The wind turns pale faces beet red. If your eyes tear, will they freeze at the corners? The snow is well trampled by now, but it looks like shoveling is not a habit here. Most sidewalks have a decent layer of packed snow. If you’re lucky, there’ll be sand to get you over the bad spots.
We only have two full days in Berlin. And it’s best to front load the sights you would not want to miss. Because what if tomorrow is even harsher?
In the hours of daylight and well into the evening, we walk from one place to the next, stopping to read occasionally, maybe to take a photo, processing it all as best we can.
In most any city, the harsher side of history is well out of view. We’re taught to admire the sublime – the picturesque medieval streets, the grand architecture of the Belle Epoque – on and on. But in Berlin, how can you forget a history that has influenced every piece of stone, every street, every bridge and empty expanse before you?
I say to everyone who asks that you cannot understand Warsaw unless you understand her recent history. And I truly believe that. Every time I shepherd friends who visit, we start the tour with a short movie on the destruction and reconstruction of Warsaw in the previous century. It’s a movie about bravery, resilience, oppression, defiance – and ultimately of a spirit that one can be proud of.
That’s not Berlin’s history. And so you walk past monuments and you reflect about their use, misuse, disuse and except perhaps in your review of the last two decades, it’s all so painful!
Take the Reichstag. The Prussian building, where the Parliament now sits.
Created during the German Empire, destroyed by fire, ignored by Hitler, abandoned by the West, neglected by the East – only now, following reunification, has it been made great again.
A walk through the historic center of city on this bitter cold day is like a walk through a confusion of magnificent monuments and nothingness. Why such vast, empty spaces?
When Warsaw rebuilt herself after a near total destruction, it chose to painstakingly imitate a proud past. When Berlin rose from rubble, it did so with less pride, more politics, inattention to the past and, really, toward any coherent future. They say that if there are hills and inclines in this town, they’re made of war debris, buried underneath where we stand now. Hidden. Best forgotten.
The toll of the twentieth century is hard to stomach in a city that was not made better or finer for it.
And so you look at something like the seventeenth century Brandenburg Gate and you think – oh my, how splendid. Until you think about who passed through its gates and why. And you can’t help but recall all things having to do with military strength and conquest. And how are you supposed to process it? Are you supposed to smile for the camera? Pose, and with a person making a Euro by imitating a German soldier? On this cold day there are several such “soldiers” for you to choose from: from the wars of the past century, from the post war Soviet presence here – pick your poison. In the alternative you can stand next to a bear.
And then you come to the memorial to the Holocaust. A recent addition to the Berlin landscape.
Covered with snow now, looking like tombstones, but beautiful in the most heartbreaking way (you can't tell from where I'm standing, but some are twice the height of you and me) and though we did not intend to pause in museums today, we could not help ourselves now. Silently, through underground rooms of human stories of suffering at the hands of something so evil! There are photos and texts, in German and English and we read them, moving from one to the next: the story of German Jews, then of Polish Jews, and finally all European and Soviet Jews, leading the pack, with Roma, with the disabled, with those who dared challenge or merely just stand in the way, leading on to a certain death.
I know the story. I learned it at a very young age. It ended only eight years before I was born, but honestly, it never really had an ending at all for me, because once you know of it, once you meet the few who managed to survive, with most everyone they cared about lost to them, you don’t see it as ever ending. Not in your generation anyway.
Outside, I watch one, then another high school group. I see them at the Memorial, then at the spot where Hitler’s bunker once stood. But they’re not German kids. The first group is French, the second English. Where are the German kids?
Maybe they come to these markers of history in better weather.
We move now to the last sad chapter of Berlin’s past – the part about the wall. This one is more of a grim tale that ends well. Here, I should feel that surge of hope for a city that went through a lot at the hands of those who cared little about the people who merely wanted to get on with their days.
Again we read – about the quick construction, then reinforcement of a wall that was to keep people in, even as just a short time ago, some people were forced to leave.
But Berlin is all about moving on now. The preserved fragments of the wall are in a square that has perhaps the city’s most brazenly modern and tall structures. Raised over the ground where the Gestapo headquarters once stood. So that you find your self saying – yes, but all that was then, and now the city is something altogether different. The German spirit, whatever that is and however suppressed and repressed it was in the past, now moves forward.
It is so cold outside that perhaps it is not a surprise that most of these monuments have very few visitors. As we continue on our Berlin walk, feeling numbed by the wind, or by the monuments to the past, or both, we look around us to understand, after all is said and done, what has become of the city now.
A Christmas market! Just a few feet from the fragments of a wall, we have before us a cheerful place of holiday color. We join the Berliners (and visitors?) in a warming slug of hot spiced wine and we walk from stall to stall, admiring the sweets and the sausages and the Christmas trinkets.
And now we want more of it – of the daily life of a twenty-first century Berliner. I want to know – what is an everyday like for, say, someone who can barely remember a wall, who has by now no more relatives who may have been soldiers at war?
And I want to know – how are Berliners toward the outside world? I hear all the time how young people love this city! It’s time I tried to understand why.
The guide books tell you that you should stay close to historical Mitte – that’s where all the museums and monuments are clustered. I say you should stay anywhere but there. Try, instead, to place yourself in a less formidable environment. Find a neighborhood that is filled with small shops and cafés. Find quickly the places of a Berlin you can love, or else you may have a hard time remembering that there is this other side to life here.
And in these neighborhoods of a vibrant, younger life, I discover things that make me smile.
At Curry 36 – a place where lines form to buy Berlin’s favorite snack food – sausage sprinkled with curry, doused with ketchup and served with hot fries – we pick up a couple of platefuls and we stand around outside tables and savor the taste of this delicious Berlin street food. A woman watches me eat, take a photo, eat some more. She smiles. I smile. A brief encounter over a piece of sausage. It’s a good beginning to our neighborhood stroll.
And it continues in this quietly pleasant way. We pause for a cup of coffee in one of the numerous cafés – I am almost convinced that Berlin has even more cafés than Paris, and this could hardly seem possible, but when you walk, say, along the Bergmannstrasse, you really believe that it may be so.
In this particular café, run by a ma and pa , we are greeted in what I begin to see is the German way – politely, not effusively, without a warm smile, but with a subtle yet definite gesture of welcome. Here, our cappuccinos are served with a smiley face.
Elsewhere, a door is held open, a chocolate gingerbread cookie is carefully packaged and handed over with a bitte – small gestures, but there are many. One guide book says that Berliners are helpful if not exactly friendly. I’ll amplify that – maybe there’s hidden warmth there. Maybe it needs a little nurturing.
There are Christmas trees in front of shops that line the streets. Because the snow remains stubbornly in place on the sidewalks, parents and grandparents do errands with young children perched on sleds -- the kind that you rarely see anymore back home: with two runners and wooden slats.
I was pulled around in this way too, more than fifty years ago!
Is this why it all looks so familiar to me now? That, even as I walk in a city that I avoided for thirty five years, it feels not that distant from the Warsaw, where, too, you can eat a slice of cheesecake in a café or buy a chocolate covered gingerbread cookie to take back home?
In the late evening we go to dinner in a building that stands right at the spot where a rail line once linked Berlin with Paris to the west and Moscow to the east. My first trip ever to the countries of the west took place exactly fifty years ago when I boarded that train with my family in Warsaw, and got off in Paris, so that we could travel by ocean liner to New York.
Now, on this night, we eat at the restaurant called Paris-Moskau and it is such a fine mix of foods with layers of Frenchness, and nods to Russia (imagine splashing a drop of vodka into a white wine and cassis aperitif) and elements of Germany and Poland thrown in.
I eat a (cinnamon spiced) beet broth with duck livers on the side, followed by wild boar with poppy seed dumplings and I drink a German wine and I think – maybe you can mix tastes and people in a friendly fashion and emerge with something new, without disturbing whatever was once richly beautiful.
The staff at the restaurant is young and dynamic and I’m thinking – let’s hand over our old cities to the young people. Let them have a go of it. Seems they’re doing a fine job of reinventing Berlin. And that’s a good thing.