My mother’s a worrywart, as most mothers– and specifically overbearing Jewish mothers– are. She was more than concerned when I packed up my bags and headed off from my college town of Syracuse University to study in Madrid, where I’ve spent the past four months living with a Spanish family and traveling throughout Europe on the weekends. So you can’t imagine her reaction when I asked for some money to buy a flight to travel to the historic city of Berlin for a weekend with my friends. Flashbacks of my mother’s own experience traveling to Germany in the ‘80s clogged her mind. Since I first made the decision to spend the semester overseas, my mom forewarned me with the scary story of when she made the impromptu, naive choice to stay an extra night alone in Munich after Oktoberfest with a German boy she had just met. Over dinner, the man proclaimed his hatred of Jews and my mom tells the story as if he grew a Hitler mustache right before her eyes as she sunk in her seat fearing for her life.
Well, she thought that would scare me off from traveling to Germany. I tried to convince her that times have changed and we live in a very different world, but she wasn’t having it. So I dug into the money I’ve saved up from summer jobs, graduation presents and my bat mitzvah, and cashed it in on a weekend flight to Berlin, ignoring my mother’s apprehension.
At night’s fall I pulled up to our questionable hostel situated in the “Wrangel Kiez” neighborhood of Berlin, home to graffiti walls, dark gas lanterns, and plenty of dog shit– it’s no wonder the hotel website warned that it was was “not for the faint of the heart”. A dreadlocks-adorned man greeted us upon arrival. His warm smile and charming personality took us for a whirl, completely contradicting the aesthetics of our surroundings. After showing us to our quaint room, he slid us a brochure and recommended a Berlin Free Walking Tour to give us a historical sense of the city. I took his advice and set my alarm for bright and early the following morning.
After brushing my teeth and slipping on my tennis shoes, I headed towards the meeting spot for the walking tour at Pariser Platz, a square right in the centre of Berlin that is adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate. Our guide David began the tour by addressing what’s so unique about Berlin. He explained how “every country has had its troubles– U.S. with Slavery, Spain with the Inquisition, and so on– but the difference is that the French for instance sweep their history under the rug, whereas Berlin comes right out and says we had a dark, dark past and we are embracing it in order to move forward.” David’s words held on to me throughout the tour. Berlin isn’t necessarily the most glamorous city. The buildings are average, nothing special. But what makes the city stand out is how the entire city is flowing with history. My A.P. European History textbook from high school came to life every time I turned my head in a new direction.
David lead us to a dusty old parking lot half full with cars. I scratched my head wondering why a space to park your car is a destination on this historical tour. David prompted us to look down at our feet. “Below where we´re standing is where Hitler´s bunker was, where he shot himself.” My heartbeat increased as I thought about the 6 million Jews that died under Hitler´s regime. And now, I stood atop of the very ground where the malicious man´s life came to an end. I refocused my energy towards David as he explained how the Führerbunker was the center of the Nazi regime until the very last week of World War II on the European front. After getting word that the Allies were invading Nazi Germany, Hitler quickly married Eva Braun before the couple committed suicide together.
We continued the tour, stopping to see the headquarters of the LuftWaffe, the former SS headquarters, sections of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and more, but nothing resonated with me like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Holocaust memorial, designed by architect Peter Eisenman, consists of almost 3,000 slabs of concrete lined in a grid pattern. David explained how the concrete rectangles that lie on an uneven, sloping field are left up for interpretation. David gave us a few suggestions of how to interpret the massive and astounding site, sharing how some interpret it as symbolizing a cemetery while others view it as a representation of the orderly system arranged by the Nazis to eliminate the Jews of Europe.
But as I meandered through the maze of the concrete grid, I noticed it was impossible to walk side by side with someone and it was easy to turn one way and forget where you are, inevitably losing the people you entered with and exiting from all different directions. To me, the memorial evoked some of the feelings of those at the expense of the Nazis during this horrific period of history. The concentration camps separated husbands from wives, children from parents, brothers from sisters. Some of the lucky ones made it out alive and had to pick up the pieces whereas others weren´t as fortunate to have the same fate. I was so moved by this memorial that I visited the site several more times during my weekend in Berlin.
The tour came to a close as I parted from the group at the foot of the TV Tower. I handed David a few euros, thanking him for imparting his knowledge of the city onto us before heading off to try some currywurst at a dinky food stand around the corner. As I chowed down on my spicy hot dog sprinkled with curry flakes, all I could think about was the people who stood here before me. As crowds rushed by me, I realized I was in a much different Germany than the one my mom described. Berlin is continuously changing and progressing yet the city and its people know where they came from, and know there is still a lot more work to do as we move forward.
Sandeman’s New Berlin Free Tour- http://www.newberlintours.com; +49 30 510 50030. The tour runs daily and the start point for the free tour is in East Berlin at 11am and 2pm at the Brandenburg Gate, in front of the Starbucks. To secure a spot on the tour, book in advance on the website.