I have a handful more photos of my wonderful week in Berlin, and before I completely forget all the interesting little details about my time there, I’d better finish up this chapter.
On my last two days in the city, I really pushed myself to try to touch the bases of the rest of the historical sections. This is made a little easier these days by the fact that the Germans, in their traditionally well-organized way, have both created and recently enhanced Museum Island, historically the oldest part of the city and physically located near the heart of old East Berlin. According to Wikipedia, “it is so called for the complex of five internationally significant museums, all part of the Berlin State Museums, that occupy the island’s northern part.” Now a World Heritage site, these include art museums, historical museums, and archeological museums, as well as the Berliner Dom, the distinctive Protestant cathedral that is the largest church in the city and a significant profile on the civic skyline.
On my way down Unter den Linden to the Museum Island, I took in two key spots. The first is Humboldt University of Berlin (established 1810; home of 29 Nobel Prize winners), where I encountered this friendly advert for shopping at the uni bookstore:
I’m ashamed to admit that, besides Karl Marx (second from right), I really don’t know who the rest of these folks are. Guess it’s time for an academic refresher, and clearly I don’t qualify for the discount under any circumstances.
A little further eastward, one passes the Neue Wache, New Guardhouse, the building that since 1931 has served as the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship.” This is a tall order for a small building, and one that has a lot to account for. But it faces up to its historical challenge with gravitas. I found myself extremely moved by the words placed in the foyer:
Peering through the bars into the inner courtyard, one sees a large space graced with “an enlarged version of Kathe Kollewitz’s sculpture Mother with her Dead Son. The pieta-style sculpture is directly placed under the oculus, and so is exposed to the rain, snow and cold of the Berlin climate, symbolizing the suffering of civilians during World War II.”
The next stop was the German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum, or DHM). The museum “defines itself as a place of enlightenment and understanding of the shared history of Germans and Europeans. It is often viewed as one of the most important museums in Berlin and is one of the most frequented. The museum is located in the Zeughaus (armoury) on the avenue Unter den Linden as well as in the adjacent Exhibition Hall designed by I. M. Pei.” That short quote tells you a lot, and reflected my experience accurately – Germany as a part of Europe, AND the big division between old and new. The Pei building held the current changing exhibits and the Armory the permanent collection.
There was far more to see in the DHM that I could possibly take in during the time I was there. Because I am working on a book about my uncle, I also focused my attention on the 1933-1945 time period, which the museum documented with both thoroughness and great compassion. The biggest takeaway for me of the visit, as well as of my entire time in Germany, is that the 20th century was far, far more devastating to Germany than I had thought, and that living in Germany today is far far more complex and nuanced than most of us may ever be able to comprehend. (Okay, we had 9/11. They had some version of 9/11 ….for a very long time.)
The cathedral was my next goal, figuring that the later the day became, the less likely I was to want to clamber my way to the top, as is my want with buildings of this nature. Just ss I was heading in, I saw a group of hip tourists about to start their tour of the city on Segues. Now THAT, I said to myself, is a damn fine idea.
The Dom itself has been built and rebuilt many times during its nearly 550-year history, including of course significant restoration after the second World War. It is large and beautiful and imposing, as are all cathedrals, but I found the Protestant stamp an effective way to keep most of the golden glitz and plump cherubim at bay. It is a large, somber, dignified building, worthy of the center of empire.
That being said, like some altitudinally-addicted homing pigeon, I couldn’t resist climbing as far up as I could go (pretty far, actually, out into the air) and snapping some shots of the city from the top:
This view actually looks north, towards the museum I would visit later. The crane is emblematic of those I saw all over the city as the inhabitants find themselves building, growing, moving boldly forward into the 21st century. And the sculpture to the left signifies, to me, the sense of both surprise and empowerment that the church fathers must be feeling as they watch their city, phoenix-like, rise yet again from the ashes of history.
At that point, I headed to the second museum I had chosen to see, the Pergamon Museum. If you haven’t heard of it, and I hadn’t, it houses “original-sized, reconstructed monumental buildings such as the Pergamon Altar (currently unavailable) and the Market Gate of Miletus, all consisting of parts transported from Turkey…” (and available for colonial kidnapping since that area had been a British protectorate at that time) “…The museum is subdivided into the antiquity collection, the Middle East museum, and the museum of Islamic art. The museum is visited by approximately 1,135,000 people every year, making it the most visited art museum in Germany (2007).” I was literally blown away by the Gates of Ishtar (this is not my photo):
There is one remaining remarkable discovery I made during my time in Berlin, and that is stolpersteine, plural of stolperstein (stumbling block), something over which one might trip on a street or path. Before the events of the second World War, it was the custom in Germany for the tripping person to say, “A Jew must be buried here.” Beat. Today, that term has been transformed through the work of Gunter Demnig, a German artist who creates and installs cobblestone-sized memorials for individual victims of Nazism. While most commemorate Jewish people, there are stolpersteine for Roma peoples, gays, blacks, Christians, Communists, people with disabilities, basically everyone that the ruling regime felt they had to eliminate through either violent means, suicide, or immigration. Now numbering nearly 50,000 across Europe, these stones and their story make for good reading and google is your friend if you are interested. They are placed by Demnig and any remaining relations in front of the last official address of the person who died, and the stone, actually a metal plate, lists the name, date of birth, date of removal, and date of death, if known, for each person who was taken from that site. It is a profoundly moving experience to see one of these in situ.
But at long last, weary of high art and culture and history and emotion, I began to long once again in the waning hours of my visit for the humble charm of the Christmas markets, so off I went to perhaps one of the most beautiful in the city, located in the western section near the Charlottenburg Palace. Situated in what normally serves as the site’s parking lot, this market just reeks Mittel-European charm (and gluhwein, naturlich!):
Another shot showing some of the artisan and food stalls:
Of course, all this walking made me mighty hungry. And if the restaurants weren’t enticement enough for gustatory enjoyment, the small markets and delicatessens were constant seductions. A photo here of all the wonderful things I managed NOT to eat:
Oh, how I enjoyed these markets and shops and museums and stores and streets and all my time in Berlin. Sadly, not long after this, I packed my bags and headed to the airport for the long journey home. As part of that trek, to soften the blow, I was able to spend some time in my favorite Istanbul airport cafe, which often serves as a touchstone for me as I head from somewhere to yet somewhere else. And so, after all these jumbled images and impressions, let me leave you with this last vision of my international transit perch – Greenspot – which will, as well, serve as a promise to me that it won’t be too too long before I head out once again.
Cheers – Prost – Şerefe – Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and safe travels to us all.