Berlin: A Contrast of Old and New

101_1062_2Berlin- Before May of 2007 I had no plans or any real desire to visit Germany’s capital.  It’s not that I  had anything against it, I just had other cities at the top of my to-go list.  Little did I know that it would be the city that would leave the greatest impact on me in my epic tour across Europe.  You see, that spring I decided to take a class on WWII history.  It was not just any class.  In true “Kelly style” I took one in which I could see for myself the infamous and notable sites of WWII and experience the history and implications of this tragic war.

I didn’t know what to expect of Berlin, but I found it fascinating. Maybe it was because I had been so highly anticipating a visit to Paris (a city that I would later find to be disappointing) that Berlin caught me totally by surprise.   I think more than anything it was interesting to see how far this city had come in such a short time.  In only 62 years, Berlin had overcome complete structural and economic decimation, fascism, communism, foreign occupation, a cold war and a metaphorical and very literal wall of painful segmentation.  Through all of this (albeit self-initiated) destruction, present day democratic Germany has emerged as the thriving economic powerhouse of Europe.  It is the locomotive of the E.U. propelling the collective nations forward into the 21st century.

101_1060The modernism of Berlin caught me by surprise.  The city skyline that was destroyed during the bombing raids of WWII has been rebuilt creating a very contemporary metropolis unlike most other German or European cities.  And in the classic German spirit it has been organized to the T.  Everything has its place and is accounted for.  Including the city’s trees!  Leave it to the Germans to be the only nation to literally number every single tree with a little blue tag.   However, when you dig deeper, past the trendy skyscrapers of Potsdamer Square, and the clean (oh so very clean and orderly) sidewalks, you see some of the old scars left behind by the city’s dark past.

This contrast of New and Old Berlin was particularly biting.  A tour through the city was a tour through modern history.   I visited the Old Opera house in Bebelplatz square.  It should be a place to celebrate the fine music, art and literature of Germany but instead it represents the location where the Nazi party burned over 20,000 books in 1933.  As I looked down into empty bookshelves encased in the memorial marking that notorious spot, I felt the lonesomeness of all those vacant shelves pinning for their lost works and ideas.

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I also stood on the East side of the Berlin Wall and felt its lingering sting of separation.  I could sense the pain, frustration and tyranny this wall represented.  As I walked along it I imagined myself to be someone living in East Berlin walking home from work, knowing that on the other side of this wall was unattainable liberty, prosperity, democracy, friends and family.  I visited Checkpoint Charlie and heard the stories of the men and women who were so desperate for liberty, a liberty I take for granted more often than I care to admit, that they gave their lives in an attempt to cross a section of land that could be measured in yards, yet was as intangible as crossing the Sahara Dessert.   How could something so close be so very far away?

I walked past the Brandenburg Gate and I imagined it as it was in 1963 when J. F. K. stood in front of the Banner draped doorway.  I wondered what he thought of the scarlet barrier placed there by the Soviets to purposefully prevent him from looking into the Communist East.  I also heard the lingering echo of President Reagan’s 1987 speech pleading for reconciliation.

 “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Ronald Reagan

And Finally as I effortlessly and peacefully crossed through the gate I could hear the cheers and feel the joyful, tearful elation pouring out of the thousands gathered here on that fateful day in 1989 when the gates were finally opened and Reagan, and the people of Germany, got their wish.  That wall did come down, and Berlin was rebuilt.  But it will forever have scars that no amount of modern buildings can conceal.


Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

You are standing in a maze of graves.  Fifteen-foot tall steel tombs surround you in every direction and you can no longer find your way out.  This sea of industrialized death is 5 acres of ugly anxiety educing confusion.  It makes no sense, yet there is something so eerily and unreasonably systematic about this grid of graves.  It is almost as if this pattern of destruction was planned.

Am I talking about a horrible nightmare? No, and at the same time an outstanding yes.  I have just described the Holocaust Memorial found in Berlin just south of the Brandenburg Gate.  This controversial memorial is dedicated by Berlin to the millions of Jewish people who were murdered in the Holocaust.
This memorial might get a lot of criticism from other onlookers, but I thought it was a brilliant and poignant representation of what happened in Germany over 65 years ago.   The memorial is literally a giant 5-acre section of the city in which they have constructed a grid of 2,711 steal rectangular slabs of varying height.  The architect, Peter Eisenman, didn’t give much of an explanation for the design.  Rather, he wanted each person to come up with his or her own interpretation.  This is mine.
The slabs of ugly concrete represent loss- unmarked tombs of stolen generations.  There are more than you can count, and when you look across the giant block of ugly, impersonal and industrialized nothingness the shear enormity of the memorials makes your blood run cold.
The memorial was built on a slope.  This creates the initial illusion that all of the steel graves are the same size.  I think this symbolizes how little the world, including many Germans, knew about the monstrosity that was the Holocaust.  Most of what was known was only the surface level until it was too late.
101_1039When you get closer, the tombs on the perimeter are only an inch high, and as you walk towards the center they gradually get taller and taller.  The symbolism here is particularly chilling.  A systematized murder of 11 million innocent people did not happen overnight.  It was a gradual slope.  It started small, with propaganda and indoctrination and the “simple” practice of wearing a golden star.   However, once you start going down that path you realize that the death has mounted up around you.  What was once at your ankles is now at your knees.  You are searching for a way out, but the grotesque train of genocide lead by an insane dictator has started and the powers at large will not be slowed now.

Suddenly you look up and the graves are now taller than you and stretch in every direction.  You can no longer see anything other than giant ugly steel slabs of symbolic death and annihilation.  A series of screaming questions run across your mind.  Why didn’t anyone stop this?  How did they let this happen?  Why didn’t anyone say anything when the graves were only ankle high?  Is not even one death worth standing up for?  How did it get to this point?  101_1035

The death toll was not in the thousands, but the millions.  You look across this seemingly endless grid of graves.  The magnitude suddenly makes it hard to breath especially when you realize that every single grave represents the death of about 4,000 innocent lives. This gives new meaning to 11 million, a number I cannot truly comprehend.  This whole field would have to be multiplied by 4,000 for it to be a true representation of how many suffered and died.  I felt a sense of hopelessness when I stood in the middle of this sea of systematized extermination that was so completely detached from any human reason or emotion.  I think of the German people who were not evil but did not stand up and fight for their innocent countrymen and I am reminded by a quote from German Albert Einstein,“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”