A History Lesson in Berlin

Our side trip to Berlin was only intended to be a quick visit with some friends and a stopover beween Vancouver and Poland.  Once on the ground, I was sucked in by its history, and my interest in the Second World War meant my eyes and ears were open to taking in more than just bier and currywurst.

The Berlin Wall

Bricks signifying where the Berlin Wall once stood.
Bricks on the sidewalk signify where the Berlin Wall once stood.

Kat’s friend and travel companion from southeast Asia now lives in Berlin. She gave us our first taste of history by pointing out the paving bricks that wind their way through Berlin’s neighborhoods marking the location of the mostly torn down Berlin Wall.  They are a stark reminder of how Cold War politics cut the world in two and literally divided a city.

Stolpersteine: Emotional Stumbling Blocks

On a walk along a quiet side street in Berlin’s Kreuzburg neighborhood our friend come tour guide directed our attention to a grouping of small brass plaques sunken into the sidewalk.  The words are in German.  There are dates and a name.  None of it has meaning until the last word is read. Auschwitz.

Stolpersteine on a sidewalk in Berlin
Stolpersteine on a sidewalk in Berlin.

Motivated by a conversation with a Cologne resident who denied that any Sinti or Roma (gypsies) had lived in her neighborhood before the war, artist Gunter Demnig began a quest to symbolically return the missing and murdered holocaust victims to their homes.  Stolpersteine, meaning stumbling blocks, are 10x10cm concrete paving blocks with brass plaques offering some details of a former resident or worker.

The stolpersteine are placed at the foot of the door of the last known place of residence or work of a victim.  These small and simple markers may not protrude from the ground for one to trip over, but do induce an emotional “stumble” as one walks the streets of Berlin and spots a shiny plaque on the ground in front of a doorway that reads, “Here lived Arthur Simon, born October 1872, deported March 2, 1943, murdered in Auschwitz.”

Topography of Terror: Where Horrible Decisions Were Made

Further into the centre of the city or mitte, meaning middle, we arrived at the site that once housed the SS and Gestapo headquarters. Now the Topography of Terror, an indoor/outdoor museum documenting the rise of Nazism, occupies the land, chronicling some of the cold decisions that were made inside the darkest offices of the Third Reich.

A preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, outside the Topography of Terror, Berlin
A preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, outside the Topography of Terror, Berlin

Here “the Jewish and Gypsy question” was answered with concise and deliberate plans of action.  The idea of erasing whole populations and whole cultures was drawn up in this place.  For instance, the plans to invade Poland, destroy Warsaw, and force labour upon, deport or murder its citizens were conjured up inside these neat offices by well educated men in pressed uniforms and peaked caps.  The heartless logic the Nazis employed is sickening, and some of the featured quotes really drive home that effect.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews

In the heart of the capital is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a huge site of stelae in varying heights and set in undulating terrain.  More than 2,700 concrete slabs occupy almost 5 acres right by the famous Brandenburg Gate: a site fitting to honor the Jewish victims, and a massive symbol of the responsibility the Germans feel as a people and a nation for the crimes of their grandfathers.

Concrete slabs at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe
Concrete slabs at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe

However, it feels somewhat insufficient as a memorial given the gravity of the occasion being memorialized. The signs referring to the Memorial are barely noticeable.  Without prior knowledge it is difficult to tell exactly what the area is supposed to be and there are no markings of any kind on any of the blocks.  Luckily, there is no graffiti thanks to a high tech anti-graffiti coating used on the blocks, but it isn’t without a perverse irony that the same company that made the coating also made Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers where so many of the memorialized Jews here were put to death.

There is no mention of the reason these people were murdered, by what mechanism or by whose hands.  There is no information available, not one sign asking for respectful behavior. This utter lack of guidance means what you are likely to see are children and parents playing hide and seek in the maze-like setting, teenagers jumping on the blocks, families sitting and eating on them, and countless people taking tasteless selfies with thumbs up, big smiles and even middle fingers in front of what is supposed to be a solemn place.  It would appear that the only ones who come to reflect on the six million Jews who were put to death are the informed.

Berlin: An Important Stop

Being my first and long anticipated visit to Germany I am thrilled to have been pulled in by its history.  Despite what I feel about the need for more information around the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, I am mostly satisfied and moved by Germany’s attempts to atone for the sins of the Nazis.  I’m happy Berlin became a stop on our short European trip and can say that no trip here would be complete without a visit to some of these important sites.

First Impressions: Berlin

Everything is closed on Sundays.

The big streets look almost abandoned as we emerge from the U-Bahn station and realize that finding our air b&b room won’t be as easy as we first thought. Luckily the cafes are open on Sundays – Berlin parties hard and it’s a given everyone will need their coffee after a Saturday night out. Most cafes, therefore, are closed on Mondays. This doesn’t help however: despite its status as a major capital city, WiFi is hard to come by in Berlin, and we are stuck sitting on the side of the road for a while before we find our bearings again.

Berlin wall, west (L) and east (R)
A slightly skewed but valid representation of the two sides of the Berlin wall.

Berlin is different than I expected.

It is not as shiny – a metallic metropolis of high rises is not visible upon our arrival, nor further into the city center.  What modern building exists is sparse and barely protrudes between the old brick residences, communist concrete rectangles, and the eloquent churches and halls from long ago.

It is both bigger and smaller than I thought. Converted into the capital city for a united Germany (then Prussia) in the late 1800’s, it was eventually built up for 6 million people with condensed centers filling in the spaces between the villages to make it so. But this did not make up for Berlin not having the most thriving economy in the country. The city never fully filled in, and today just over half that number actually live within its borders.

Berlin is unlike any other city in Germany. A friend from California and another from elsewhere in Germany both cite “openness” and “freedom” as the reasons they chose to move here. The city is more tolerant, more welcoming, more flexible. It is less judgmental, less rule-oriented, less strict.

And so it is more international, and more multicultural. There are Turks among the Germans, Danish and English heard amid German. The third generation Turks, brought here as necessary workers after a severe lack of men post war, are now an accepted part of society, their own cultures permeating what “typical Berlin” includes. The Roma and Sinti (gypsies), however, are a new phenomenon, still striving for that acceptance and freedom,  even the Turkish kiosk clerks shooing them away.

My favourite piece in Berlin - unkempt greenery over graffitti covered walls.
My favourite piece in Berlin – unkempt greenery over graffitti covered walls. And of course, a bicycle.

There are more backpackers, and whether the tourists or the ambiance came first, Berlin feels like the Khao San Road of Germany. Despite flying through trends, fashion follows the simple rule of not trying too hard: dressed up in Berlin often means your clothes are actually clean. Bier can be purchased for €1 at the nearest corner store and leisurely sipped walking down the street.

Berlin is also grittier than I expected. Less clean and proper. More colorful and unkempt. The result is charming. There is graffiti everywhere. But it is safe: besides some strong suggestions to not walk through Gorlitzer Park at night, most crime is petty, and no one really balks at walking alone in the dark.

The canal near Kreuzberg, Berlin
Sitting on the canal near Kreuzberg, Berlin

Berlin is a hedonistic city – a lot of things are still about pleasure: the partying, the fashion, the socializing with friends on the canal. But what seems to draw the crowds here is what Berlin embodies – tolerance, acceptance and freedom – to be who you are and do as you please.