Berlin the Broken and the Beautiful
I can hear the echoed laughter of children close by so I quicken my step to reach the next ray of light streaming through the grey and imposing columns. I look left and then right directly down the rows on either side of me but there’s no one there. The laughter fades. I continue on straight ahead and as I pass each parallel I catch a figure in the corner of my eye the same way you think you see something as you walk down a dark hallway at night time. You look around as a slight panic catches in your throat but there’s nothing there, it’s just your mind playing tricks on you. I feel this same eerie feeling as I walk through the hundreds of raised concrete slabs of the controversial Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, but instead of sharp shards of panic I feel a sense of calm.
The artist, Peter Eisenman, was given the heavy task of producing a memorial to honour the 6 million Jews murdered in WWII. It is controversial because some think that all of these concrete slabs don’t accurately represent the individual lives of so many people and that it should also honour all of those affected by the war, not solely the Jewish. For the artist he apparently wanted to make something that was uneasy and confusing, leaving the interpretation up to each individual, allowing you to take with you your own experience. The rows of concrete are ordered from small to tall to small again and appear to go on forever. Once you are in the thick of it, it’s like a maze of varied tricks of the light; it almost looks like there are 6 million gravestones surrounding you. For me I thought this was a mesmerising and wonderful memorial, I would hear voices and look to find people around me who then suddenly disappeared behind another row of columns, creating the feeling of being surrounded by ghosts and emphasising the reality that life is as easy as being there one second and being lost forever the next. This is one of several places in Berlin that physically gave me chills. I visited this memorial on my first full day in Berlin and my eyes were opened wide to a history that I realised I had only scratched the surface of.
I had always heard great things about the city of Berlin but most of these comments revolved around the exciting and edgy nightlife. I hadn’t heard anybody talk about all of the fascinating historical facets of each part of the city. It wasn’t until doing a Fat-Tire bike tour that I realised how much there was to learn about this city. Our guide, cheerful and humorously British Sophie, had been doing these tours for three years now and knew absolutely everything about Berlin’s broken and devastating history and it’s now modern alternative uprising. I never realised that Germany really was a country on it’s knees after WWI. I never realised that the Berlin Wall was secretly erected in the middle of the night unbeknownst to many thousands of Berlin citizens until they were met with a border of barbed wire as they tried to go to work in the morning. I never realised that Einstein was a professor at Humboldt University and he watched his own students burn his books in the middle of the square. I never realised that the Soviets had a corrupt prison in East Berlin for anti-communists and other political prisoners up until the year 1990. I never realised that Hitler’s bunker is now under a very plain, very ordinary car park with a Chinese restaurant at one end, a gay friendly men’s only sauna at the other and a Jewish memorial directly across the street. I never realised how broken this city really was.
This prompted the need for a schedule (very unusual for me) as there is just so much to do, see and learn in this city and I get the feeling that no matter how much time you spend here it will never be enough. My friend and I made a plan to factor in as many historical and cultural things as possible in the three short days that we had here. The amazing thing about Berlin is that a lot of the historical sites are either free or very cheap so you can afford to do it all. We needed to see the German History Museum, the DDR (communist) Museum, the STASI prison, the Topography of Terror (about the destruction of Warsaw), the Eastside Gallery (longest piece of the wall still standing), the preserved no mans land in Bernauer Strasse, the Jewish memorial museum and many more we couldn’t fit in the schedule. We also needed to see the Turkish markets, the food hall markets, and the second hand shops and to try the famous Berlin currywurst! These really were three intensive days of education, fascination and cultural cultivation. We didn’t even get to try the famous night life as we were too immersed in our need to learn it all.
I think I have to go as far as saying that Berlin has been my favourite city of all time. Coming from isolated New Zealand I had always learnt the basic history of WWII through school and I was always interested in movies and books that were based on this time period but I don’t think that I ever truly understood the extent of the devastation and I could never really empathise with those whose lives were affected by this heart breaking misuse of power. It wasn’t until actually being in a city like Berlin and seeing and more importantly feeling the history that I feel I can have some sort of understanding of what went on and how and why. I am now more hungry than ever to explore this face of history further, I think especially my generation cannot fathom or begin to comprehend the devastations of war or true hardships such as those faced by the human beings who lived and died through both world wars. Because of this privilege that we have of living in a free society I think it is necessary for me to broaden my mind by delving in to the history books and educating myself on this broken history. So far I have only gently blown the cover free of dust, now I need to turn the first tattered page. ¡viva my awakening in Berlin!