The Soul of a City: Berlin and Memory
By N. S. MorrisJuly 21, 2016
AN ASSORTMENT OF PROFESSIONAL WOMEN and well-off moms make their way three times a week to a homeopathic clinic in Berlin’s upscale Wilmersdorf neighborhood to receive an herbal injection and submit to a weigh-in. The process helps them balance their metabolisms and stay on a low carb regimen. To reach the doorbell at 82 Westfälische Street, an Altbau residential building that survived World War II bombs, the dieters — myself among them — must step over three small bronze “stumbling stones” in the sidewalk. Etched in German are the birth and death data of three women who resided at this address before they were deported to their deaths by the Nazis.
“Here lived Herta Martha Schwarz. Birth Year 1887. Deported on 13.1.1942. Riga. Murdered,” reads one. The stone beside it tells of Clara Galland, née Cohn, who was born in 1871, sent to Theresienstadt near Prague in September 1942 and later murdered at the Treblinka death camp in Poland. The third stone reveals that Cäcilie Selma Cohn, born Schwarz, was deported three weeks earlier to Theresienstadt, where she died in 1943.
The overlapping surnames make me wonder if Herta might have been Cäcilie’s niece. And could Clara have been her sister-in-law? But if they were related, why were they deported on different days, one to Latvia, the others to the Czech Republic and Poland? I wonder if any visitors to the weight-loss clinic have had time to decipher the relationships or solve the puzzle. Or do they barely notice the metal paving stones as they rush by?
In Berlin, such contact with the ghosts of the past is a normal and ever-present feature of daily life. In the past 15 years, more than three thousand “stumbling stones” (Stolpersteine in German) have been placed around town in front of buildings from where Jews were deported. It’s but one memorial among scores of markers that document the tumultuous events that have rocked this city for centuries. (Wikipedia lists 59 web pages of Berlin memorials.) Many deal with the Nazi period, such as the sign outside the Wittenbergplatz subway station listing 12 death camps with the words “places of horror we must never forget,” which face shoppers as they leave the city’s elegant KaDeWe department store. Or the plaque at Nollendorfplatz station which remembers the homosexual victims of Nazism. Other monuments reach deeper into Germany’s imperial past or cast later to the Cold War when the city was ground zero for the division of Germany and the continent, into the East and West blocs. One can hardly walk a few blocks in Berlin without passing a spot where something historically significant took place.
Coming to terms with the past — which has its own eight-syllable German noun, Vergangenheitsbewältigung — has veered every couple of decades from an intense desire to forget unsavory memories to a regret-filled urge to reclaim and preserve them. The writer Peter Schneider, who moved to the city in 1962 and has authored three books on Berlin, summed it up in a recent conversation when he said, “What is so fascinating about the city is these enormous swings it has made in 100 years. There is nowhere in the world where you have seen such enormous changes in such short times.” Right now, Berlin is absorbing tens of thousands of refugees — most from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan — who will again change the face of the city. “For the good and for the bad, these enormous changes make the character of the city and of the people who live here,” Schneider mused.
Berliners participated in the repressive Nazi and East German regimes, yet today maintain one of the most tolerant, cosmopolitan cultures in Europe — by no means a coincidence. Accountability has accompanied denial. Remembering coexists with the desire to forget. Monuments are built in one era then torn down in the next. The city has lived in a constant state of reconstruction and restoration. Trauma. Renewal. The past demands a response in each generation; old stories become a part of today’s news.
When I lived in Berlin as a journalist between 1990 and 1995, uncanny echoes of the past arose as if the city itself had a soul that transcended each time frame. Vinyl-skirted prostitutes suddenly reappeared on Oranienburger Strasse not far from the newly restored Great Synagogue. The women, many of them from eastern Europe and born after 1970, could not possibly know that this had also been a prostitute strip 50 years earlier. And yet, here they were, in what seemed a modern-day reenactment of an earlier metropolitan trend, as if summoned to the same cobblestones that a previous generation’s characters had trod upon.
I’ve returned for an extended stay, 21 years after leaving Berlin, and my personal memories fuse with the historical events I witnessed. Near the Brandenburg Gate, traffic rushes through the space where the Wall used to be, where the crowds that November 1989 weekend gathered, applauding the East German guards atop the concrete barrier as they bent down to accept flowers from West Berliners. Today, tourists ask each other where the Wall stood, not noticing a double row of tiny cobblestones that traces its path. So much of the Berlin Wall was torn down so quickly, its slabs sent all over the world, that decades later city officials are still scrambling to set up site-specific museums and memorials. The previous desire to erase the Wall has given way to an effort to reclaim it as a cautionary tale.
My first apartment had been in Neukölln, a working-class part of town near the old East-West border, that is still home to a majority of Turkish and Arab immigrants. But I’m told it has become one of the priciest real estate markets in Europe, situated close to what is now Berlin’s city core. A natural food store and a yoga studio have sprung up on my old block. But many buildings are covered in graffiti, an apparent act of revolt against the neighborhood’s new money. A sign in a shop window says: “Gentrification is class warfare against the poor.”
During the first post–Wall years, known as the Wende or Turn, most of the news stories we journalists covered fell into four themes: World War II’s legacy, communism’s collapse, unification’s fallout, and the rise of the nationalist right. East Germany was falling apart from lack of funds, and much of Berlin’s east side appeared frozen in time, stained by coal smoke and still pockmarked by bullets from the 1945 battle that ended the war. But fixing it up launched controversies such as whether it was appropriate to build a new supermarket branch beside the Ravensbrück concentration camp, or a new parking lot over the spot where Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had ordered the burning of 20,000 books the Nazis considered politically incorrect.
Doubts arose about moving the capital to Berlin from Bonn, as well as debates about how best to renovate the Reichstag parliament building. Pundits asked whether the term “reunification” had a triumphalist connotation whereas “unification” was more neutral. As for the physical reunification of the city, the kinds of soul-searching issues that New Yorkers struggled with for a decade over how to best rebuild the World Trade Center site and memorialize 9/11 seemed to erupt in Berlin weekly. What should be done with Potsdamer Platz, the historic core of prewar Berlin which had ended up as part of the death strip border area between 1961 and 1989? There were arguments over Alexanderplatz, with its examples of communist kitsch architecture that many considered eyesores but others felt were preservation-worthy relics of the postwar zeitgeist.
The Palast der Republik, which housed East Germany’s parliament after 1976, was a fine specimen of the dictatorship. Clad in copper-colored glass and filled with asbestos, the “people’s center” was reviled by many as a symbol of all that had gone wrong. The East German government had torn down the baroque winter palace of the Hohenzollern royal family, the Stadtschloss, and created Marx-Engels-Platz in its stead. In 1993, a life-sized painted façade of the palace went up as part of a citizens’ initiative to tear down the Palast and restore the architecture of Prussian kings. “Palast versus Palace,” we correspondents wrote as the debate raged — one debate among so many.
Today at Alexanderplatz, just a few communist-era leftovers peek out amid the new buildings that have sprung up. And it’s no longer Potsdamer Platz, but the main Unter den Linden avenue that has become one huge construction site as the Prussian Schloss is rebuilt, its promoters having eventually won the day. A painted façade of the palace again lining the contours of the square is like a pop-up memory from two decades ago. Further along, beside the renovated Reichstag, a memorial went in four years ago to the half million Sinti and Roma victims of Nazism, a minority derogatorily referred to as Gypsies.
Now, as young people — tech entrepreneurs as well as artists and musicians — flock to Berlin from all over Europe and the United States, that too seems a reprise of the early 1990s. Back then, creative types from all over the world converged on the city — many of them Jewish, to the delight of guilt-addled Germans. It was as if the Weimar era was coming back to life, reconjuring the last time the city had been free and undivided, before the Nazi and communist dictatorships. There was an exhilarating energy, as if the city had been waiting out the decades, biding its time until it could reassert itself anew. The Chamäleon Club opened, featuring a juggler-comedian from New York and circus artists from St. Petersburg. Cabaret had a comeback. Max Raabe, who has since made it to Carnegie Hall, performed his vintage Weimar sound at the Wintergarten. Elsewhere, performer Ute Lemper sang Kurt Weill and Marlene Dietrich.
As new café owners scraped the paint off walls of a shop in the Scheunenviertel (barn quarter) the name of 1920s Jewish café appeared: Silberstein. Artist squatters occupied a building not far from what has now become the government quarter, turning it into an underground club called Tacheles, which means “straight talk,” one of many Yiddish words that have made their way into German slang. The club — flouting safety codes — exhibited funky sculptures and played experimental music all night. (The last of the Tacheles artists finally vacated the building in 2012.)
Before World War II, the part of town where the Tacheles club, the Chamäleon, and the Silberstein café had sprung up, was where the Ostjuden had lived, those Jews from Poland and further east, who flocked to Berlin to flee pogroms and persecutions. The assimilated German Jews of western Berlin had looked down on the eastern Jews in the prewar years, embarrassed by their sidelocks and black coats and strange Yiddish language. In the early ’90s came an echo of those prewar years when a hushed snobbism again arose among established Berlin Jews as they received thousands of Jews from the former USSR, to whom Germany granted political asylum when anti-Semitism erupted in the post–Soviet states.
At that time, anti-Semitism in Berlin had given way to philo-Semitism, a yearning among young Germans for the Jews the city had lost. I went to see beat poet Allen Ginsberg at a Berlin Jewish cultural festival. And when a German friend of mine married a Berlin-born Kurd whose family had come from Turkey, the couple chose Klezmer — Jewish wedding music — played by a band led by the church pastor. There was something surreal about hearing Klezmer in Berlin at a German-Turkish reception where I was surely the only Jewish person in the hall.
The Jewish Museum Berlin, originally designed by Daniel Libeskind to be a part of Berlin’s city museum, was almost canceled when the local government cut its culture budget to pay for connecting subways and roads. But an international outcry ensured the Jewish Museum went forward. Wrangling over a national Holocaust memorial in the new government quarter lasted well over a decade. (That Peter Eisenman-designed Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe finally opened in May 2005, 60 years after the end of the War.)
Then, as now, memories of the past infused daily life with meaning. The city was energized by its engagement with its troubled history. In that, Berlin hasn’t changed. But in other ways it has. The coal-stained buildings of the east have been sandblasted clean. There are ever more museums and memorials to visit. And the city’s Jewish population has risen from 7,000 to close to 70,000, among them, a huge influx of young Israelis.
On a sunny Friday in the now-gentrified Prenzlauer Berg, a new “Israeli-Palestinian” hummus joint called Kanaan Express, is packed with diners. Beside a glorified kiosk that was a pizza stand until recently, portable tables and beach chairs have been set up on a corner city lot that feels like an oversized sandbox. Kanaan’s co-owner, Oz Ben David, 35, moved to Berlin a year ago after working in marketing in Tel Aviv and Amsterdam. He set up the restaurant with a Palestinian Israeli he met named Jalil Dabit, a 34-year-old whose family runs a hummus restaurant in Ramla, a town not far from Israel’s airport. Bar David and Dabit employ a Moroccan, two Syrian refugees “with work permits,” an Israeli, a Palestinian, someone from Spain, one from Italy, and another from Australia. Four of them are authorized to make the hummus. As a long line forms behind the counter, both staff and patrons use German, Hebrew, and English interchangeably.
Oz Ben David is one of an estimated 30,000 young Israelis who have moved to Berlin over the past decade, drawn by its affordability and easy-going vibe. In 2014, a Hebrew-language Facebook page called “Olim Le Berlin” (Immigrating up to Berlin) caused outrage in Israel when it posted a supermarket receipt showing how much cheaper groceries are in Berlin than Tel Aviv, with the words: “See you there.” Berliners welcome the Israeli invasion, much as they did the arrival of Jews from the former Soviet Union 25 years ago. It is a source of historical satisfaction for many Germans that Berlin has become the safest place for Jews in Europe, and among the least stressful places to live.
“When I went to my first party in Berlin I wore a suit and everyone else looked like they were in their pajamas,” says Bar David, who sits in his restaurant’s sandy courtyard as I eat my hummus. “I woke up in the morning here one day and realized I simply had no pressure anymore. There is an attitude of ‘no matter what, everything will be okay.’ I make less money but I’m doing only things I want to do. You don’t need much to have a good time in Berlin.”
There are still occasional anti-Semitic incidents. In 2012, four Palestinians beat up Rabbi Daniel Alter when they saw his kippa, the Jewish head covering. When the news spread, 150 Berliners donned skullcaps in a public show of solidarity that was dubbed a “kippa flashmob.” A day later, more than a thousand Berliner demonstrated against the attack. “Before, when these things happened there was a kind of silence. Nobody moved. Nobody dared to speak up. Now it’s different,” writer Peter Schneider says. “If something happens like this, there is a civil society that reacts immediately.”
Acceptance is more of a challenge when it comes to Muslim migrants from the Middle East. In March, anti-immigration protesters in the East Saxon town of Bautzen heckled German President Joachim Gauck, calling him a “traitor to the people” when he made a statement on tolerance after locals set fire to a building that was set to house refugees. It was the latest in nearly a thousand violent xenophobic acts within a year. Fear of terrorism and shock over attacks against women in Cologne last New Year’s eve, most by men from the Middle East and North Africa, have broadened the political backlash. This past spring, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party lost in two out of three state elections. And in all three states, the anti-immigrant party AfD (Alternative for Germany) made major gains, receiving 24 percent of the vote in the state of Saxony-Anhalt.
Since ISIS bombings in Paris last fall and Brussels this spring, a palpable fear has grown among Berliners that it is just a matter of time before extremists attack the German capital. “Brussels is everywhere,” reads a headline in the national Die Zeit weekly, above an article outlining how security services across Europe are “one step behind the terrorists.” Since the war in Syria began in 2011, an estimated 800 Islamists from Germany have gone to Iraq or Syria, the newspaper reports. A third have returned to Europe and at least 70 have taken part in military training while in the Middle East.
At the same time, Europe’s migrant crisis has surpassed the Balkan war dislocations of the first half of the 1990s to constitute the largest refugee resettlement on the continent since the end of World War II. Once again, the memory of an intolerant past informs Germany’s tolerant actions today. As many as 1.2 million refugee claimants, mainly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, have arrived in Germany since early 2015, about 70,000 of them to Berlin. At Tempelhof Airport, where the Berlin Airlift in 1948–’49 supplied a lifeline to a West Berlin under Soviet siege, four thousand refugees are housed and another three thousand are expected.
Canadian-born filmmaker Jo-Anne Velin is shooting a documentary on Tröglitz, a town of 2,800 people, two hours south of Berlin. On Easter weekend in 2015, an arsonist set fire to a building that was set to receive 40 refugees. Velin says that in Saxony-Anhalt this spring there was only one election issue: refugees. “Posters the rightists put up would have been banned in Canada under hate crime laws,” she said, describing a poster of Arabs on a magic carpet with the words: “Immediate Expulsion.”
Tröglitz and Bautzen echo the Rostock riots of 1992, when skinheads for days besieged a high-rise that housed asylum seekers, setting it afire with Molotov cocktails and battling with police. Admittedly, the neo-Nazi movement at the time was no larger than it was in Britain or the United States. But it carried a special resonance here because this was Germany, and the world was paying attention. At the height of a wave of anti-foreigner violence that fall, a counter demonstration in Berlin attracted 350,000 people who wished to show the world that the new Germany had not slipped back. The streets of Berlin teemed with people, a heartening affirmation of the country’s will to atone for the past by doing better in the future.
Today, some acts of humanitarianism and inclusiveness are popping up. A Berlin-based group of students calling itself Jugend Rettet, or Youth Rescue, has been raising money to buy a Dutch trawler to save those at sea who are trying to reach Europe. Berlin’s techie community is doing its part to help the migrants “one line of code at a time,” having held two hackathons since last fall that attracted 300 programmers and resulted in 18 different websites or apps for new arrivals and those still in transit.
Especially after the UK’s Brexit vote, some analysts fear the migrant crisis could undo the European Union as a political entity. Several of its 28 countries are flat-out refusing to accept refugees after years of EU attempts to standardize the claims process among members. The 20-year-old passport-free Schengen travel zone is now threatened as Hungary and other countries unilaterally introduce border controls. Despite a Merkel-led agreement to staunch the flow, in the first half of 2016 nearly 200,000 people had crossed the Mediterranean to Europe and more were still coming, many pinning their hopes on Germany. Berlin’s approach to the migrant crisis may determine the continental alliance’s future. And the actions Berlin takes to absorb the new immigrants within its borders will determine Germany’s future.
Now, it is the Arab Muslim who represents the “other.” Twenty-five years ago it was the Turk, the Sinti and Roma, and the Vietnamese. A half-century before that, it had been the Jew.
When I arrive at Bob Rutman’s apartment, his “hash connection” Pico is just leaving. Beer bottles and ashtrays decorate the living room, which doubles as a bedroom. Bob, an artist and musician who has long scraped by on gigs and goodwill, personifies Berlin’s urban spirit. Born here in 1931 to a Nazi “brown shirt” father and Jewish mother, he returned to the city in his late 50s, a month before the Wall opened.
I still have a small wire sculpture of a nude woman reclining that I bought at a “raise the rent” sale in the early ’90s when Bob’s friends would help him meet his monthly payment. Back then, he collected young musicians around him, Germans or Americans, playing the didgeridoo or tabla alongside his performances on the steel cello and the bow chime, two instruments he had invented from scrap metal. I would don my black leggings and leather jacket and head to a high-ceilinged church or an underground tunnel to hear the meditative industrial music that Bob composed.
He was a barfly, with a twinkle in his eye and a rough chuckle, who could be cranky and dismissive one minute and expansively compassionate the next. Some friends asserted during a dinner party that when Bosnia was at war, the destruction of a 16th-century bridge in Mostar was a bigger crime against humanity than the loss of life; Bob argued that humans were still worth more than buildings, that preservation of human life trumped steel and stone in the definition of what constitute a “civilization,” no matter how tragic we find the destruction of architectural artifacts.
When he was born, Bob lived at the corner of Uhlandstrasse and Kurfürstendamm, the Berlin equivalent of Park Avenue. His father died in 1933 and after a brief sojourn in Switzerland his mother left him with a woman in Berlin while she returned to her native Poland. Eventually, the caregiver threatened to call the Gestapo if the child wasn’t sent away, so he was put on a train and reunited with his mother at age seven. He and his mother got what he calls “the last train out” to Finland before Hitler invaded Poland, and they eventually made their way to England where Bob attended school. He left for art college in the United States in 1950 and was based in America for the better part of the next 40 years. Even John Cage came by his Boston area studio to check out what he was up to.
These days, Bob still plays with much younger musicians in the hipster clubs of Berlin. He shows me the latest instrument he has invented, the buzz chime, a variation on the other two. As he walks with his cane through Hackescher Markt, a neighborhood that has turned tony since he moved there 24 years ago, several locals wave and call out, “Hallo, Bob.” He bums a cigarette from the nearest art gallery manager and a local café saves the International New York Times for him each day since he eats out when he’s hungry. Today it is a simple ham on toast sandwich in mid-afternoon. “If I prepared my own food I’d have to do the dishes,” Bob tells me.
More than 100 friends recently helped Bob celebrate his 85th birthday with a concert party at White Trash, a music club and tattoo studio in the Treptow area of eastern Berlin. Although frail, he seems to be managing in his rent-controlled apartment, on a government pension, with enough neighbors and protegés to make sure he is doing okay. Before we part, he gives me his latest CD. “I’m not going to live too much longer,” Bob says, with the frank realism of an echte Berliner, a true Berliner. “It’s not so much fun getting old.”
If Bob Rutman’s life story illustrates a city transcending its wartime past, then the Ampelmann, the “little traffic light man,” gives a similar nod to the Cold War era. The Ampelmann, born in 1969, is a chunkier East German version of the international green or red animated figure on pedestrian traffic signals. It was one of many touchstones of daily life that were to be discontinued when unification turned into a West German takeover of the defunct GDR. I recall a school program in East Berlin in which children tended urban gardens — clearly ahead of its time. As West Berlin’s non-communist school district took over, the program was tossed out, one of many moves that made eastern Germans feel a defensive nostalgia for the former East. When the city announced plans to replace all pedestrian signals in eastern Berlin by 1996, it felt to many like the last straw and residents organized a committee to “save the Ampelmann.” Local politicians backed down and began to replace broken signals with the eastern Ampelmann, eventually also doing so in western Berlin. By 2005, when an eastern German entrepreneur began to market Ampelmann merchandise, the character became a mascot for the city itself. You can now find Ampelmann cafés in the heart of both the east and west downtown cores.
I notice both styles of pedestrian traffic signals as I head to meet Alexander Krex, a journalist at Zeit Online whom I first met as a seven-year-old playing with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while I traded English for German lessons with his mother. Now that he is in his 30s, my question for Alex is whether Eastern and Western German young adults intermingle freely — like the Ampel-men — or whether a psychological East-West divide still determines their fates. Krex tells me he has felt no bias in academia nor the workplace and no social stigma to having been raised in East Berlin. He lives now in Kreuzberg (which used to be West Berlin) and his friends are from the West, the East, and many other countries, such as Switzerland and Sweden. Those from the former East Germany are still more cautious with cash, he says, many having lived through their parents’ post-Wende unemployment, and few among them standing to inherit any family money, unlike their peers from Western Germany’s families.
Alex also mentions a refugee hostel near his apartment, saying his friends often donate clothes and electronics that they don’t need anymore. I’m reminded of my conversation with Peter Schneider, who told me that nearly 27 years after the Wall fell, the defining issue for Germany’s national identity is no longer the reconciliation of East and West, but how the country absorbs its new immigrants.
At the Literary Colloquium in Wannsee, the writer F. C. Delius is launching his latest novel which translates as The Teller of Love Stories. It’s a quintessential evening of culture in Berlin, held at a 19th-century villa, the audience arrayed in dramatic silk scarves and thick rimmed eyeglasses. More than 200 people have come, big-boned and silver-haired, in leather boots or black wool blazers, to celebrate the life of the mind. By the end of the evening almost every book on the sale table has been sold.
The scene is not unlike a reading I attended in 1993 by Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize–winning author of the Tin Drum, a novel set during and after the Nazi period about a boy who refuses to grow up. Nearly a decade before his 2015 death, Grass revealed he had as a youth served in the SS, and many critics pilloried him for concealing that fact during a career as Germany’s writerly conscience.
Tonight on the dais, Delius reads several excerpts from his new novel, based on his own family. In one passage, set in 1969, Marie, a housewife-turned-writer, sits on a bench in Holland thinking about her father, a former U-boat captain and her earlier ancestors as she justifies to herself her desire to write the love stories of three generations in the family.
The world needs love stories, especially after the times of hate, precisely in a world where so much is hated ... where the Americans slaughter, poison and hate the Vietnamese, which turns them more and more into hateful Communists; in a world in which the Russians oppress and shoot the Czechs, in which old Germans hate young Germans and young Germans hate the old, and the Dutch perhaps no longer hate the Germans but don’t really like them either ...
… rebellious youth, our children, ought to write love stories too, so they will understand without a moral finger pointing, just through the subtle power of literature, how good they have it in these times, without war, without hunger, without dictatorship … without fear of unwanted pregnancy, without being forbidden certain books, films, music, without repression of thought, words, belief, how good and so much better they have it than their parents and grandparents had it.
Substitute “Islamists” for “Communists” and “Ukrainians” for “Czechs,” and the narrator’s sentiments could easily apply to the present. The themes are universal and yet Berlinisch; that a family’s history cannot be separated from a nation’s, that the personal is political, that love will thrive even amid hate. Delius portrays Germans still coming to grips with their wartime and postwar pasts, with their many pasts, just as Grass had done in his writing, just as it would be almost impossible for a writer living in Berlin not to do.
As I walk back for my last weigh-in at the Wilmersdorf clinic, I again notice the bronze stumbling stones and think of Herta Martha, Clara, and Cäcilie Selma, who had lived here. I suddenly wonder if it is not an affront to their memories that a Jewish woman like me would enter this building to lose weight when they most likely starved before they were murdered. That such a thought even occurred to me makes me a kind of honorary Berliner, the city’s soul having captured a piece of mine. Back in my late 20s and early 30s, my Berlin years, I felt free, and grown-up, in a city that felt so adult. Now, a quarter century on, it’s apparent to me that Berlin’s maturity comes from repeatedly rising to the occasion, taking ownership of the dark episodes of its history even as it moves forward. The city holds space for both the evil and the grand, its public squares and thoroughfares accommodating so much private grief. Much history has happened in the streets of London and Paris too. But those metropolises install far fewer plaques and Denkmale, literally “thought markers,” to constantly remind and interpret the past for the city’s residents as they go about their daily errands. In his 2014 book Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries, author Rory MacLean quotes German environmentalist John Schellnhuber saying the city’s integrity coming from “drawing a direct line” from its darkest memories. “We never again want to look the other way when we face wrong developments,” Schellnhuber said, in MacLean’s account. “It’s a century-long exercise in responsibility.” Berliners couldn’t blame the Third Reich on anybody else. And coping with that fact, ever since, has trained them well to walk with the city’s ghosts.
Back on Unter den Linden, a day before I leave Berlin, I walk by cranes and scaffolding as construction progresses on the former Prussian palace. It was near here, at Bebelplatz, that Goebbels’s book burning took place in 1933, but I can’t locate the innovative memorial installed in 1995, to be viewed from above by pedestrians looking through a street level pane of square glass. Passersby peer down into an empty bookcase large enough to hold 20,000 books. Engraved on a plaque nearby is a prophetic 1820 quote by German writer Heinrich Heine: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they in the end also burn people.”
I search around the building site for the glass window, but cannot find it. Instead, I rely on a memory of what I viewed 21 years ago, itself a reminder of what had happened 62 years prior to that. Like the Stolpersteine stumbling stones, it is a monument that people hurry by every day, one that was designed to allow us to carry on parking in the parking lot and hearing arias at the opera house while not forgetting what happened here. Alas, today it is obscured temporarily as Berlin reconstructs an earlier piece of its past, recovering, and again adding a layer to its memory of itself.
N. S. Morris covered the 1989 opening of the Berlin Wall for the Toronto Star newspaper and between 1990 and 1995 reported from the city for the San Francisco Chronicle, CBC Radio, Time magazine, and other publications.
N. S. (Nomi) Morris is a writer and lecturer based in Ojai, California. She is a former Middle East Bureau Chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers (now McClatchy).
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