Sometime this last spring, my friend R. messaged me that she was going to be in Germany this summer. I know R. from Dortmund–she was one of our exchange lecturers one year, and we bonded over study sessions at Starbucks. After we both left Dortmund, we’ve stayed in touch, but I hadn’t seen her since July 2013. So we planned a reunion in Berlin, and I hopped on a train last Friday, only to get off seven hours later, ready to explore. On Tuesday I took the train back. These were our adventures:
The New Jewish Synagogue down the street from our hostel. (The hostel boasted a resident DJ, something we did not know about until the music wouldn’t stop on Friday night. Fun times.)
The famous TV tower near Alexanderplatz
Viewing the Brandenburger Tor from the back side, since barriers blocked the way from the other side. After this, we had a picnic lunch in the Tiergarten and people watched for a while. (Berlin has a lot of interesting people.)
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The blocks seem to invite a certain amount of jumping and running around, despite the purpose of the memorial, so a couple security guards walk around and tell people (mostly kids) not to.
We also saw the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism in the Tiergarten. A third memorial (To the Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime) also exists. They’re all maintained by one foundation. If you click on the link, you can see how big the Jewish memorial is–an aerial view really brings it home.
A double row of cobblestones runs through the city, marking the location of the wall.
Checkpoint Charlie, where tourism overtakes history. For a fee, you could have your picture taken with the soldier-reenactors. In light of what Checkpoint Charlie represents, this really felt weird to me. But I suppose it goes along with the McDonald’s and souvenir shops that make up the rest of the area…
The Jewish Museum. I wrote my MA thesis on Jewish masculinity, R. is doing her dissertation on Holocaust narratives, so this was definitely on the list of things we wanted to do.
As the museum website says, ” The modern architectural elements of the Libeskind building comprise the zinc façade, the Garden of Exile, the three Axes of the German-Jewish experience, and the Voids. Together these pieces form a visual and spatial language rich with history and symbolism. They not only house the museum with its exhibits, but they also provide visitors with their own unique experience as they walk through the spaces.” This is the axis of the Holocaust, leading to the stark and empty Holocaust Tower. (There are objects on display on the opposite wall.)
The Garden of Exile. This was very nicely done: sheltered in the summer by the olive trees, the floor slopes weirdly, kind of representing the exile experience in that immigration and especially expulsion/exile are very disorienting experiences and tend to keep you off-balance: “The whole garden is on a 12° gradient and disorients visitors, giving them a sense of the total instability and lack of orientation experienced by those driven out of Germany. Russian willow oak grows on top of the pillars symbolizing hope.”
R. had reserved a tour of the Reichstag (parliament) for us, but when we got there, the college kid in charge kept telling us, “You’re not on the list,” in a very polite yet very German way. Turns out he was both right and wrong: we were on the list, but for an hour later. So we went and got something to drink, and then an hour later, we took our (audio)tour up to the dome and enjoyed the view.
The Topography of Terror. This was a very dense and information rich, but well-curated exhibit on the former grounds of the SS and Gestapo. We got there just in time: by the time we had worked our way through the exhibits, it became super busy. We then met a friend of R. for lunch (Japanese! Was delicious and cheap, two very good attributes) and wandered over to the Berlin Galerie. It was very modern, and I was a bit museum-ed out afterwards, but coffee and a seat out of the sun soon put that to rights.
One of the many sites that commemorate the Holocaust. This was at the Old Jewish Cemetery. Moses Mendelssohn had been buried there. The grounds were used as a holding place for Jews prior to deportation, the cemetery itself disturbed and destroyed (the grounds turned into air raid shelters and later mass graves for civilians and soldiers). We happened upon it by accident, and it really underscores the oddity of visiting Berlin, where mass graves and restaurants co-exist.
And of course, food: from the courtyard where we had dinner one night, to a vegan scone for breakfast, to a hummus restaurant (Hummus and Friends, with the tagline: make hummus, not walls), to schnitzel, and potato salad, and the aforementioned Japanese restaurant. We ate well.
Not pictured: the book store (where we spent an hour on Saturday morning and I really had to restrain myself), the German Historical Museum (really an excellent museum. It might have been my favorite), and a good amount of coffee!