Just in time (almost) for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, here are some quick notes on a self-guided walking tour of Berlin. A city with almost too much to see, Berlin is to easy get around via subway and by walking. It is well worth at least three or four days of exploration. I want to focus on just a few of the sights that are all within very easy walking distance of each other.
In the center of downtown (at the Unter den Linden S-Bahn exit) lies the Brandenberg gate, the triumphal archway under which conquering German armies marched after going to war. It was commissioned by King Fredrick William II in the late 18th century and is probably most famous for its chariot of horses on top, being driven by Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory. Apparently it didn’t provide initial good luck, because Napoleon conquered Prussia just a couple decades later and took the chariot statute and Victoria off to Paris. It was returned a few decades later — after another war, this time won by the Germans.
It is an iconic sight in Berlin. Their is a line in the street on the west side of the gate that shows where the Berlin Wall once ran. The Brandenberg gate was actually in the no-mans zone for those years. Immediately next to the gate is the U.S. Embassy — prime territory in town for one of the conquering Allied powers. Across the way is the French Embassy, in a fairly ugly building that does not refect what I think of when I think France. The prime hotel overlooking these particular sights is the Hotel Adlon, which normally wouldn’t be one any sightseeing agenda, but I can almost guarantee that you have seen it before.
It was from the penthouse suite’s balcony that Michael Jackson dangled his infant child, to the consternation of most of the world watching on television. Ahhhhh, those classic Michael memories.
Right around the corner is the Reichstag, which houses the German Parliament. The building is suitably picture-worthy, but it is the addition that that building that is the real draw. Before the legislative seat of government of Germany was moved back to Berlin, post re-unification, a large glass dome was added to the top of the building. From inside, you can actually see down to the floor of Parliament and see government in action. It really does look like sausage after all. Lines are long to get in — better to go first thing or last thing in the day. Views from up top are spectacular.
Immediately south of the U.S. Embassy and Brandenberg Gate is one of the most moving places I’ve seen on my entire trip: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Often mis-indentified as the “Holocaust Museum,” the correct in-your-face name gives an accurate impression of what this site is all about. On the surface of the city block that the memorial occupies are the iconic 2,711 huge stone block that you have no doubt seen pictures of. They stand at various heights and are neatly organized in rows that take up almost the entire block. The architect of the project, Peter Eisenman, has never given any interview explaining what feelings he meant to convey with the design. Walking through the field, taking pictures of the stones with the shadows cast upon them, and seeing others walking in and out of your field of vision is interesting. I wish I had a better word for it, but that’s all I’ve got.
Underground in the small museum. Admission is free and although I hate to be the type of blogger that says “you must do this or that,” you really should take a hour or two out and go downstairs. There are only about five rooms down there. One hallway has the basic history and time line of the Holocaust. One room has maps and pictures of every concentration camps — and there were a lot more than I ever though. One room details how many Jews were killed from each country. But it was two of the rooms that set me back the most.
There is a room where the histories of 12-15 families are laid out. Family photos are on display. Letters. Descriptions of each of the members of the family: ages, professions, schooling, and so on. And then a full explanation of when the Nazis took them to their concentration camp(s) and how they died. Entire families. From Germany, France, Lativa, Russa, Bulgaria, and so many others. Among the reality of millions of murdered Jews — seeing these families stories brought it down to a level I hadn’t thought of before.
The Room of Names is a simple place with no photographs or other displays. One each of the four walls, a person’s name and biographical data is projected. Over the loudspeakers in the room, using information compiled by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, an announcer somberly and briefly details the life, and death, of the person whose name is projected on the wall. On a continuous loop. There are about 700 such brief biographies being looped now and the project aims to expand that to several thousand. When I was there, two women sat on one of the benches crying. They weren’t alone.
I walked out that morning with one thought in my head — I just don’t understand. I don’t mean that in a disrepectful way at all. I certainly understand the facts and details of the Holocaust and the museum was an incredible jolt to my soul. But I don’t understand how people can do that to each other.
On this trip, I’ve been through Uganda, Germany, Cambodia, Sudan and skirted Bosnia. Genocides have happened for thousands of years in a variety of places and are certain to happen again in the future. I am, or at least was, a criminal defense lawyer. I can comprehend murder. Murder for greed, or anger, or jealousy or any of the other thousands of reasons it happens every day does make sense to me — I dispise it, but I can at least comprehend it.
I just cannot comprehend the systematic killing of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or in the Holocaust’s case, millions of people because of their religion, or tribe, or educational background or the other means of weeding out who “must die.” One murderer or a small gang of murderers is something I can get my head around — but genocide is carried out by thousands and thousands of people, at the highest levels of power in their government. How do they get to that point? How is it possible to convince that many people to do something that unspeakably horrible? In the end, I supposed I’m glad that I cannot understand it at all, but I do understand, and believe, in the inscription on the wall I read that day.
“It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.” from Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (I sommersi e i salvati. Turin 1986), Simon and Schuster, New York.
Primo Levi, born in 1919 in Turin, was a chemist. As a member of the Italian resistance, he was arrested in 1944 and deported to Auschwitz. He survived and began in 1945, directly after his return, to write. In 1987 Primo Levi committed suicide.