Throughout Germany, and many other countries in Europe, there are small brass cobblestones marking the threshold of homes and businesses. Stumbling stones, they’re called. Stolpersteine. Here lived… Here worked… a soul whose days were cut short. I had read about these stones but hadn’t seen any until one morning I (almost literally) stumbled across some at Rungestraße 5, two families’ plights in the stones at my feet.
Here lived Günter, Leo and Ella Brauner…murdered in Auschwitz. Here Lived the Abrahamsohns: Grete…escaped and resettled; David…deported, murdered in Theresienstadt; Walter…escaped, caught, deported, murdered in Auschwitz; Rudolf…Escaped, ran, hid, ran again, resettled.
I spent a week in Berlin, walking kms and kms (>50km if add up all the daily steps) seeing where history (and infamy) were made, where brave hearts broke, and where madmen walked. I am here as an experiment in working remotely, so I walked when I wasn’t working, trying to take in as much of the city as I could, in-between time zones, before and after Teams meetings.
I can’t say I fell in love with the city. In fact, a small part of me detested it. But the other part of me started to consider the great lengths this city, this country, has taken not to bury its past, but to exhibit its ugliness in full view and make policy to make certain the atrocities that led to and pervaded during the Nazi rule don’t ever happen again here. Coming from a place whose brief history has been so whitewashed, this approach is morbidly refreshing.
I visited the requisite monuments: Brandenberg Gate, where black and white photos of Nazi parades dance in your head as you gaze in half-awe/half-disgust. Checkpoint Charlie, a now innocuous-looking guardhouse that once made or broke the lives of German citizens, and now commemorates not only the former divide between East and West Berlin, but is a symbol of the different levels of conflict wrapped up in that madness.
I saw the Berliner Dom, the imposing cathedral that looms large on the edge of the Spree. I walked around the hulk of the Reichstag building and I wandered around World Heritage Site, Museumisinsel, gaping at the brilliant architecture of the museum buildings, tucked amongst the modern and brutalist mayhem that is modern-day Berlin. I don’t know what I expected architecture-wise, but since most of Berlin was bombed to smithereens during WWII, there really is no old city left. What emerged from the rubble was spartan at best, gray on even a brilliant summer’s day. I made efforts to find interesting buildings and bridges and monuments each time I set out on foot.
I saw the East Side Gallery, its vivid and evocative murals adorning some of the last intact sections of the Wall. There was the Topography of Terror, an outdoor museum of sorts, bringing the timeline of the Reich and its downfall into the daylight.
I saw the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (aka, the Holocaust Memorial), a strange visit because I was expecting a solemn place, where one could get lost in sadness for those lost lives. Instead, it was a microcosm of chaos, small children running and shouting amongst the columns, the reverberating chatter making me anxious and uncomfortable. Or was it just the place?
Between the historical sites and the city-cum-history lesson were a smattering of parks, and one of the biggest surprises was the Volkspark Friedrichschain, where fountains and monuments and ponds and even a manmade waterfall in an Asian garden make you feel like you’ve stepped out of the grayness of the city for a while. There is art everywhere here, murals and sculptures and brightly-graffiti’d entryways, flashing light into the stone.
The constant reminder that these are not normal times was in the air: the friend I had gone to Berlin to see in the first place ended up being sent to the dungeons of quarantine due to a COVID exposure at work and we missed our opportunity to meet. Par for the course in these strange days…we vowed to meet again soon.
I left Berlin on a DB train, heading towards a stay with another friend and perhaps some greener pastures. The severity and starkness of the city clung to me as I sat on the train and thought about how I’d describe Berlin. It is an imposing city, both in history and in stature. It’s immense and sprawling, a wide city, interconnected with trams and metros and buses, Mitte being the middle of a multi-spoked carriage wheel whose trajectory might have been thrown off a bit by all the cobbles. I’m not a city mouse, I found myself thinking as the train headed south and east, one of its passengers trying to shake the grayness and correlate that with the visceral pulse of the city: there was street music everywhere, a bass-y urban thrum that gave the wide avenues a lifeline. I stumbled across a pot parade which turned into a rave in a park near Alexaderplatz. Electric scooters zoomed down every street. Art. Graffiti. Gelato. For me, the evening lights of the old domes reflecting in the river were one highlight. And I had some fantastic falafel. And I learnt that you must confront, then learn from, your history if you are to move on.
And onward we go… to where the journey caught an unexpected thermal in the ethers and went from a sojourn to a much more substantial experience.