I read an article last week that said “Berlin is an on-again, off-again capital with a darker history than most cities in Europe. It served as the epicenter of Hitler’s Third Reich and was nearly wiped off the map at the end of the last World War. Berlin was also the flashpoint of the Cold War between the United States and Russia. Their conflict split the city into two, leaving residents on either side cut off from each other in every way imaginable for a generation.” For all these reasons, it was a place that’s been on my list to see and actually experience for a long time, but also a place that made me wary-the good and the bad live in such close proximity there, and I knew our visit would have some seriously dark matter involved, which is hard to steel yourself for, particularly on a lighthearted birthday weekend.
We woke up Saturday morning in our impossibly fluffy white hotel bed (how do they even do that??) and got ready for our only full day in the city, ready to do some fun touristing, but also prepared to see reminders of some of the absolute worst times in recent human history. Berlin is strange like that.
Completely unplanned in the morning, we strolled by both of our respective embassies. Heyoooo England and America. We are part of youuu.
Our first stop was for coffee and wifi in order to get our bearings. This meant another walk up to the Brandenburg Gate, where we decided that we wanted to rent bikes for the day, head out to the old abandoned airfield, explore the artsy and gritty neighborhood of Kreuzberg, and eventually meet a friend at Alexanderplatz that night for a raucous evening at a beer hall.
But first, I wanted to take a walk over to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also commonly known as the Holocaust Memorial. It’s only a hundred yards or so from the Gate, and we nearly stumbled upon it, walking along and looking for something more obvious, more boisterous. It’s a strange place, and not as somber as one would expect-instead, it seems like a series of granite benches or boxes, right up on the street, not blocked off in any way or set apart. As you walk into the area-which is actually made of 2,700 concrete slabs of differing sizes- it’s like a maze, and things become quieter, the light goes in and out, a child or a tourist or a shadow catching your eye as you walk through, getting lost, sounds of the street disappearing behind you. It is somber, inside. There is a museum and exhibition space below. We didn’t go in.
From there we needed to do something lighter. Something more present. We spotted some city bikes across the street, so rented them and took off, determined to find our way to the abandoned airfield, Berlin Tempelhof.
Riding through the streets, getting used to being on two wheels again, even in a huge city, was the most relaxed I’ve ever been on a bike probably since childhood. The bike lanes in Berlin are clear and respected, people are serious about scolding jaywalkers, so no errant pedestrians to worry about, and it is just altogether a pleasant experience, even in the parts full of traffic. I loved it.
We went through one amazing park on the way to another amazing park, and Berlin, you got it goin’ on. Stop being so gorgeous.
Finally we found ourselves at Tempelhof, which was built in the 1920s but ceased operations as an airport back in 2008, and is now in the process of being taken back by the city’s denizens, with multiple projects being promoted for the massive area. Right now, there are a few dog parks, a playground, a tree nursery, and lots and lots and lots of open space, which people seem to use for working out, bike riding, skating, scootering, picnicking, and generally enjoying the space. It’s a pretty cool idea, and if you’ve never been on the grounds of a full size now-abandoned air field, it is super trippy.
Then it was back into the city on the bikes, and by this time my butt was feeling the pain of renting a city bike not really made for comfort. Also, cobblestones. Eep.
It was about this time that we randomly rode by another place that I’d wanted to go, but that was super depressing, so we hadn’t decided if we would fit it in or not. Pulling up to a red light and finding ourselves next to the Topographie des Terrors seemed like a sign that we needed to devote some time to it. So in we went. The museum/memorial sits on the land that used to house the Gestapo and SS headquarters from 1933 to 1945. It has a really detailed account of events and people and places leading up to the war, during the war, and after. It is heartbreaking in its breadth and detail.
I find the existence of this space as a brave step of acknowledgement for the city of Berlin, and for Germany as a whole. It would be so much easier to destroy all those old things and places of pure evil (most of which were already blown up during the war anyway) and never talk about this horrible history. Having it there, in your face, unforgiving and blunt-it’s a noble way of dealing with that painful history, I think. It’s important that none of it is ever forgotten.
The outer edge of the museum space consists of a block of the Berlin Wall that was never torn down, and the outer wall of the former cells that were in the basement of the SS headquarters where tortures and executions took place.
A bit strangely, when we were looking at the Wall an Australian tourist asked if we could take his picture, and of course we obliged. Then in return he offered to take ours and since we didn’t have any of us together at this point in our trip, we said yes, sort of automatically. Then it hit, oh, we’re where the SS used to be, but this part is the Berlin Wall so I guess it’s okay and by then I had already put on my weird photograph smile and it was over anyway. So here’s that picture.
Phew! So that’s a lot, and a lot of deep, hard stuff. But there’s more that’s a lot more light (basically everything that is not a museum about the horrors of the Nazi regime is lighter than this)-so I’ll just come back and tell you later. I need a time out.