built my tourist cred by joining the crowds.
My Berlin ‘history’ started in the Mitte or former Jewish Quarter which I wrote about in ‘I’m all a twitter’. Present reminders of the past’s memorials are all around, they just require a 360 view as Diane, my personal tour guide reminded me. These polished brass stumbling stones, Stolperstein in German, commemorate the lives, homes and professions of persecuted individuals who were killed, imprisoned or emigrated. Created by artist Gunter Demnig, there are now over 22,000 stones in countries from Austria to Italy, except where they have been removed or prohibited. Not everyone wants daily reminders of ghosts on corners or lingering in hallways.
Across the street Diane raised my attention from my feet up the side of a building to memorials of former residents. She didn’t mention any controversy over these, but Germany’s past carries complications and conflict between young and old. Lucien, Diane’s ten-year old son is learning about the Holocaust, a chapter skipped in her education. Education has led to understanding and healing as twenty-somethings talk openly – and guiltily about the Holocaust taking responsibility for crimes they didn’t commit. I can only imagine the conversations – and the silence – between generations and the invisible wall built as the young imagine actions – and inactions of family and neighbors. Reconstructing Berlin’s physical foundation was easy in comparison to relationships and peace inter – and intrapersonally.
Turn your head and you find a Jewish school also popular with non-Jews wanting a good education for their kids. Diane considered sending Lucien here until realizing the difficulty in him being the minority. Above, the memorial to killed and displaced people is on the site of a former nursing home. Directly behind is the site of a cemetery where 15 stones still stand, but only because the Nazis couldn’t remove them .
A short stroll away is the River Spree where on a cold drizzly day a boat tour took us past grand Museum Island, German government buildings and reminders of the wall that divided the city including white crosses memorial to those who died crossing the river west to freedom (sorry no pics).
The river couldn’t be crossed from east to west because of the barbed wire wall scraping the River Spree floor before zigzagging across the city. The wall or anti-fascist protection wall, was constructed in 1961 when the Soviets, embarrassed about the westward brain drain came up with a brilliant idea. Born with barbed wire at least one soldier jumped over and across into a waiting car and celebrated by this banner. Later concrete surrounded metal expanding to open or ‘dead’ space on either side of the wall as deterrent. The power of the human spirit is demonstrated by those in the east (attempts) to drive cars through, dig under and climbing over the wall. The wall surely symbolizes more of the Soviet psyche especially when viewed with the entire history of Soviet rule including their occupation of the Sachenhausen Concentration Camp, first as prisoners in 1933 and between 1945 – 1950 as occupiers. Sachenhausen will be ‘shown’ in my next post.
Humboldt University built by Frederich the Great (a lover of learning and the arts) memorialize the April 1933 ‘burning of the books’-all non-German and Jewish. Easily missed, this simple clear block in a corner of the University’s square provides a view of empty library stacks.
Off the beaten path not far from the Gate is this unassuming apartment complex – and the location of Hitler’s bunker and suicide site where he and Eva Braun married and died as the Russians prepared to capture the city – or so ‘they’ think.
These sights were (almost) easily walked to from my hostel(s) on both legs of my trip which were off the same U-Bahn stop – a former Jewish neighborhood – and now home to the young and successful. Earlier I wrote about the Magen David branded gate found next to the Organic market that seemed so unexpected and mysterious at the beginning of my trip . Peering through the star’s cutouts I didn’t even pretend to read the sign. Back in this ‘hood on my last leg I found another set of these seemingly mysterious gates. A couple told me these marked the area of a preserved, well-kept Jewish cemetery, easily found by walking around the block. Signs at the entrance of the U-Bahn pointed to a synagogue 800 m away. Once again I should have recognized it right away based on the barricade and security. Even without Israeli security I wasn’t allowed beyond the gated facade and the Lauder school housed in front. This Neologue synagogue, complete with organ like the one written about in Budapest, has about 30 – 40 members and is only open for Shabbat: Friday night and Saturday morning.
My last Saturday morning in Berlin took me back to the Neue Synagogue housed behind the facade left standing after it was burned November 9, 1938 during Kristallnacht (night of the Broken Glass). Raids destroyed almost all synagogues and Jewish businesses, relocating 30,000 Jews to concentration camps some for short periods of time. Seventy years later a liberal congregation led by a female Rabbi and Cantor hold services during Shabbat and holidays like Sukkot which I attended in October . “Special” was the word the young American expat I talked with used to describe praying here. Not only special, but miraculous, and, a reminder of the power, belief and resilience of the Jews (and others) I met here and elsewhere. The service here reminded me of ‘home’ as I realized this was the only service I attended where (almost) everyone knew the songs and prayers. How/why did these Berliners know/understand more – and so much about Jewish prayer? My journey continues!
Next: Sachenhausen Concentration Camp in Berlin