A German Christmas story – Berlin, Day 4 – Berlin Wall Memorial & Jewish History Museum
It was hard to drag myself out of the hotel the next day after staying up half the night watching news footage about the Berlin Christmas market terrorist attack. The hope that it had been only an accident quickly faded away under witness testimony. The death toll rose through the night. More stories of what had happened at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church market were shared. The hunt was on for the truck driver, as the man first arrested was cleared and released.
I walked out into a city that seemed eerily quiet. Even those at Starbucks talked in soft, hushed tones. People were asking each other if they had known someone at the market. I took my coffee to go and got onto the U-Bahn, where others were talking about it. Though I have very little knowledge of German, I could make out words that indicated people were discussing the events.
Grief, shock, and determination are the same in any language.
I left the U-bahn at the former “ghost” train station of Nordbahnhof, reading through the exhibit inside the station. Three train lines used to travel in a united Berlin, but when the Wall went up and definitively divided the city into East and West, stations were closed and bricked up or barred access to East Berliners. Since the line heading through Nordbahnhof started in the West and traveled through the East to end up in the West again, the station was closed off during the Wall years by armed guards. So, the train would slow itself up some, but it could not stop there – not until it reached the West side again. Obviously, the station was functional and working now, but it had a strange, still air about it. Like it remembered something and was trying to forget it.
I strolled out into the icy morning air. The visitor center, diagonally across the street from the station, had a showing of two short videos to introduce the Cold War and the building of the Berlin Wall. It was a good place to warm up a bit before heading over to the wall, staring down the destroyed section, which has been partially replaced by tall, steel rods along Bernauer Strasse. Along this route were numerous signposts with historical information, and even verbal accounts of wall stories were available for a listen. Known as the National Monument to German Division, the steel rods, the wall section, and the recreated “death strip” with guard tower and patrol division were a lonely, cold testament to a city being cut in half – and an entire continent being divided up .
The Window of Remembrance, a stop relatively close to the visitor center, showed photographs of people who had tried to escape into freedom in the West – but failed to make it. The land nearby, still very green and well-tended for being mid-December, was a former cemetery. Memorials abounded, including a simple white cross to commemorate all those who died on the wall and those whose tombs were destroyed by the wall’s construction. Roses and candles were still being placed on the photographs – nigh thirty years later, the people of Berlin have not forgotten about these tragedies.
A beautiful new chapel – the Reconciliation Chapel – was placed where an old brick church once stood but was demolished in the 80s to make way for a wider wall. The Wall continually widened to prevent the ingenious escapes and to demonstrate the Soviet desire for control of its section. The Berlin Wall Documentation Centre, a brisk walk down Bernauer Strasse, details the destruction of the church and the wall section widening scheme.
In addition to the centre, there was an outdoor stairwell leading up to a viewing platform that allowed visitors to look down into the recreated wall section. I was most surprised by how wide the wall was, with the outer section only one part of the actual wall system. The inner section was the death strip, where, even if one made it over the outer wall, guards, dogs, and all sorts of other sharp implements awaited the escapee.
Tunnel 29 (57) was a well-known escape tunnel under the wall, and stones in the grass retrace the tunnel’s length from East to West. One eerie feature still very much visible on the East side was all the buildings without windows facing out to Bernauer Strasse, where the walls would have been. Windows were closed up and sealed to prevent people from jumping over the wall into the West, or from people making ropes or forming human chains also to get over. Some of the buildings had amazing works of art covering their non-window sides.
We realized that walls don’t work – yet, the world seems more determined than ever to build them.
I enjoyed lunch at a Lonely Planet and local-recommended stop underneath the Schlesisches Tor U-bahn station. The century-old green and strangely ornate building was hard to miss with its thick indoor crowd jamming around the counter – despite its one-time use as a toilet.
Burgermeister was a quaint spot to get a hearty American-style burger on a cold day. The little heaters did their work and warmed up my frozen legs. I got the Meisterburger, as I found it hard to resist the bacon, fried onions, and BBQ sauce. The cheese fries were pretty tasty as well – all washed down with a soda. It was interesting to people watch from my standing perch near the window. A mix of cultures, both locals and tourists, descended upon the place like it was going out of style, and I was glad to have a small spot near the far window.
Fortified against the cold, I continued on to the Jewish History Museum. It was a bit of a confusing hike from the Hallesches Tor station. The signs all led toward the museum, but toward the center of the walk, Google Maps and the paper map all seemed to lead down one alley that was closed. When I was able to find the correct side street, the walk was much easier than I thought.
The Jewish History Museum was a visually striking building. Shaped like a jagged lightning bolt from above, the slashes in the zinc exterior represent the broken lines of the Star of David – the destruction of European Jewry during World War II, and, really throughout history, the pogroms taken up by local societies to kick out Jews.
However, the museum is not only about WWII. It goes further back than that, into the Romans, Middle Ages, and all the way up to modern day. It told of Jewish inventors, scholars, artists, and the everyday lives of people who, save for their faith, would not sound out of place in any history textbook. Yet, for centuries, the Jews were a people who sought to live peacefully among Christian neighbors, but they weren’t always allowed to. I had initially believed the Holocaust to be the result of mid-century anti-Semitism because Hitler exploited it – but in reality, when I was university studying an honours course in Holocaust history, it went all the way back to time immemorial.
Death. Exile. Continuity. These were the three lines of the Holocaust. The large letters announced the sites of death camps and mass shootings on blank walls. Small windows allowed glimpses into the personal lives of several Jewish people who died during the Holocaust. The only line that led out of the exhibit was, of course, Continuity. From there, the story of Jewish people was told in an engaging and informative manner.
For me, the most telling and memorable exhibit was the Fallen Leaves – 10,000 jagged metal faces with mouths open in a perpetual silent scream strewn about on the floor in a room with almost no light and cold, tight walls. Someone walked along the faces, sending them chattering like a million plates slamming into each other in a kitchen.
That was the only way these terrified faces could make themselves known.
I ended my tour – and my long day of walking – with a cinnamon latte and yummy cheesecake slice at Cafe Schmus, the cafe inside the museum. I sat in the glassed-in room and tried to convince myself that I really did feel like going to Potsdam the next day, when in fact, I was nearing the end of my super-human travel powers.
I settled instead on visiting Museum Island, of UNESCO fame, and paying a visit to Nefertiti and the other great ancient works.
As I left the museum, I crossed the main street and promptly fell on an uneven sidewalk, as it was dark and I could not see where I should have stepped down. My right ankle made a most unsatisfactory crunching noise, and I went down hard, bouncing a bit with all the winter gear I was wearing. I sat there, irritated at my inability to walk properly, more upset than feeling pain. A very kind local asked if I was alright and when I said I was (I really wasn’t, but, you know, pride), she waited for me to get to my feet and walk a ways. Another passer-by who saw me trip asked if I wanted a taxi to my hotel.
My ankle was about as useful as a wet noodle, but I said I’d walk it off. I’m not entirely sure what I was thinking, other than I was damn sure I would not let a sprained ankle ruin my holiday. Therefore, I stubbornly (or stupidly, whatever one’s viewpoint) walked back to my hotel – about a ten minute walk altogether – going very slowly over cobblestones. Cobblestones were the worst.
I found a pharmacy around the corner from my hotel, gesturing at my ankle and indicating that it was hurt, and the pharmacist helped me try on an ankle brace. I got one of those – I have quite the collection at home, but I don’t usually travel with one – and some sports wrap tape. Between those two items and some thick socks and gym shoes, I would tough it out for my last day in Berlin.
Since I had no ice in my hotel room, I got the one thing out of the refrigerator that was cold enough to help my swelling ankle:
When in Rome, eh?