Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin is… complicated. So it should come as no surprise that my feelings about Germany’s capitol city are similarly complicated.
The history of Berlin during the 20th century is a story of many things – much of it horrific. The century began with a jubilant rush to war that ended in bloodshed and devastation. The Weimer Republic then gave way to Hitler’s Third Reich and his bloody tentacles spread across Europe; the fall of Berlin saw half the city plunged into captivity under the Iron Curtain. Berlin in the 20th century is a story about the worst parts of humanity – a story that is deeply personal for me.
My maternal grandparents were one of the lucky few who managed to escape Poland in 1941 with visas for Curacao via Japan. They spent the war years in Shanghai’s Jewish ghetto, while most of their relatives were slaughtered at Hitler’s hands.
It is hard to walk down the streets of Berlin and not feel angry. The city is teeming with history – for better and for worse. Everywhere you look, everywhere you walk, it smacks you across your face. It is not subtle, but intentional.
Germany does not whitewash the past. It embraces it in all of its horribleness. Some of the history is horrific; some euphoric; some sobering. Berlin is a city that murdered six million Jews; a city that brought down Communism; a city that insisted its way to freedom; a city that is a living breathing cautionary tale; a city that rose from the ashes of hatred into a modern international metropolis. We can’t change the horrible things that happened, but we can internalize them, witness them, learn from them.
Berlin is also ugly. And that is part of its complicated history. Bombed to a pulp during World War II, Berlin was then cruelly ripped in half – the east governed by the Soviet Union and the west by the Allied powers. Now, nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is united, but the reminders of its destruction and subsequent separation are everywhere. It is a city cobbled together with the pieces of mismatched lego sets – soaring modern buildings, next to monolithic Soviet-style boxes, next to restored baroque museums, next to plaques that remind visitors of the buildings that once were.
Reminders of the city’s ugly past are ubiquitous: Stolperstein (literally stumbling stones) mark the spots where murdered Jews used to live; graffitied pieces of the Berlin Wall decorate bustling streets; memorials to countless victims dot the sprawling city; and the cheerful ampelmannchen adorn the city’s traffic lights – one of the few lighthearted remnants of Communist East Berlin.
Throughout our four and half days in Berlin, I found myself at once furious, sad, hopeful, joyous, tickled, and provoked. Not all trips are like that, but some trips should be.
Berlin is not for everyone. It is not wrapped up in a nice package with the flourish of a pretty bow. It requires unpacking the corse layers, giving in to the anger, celebrating the heroes who fought for freedom, hoping that the Jenga pices of this historical city make us better as human beings and as a society.