I don’t know if it’s possible now, to be educated on any level and to know Berlin without thinking of it as the city that was almost, or maybe quite literally was, the epicenter of World War II. Ground zero for horrors that took so many lives the exact number seems like a sick joke all these years, and generations, later. After all, what else have we lived through since then, that is as horrifying and touched so many parts of our world, not just Germany.
We could digress the point because the fact is that there have been other tragedies since, and there are others every day still — but it wouldn’t change how horrible the holocaust was. And is.
So my first post about Berlin after my most recent trip there, must start with its most poignant horror. I have to remember the bad before I can share the good.
There are gold “stones” spread around Berlin, more concentrated in some places than in others. On each one is a name. And a set of dates. Sometimes a mode of transportation. Very often the name of a concentration camp. When our guide uttered the words that explained the stones, the hairs on my arms stood on end, so immediate was the horror mixed with sadness that overcame me in a flood. I quickly did a calculation of how many stones I’d already seen that day. The chill set in. We saw more stones, smoothed by time and the footsteps passing over them, but with words still visible, still a reminder. Each set of stones sits outside the once-home of the people who are forever remembered in the engraved piece of metal. Many homes are now businesses, shops, homes for people who are not Jewish. The spaces have a new life, something the people who once lived there, should have had themselves.
On first glance, it’s odd. Gray boxes, slabs of stone, a rolling landscape, none of it natural. What is it? What is it for? Our guide, Henrik, walked us around a third of the memorial before he explained that it was a memorial. That it was meant to be strange, difficult to understand. A way to remember something so horrifying that even if you could understand the WHY [hate can be an infinitely powerful motivator], you could still never understand the HOW [just because we feel hate doesn’t mean we actually act on it, how does one go so far as to commit such unspeakable acts of criminality against people they hate]…. At first I thought the divots in the stone were merely marks of age. I’m not sure how I could be so thick as to not realize immediately but as soon as I did I gasped. Bullet holes. Fragments of stone cut out by the force of exploding bombs. Buildings all over Berlin best similar scars. But it was on Museum Island, at the Neues Museum, where it seemed the most haunting. Such a beautiful building, so marred by the effects of war. For a reason, David Chipperfield recreated the museum leaving the war damage intact, weaving it into the current design in such a way that it would forever serve as a reminder. “Lest we forget”…. as we gaze at beauty and think on the mastery of man’s creations…. the horror that man is also capable of creating.
We were nearby Checkpoint Charlie, darting between traffic, holding up a bus, to stand over another metal marker. Another one set into the solid ground. This, a marker representing where The Wall once was. Bricks leading out from it, marking the physical width and length of the Wall. Even seeing it go right down the middle of a street, dividing one city into two, I still couldn’t imagine. But what in my life could prepare me to? When have I ever experienced something even remotely similar to Berlin’s Wall? Never. I never have.
Why is all of this so important?
Namely that Berlin strikes me as a good example of a place that sweeps nothing under the rug but rather continually tries to move forward all while learning from the place it has left behind. We humans don’t always do this well. But Berlin is trying to, by preserving — not erasing. And also because Berlin is, if it is nothing else, one of the best examples on earth of how hope can triumph over the ultimate adversity. How life can be beautiful again after it has not been. How ends are sometimes merely new beginnings, better beginnings. How forgiveness is more important than vengeance. …. How we MUST learn to love more and hate less.
None of the good seems as good, unless you keep in mind what once happened where beauty now blooms.