I continue to say, “Oh, I was there before the wall came down- more than 40 years ago when I traveled as a student”, yet unlike other locations I have scant memories of Berlin and I am not sure if I’ve imagined being here when I rambled and roamed for summer months when I was a university student.
Yet I do remember vaguely K’dam as we called it and being fearful at the haughty looks of the soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie.
But the Berlin I’m now visiting overwhelms me with its aesthetics, its buildings, its trees and sprawling extensions of areas. We do the Hop on and off Bus,, linking the purple and yellow lines in an attempt to locate the museums and buildings we are here to visit. I’m intent on the Pergamon because it was unavailable back when the wall separated it from West Berliners and Westerners. Why would I have carried that fact around for so many years if an art history prof hadn’t lamented the impossibility of viewing famous Greek antiquities when I first studied them?
I know for sure that I was in Munchen( Munich) and Heidelberg( “ Ahhh…if only the Fuhrer were still alive,” , crooned the old women knitting on the benches near the schloss in the 60’s) I a hitchhiker then , took a bus to Dachau and then left, bemused and angered that the camp neatly scrubbed resembled summer camp.(“ NOT so bad,” with a shoulder shrug, said a couple of strolling overfed Americans.)
Today the buildings here are incredibly impressive but I’m confused as the Hop on- off guide keeps reminding us that almost everything was destroyed during the war. The well worded and spoken guide is very careful to point out the spot where all the ‘ dangerous’ books were burned, making no judgment really, almost sanitizing the Nazis’s horrors, but the voice through the earphones almost sniffingly demures there is an empty room beneath the square to remind us. As well, when the main railway station is pointed out, I imagine all the children separated from their huddled crying parents en route to concentration camps unknown. “Yes, the station was well used,”, the guide ironically underlines.
Yet I cannot take away from the very beauty of present day Berlin, the strikingly decorated facades of gingerbread, marble, mosaics , Bauhaus and Renaissance , Art Nouveau, Gothic, antiquarian balustrades, , cast iron patios overloaded with sparkling red flowers, Greek statues, gold cupolas, masterful craftsmanship with exquisite work- that one is aware of – even from far below.The Reichestag with its new dome, glistening Kulturforum , misshapen Jewish Museum, the moving Memorial to the dead Jews in Europe where parents photograph their babies next to the slabs of concrete and even The East Side Gallery demand your attention.
In spite of the crumbled preserved ruins of the past, Berlin bubbles and enchants and excites. From the guy who carries a the brotworst oven around his middle to the one star Michelin drama of the choreographed food courses at Nobelhart &Schmutzeig, Berlin is something quite amazing.
And I consider my thoughts. What bothers me? Would I prefer the ruins of tenements and bunkers as opposed to sanctioned refurbished holocaust monuments?
My mind flies back to The Hare with the Amber Eye and After the Fire and The Book Thief and even the history of the Rothsschilds forced to live in overcrowded ghettos and endure abuse from six year olds because they were Jews, the hatred of the Prussians and the French( remember the Dreyfus affair), a long history of debasement as early as 1000 because some believed Jews defiled the host and baked bread with the blood of Christian children.
I’m thinking of the troubled past that fomented until 6 million sizzled.
The antisemitism fanned by the Lutherans and openly acknowledged in tableaux and political broadsheets from early times of hook nosed Jews as Christ killers are tunes that whisper to me. And later in Weimar, belief that wealthy court Jews controlled the country’s finances and even small shop owners cheated their neighbours. Shame!
I’m frozen before these huge lush buildings that have honoured regimes and emperors to announce to the world their power and vision and provide” protection” and custody : language used by the Nazis to hold and remove undesirables from towns, city, the country. It troubles me mightily and I’m thinking about history lessons that decimated the Germans as losers in the Treaty of Versailles, the path being paved for Hitler’s self aggrandizement that resulted in the murders of more than Jews- jazz musicians, the infirm, the elderly, homosexuals, nuns, gypsies, political opponents,Catholics, etc.etc.
On the ashes of empires and bombed destroyed buildings, a new Phoenix has risen. And yet this is not to disparage beauty or require children to inherit the blasphemous sins of their fathers or grandfathers who petted the family dogs. And yet, The Topography of Terror Museum reinforces that the “volk” or common people played a huge part in initiating and perpetuating a rolling non- stoppable machine of death.
In Copenhagen where we stopped first! I could replay the newsreels of the holocaust on the buildings I saw, shivering to think of the people with only what they could carry doggedly head – into towards the station. But here in Berlin, much has been erased, cleansed by the shining new edifices built by Mercedes Benz, Boss, Sony, rejoicing in the pure beauty of buildings that scrape the sky or so wide they overtake entire blocks.
It’s hard to take: that these gleaming streets were full of a people I never knew whose dreams and future offspring had no chance to persist and flower. Maybe their ancestors should have packed up earlier and set sail to the new world. I can understand that even with the bad talk and discrimination that they could not bring themselves to leave their own cosy houses or trips to the surrounding forests or afternoon rambles in the Tiergarten , just continuing to live their lives , go to work, raise their children, kissing them softly as they sent them off to school, imagining a better, safer future in a preposterously beautiful city, no matter, the Prussians, the French, the Nazis…
Would I have been sage or frightened enough to abandon the beauty of this place?
I’m feeling guilty that I am seduced by this Berlin, would love to engage in its art scene and walk its wide wide boulevards, so clustered by streets that they bang on the roof of the Hop on hop off bus. I’m troubled by the repetition of history, and uncertain futures that remind of a horrorful past.