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Published: June 19th 2016
Faces from the Memory Void
German Jewish Museum, Berlin
We arrived in Berlin from London via EasyJet. It had been an early start from Alex and Jill's apartment and out we went from Gatwick airport. Good to hear German spoken again. Cloudy skies over Europe but meticulously laid out farm and fields down below gave us a hint of our destination. Into Schonefeld then onto a DB train to Berlin. Berlin itself has a reasonably complex underground/overground/international rail intertwined system. A poor old guy like me could barely see the short designations for the lines - just too small a font. Out of the architecturally inspiring Hauptbahnhof building and towards our apartment on foot. Later we worked out that this walk along Invalidenstrasse actually took us across the line of the old Berlin Wall. This line is such a defining thing for Berlin, even now some twenty six years after its fall.
Our travel buddy Bill was already at the apartment and met us outside. Fond reunions. Two bedroom apartment relatively close to town. Not AirB&B, because that system is outlawed in Berlin, but pretty much the same. Unloaded our gear and headed out to Friedrichstrasse after a stop for beer. We have seen many western and eastern cities
and almost instantly one is struck by the architecture of Berin, as both rare and creative. In this old DDR area, it is the decorations on the apartment houses and small commercial buildings: some baroque; some socialist-bombastic; some Art Deco. We walked across town to the Brandenburg gate which we felt was an essential pilgrimage for a group of late baby-boomers. We dropped in at a little museum describing and celebrating the contribution of Willy Brandt to the history of a unified, modern Germany. As usual we each noticed different things. I love the drawn portraits of his lined face: Catherine his tumultuous network and social life: Bill his role in international relations. We were surprised how one did not see the Brandenburg gate from the street until quite close. Surrounded by embassies, expensive hotels (that once housed spies) and monuments. The statue, "Quadriga"on top is instantly recognisable and impressive. Tourists from all over the globe. Even the retail houses were buildings of notable design. We walked down to the area around the City Hall (the red Rathaus), past more of the rebuilding and renovations that were active during this visit, and found a place for beers and dinner. The
cotton-like pollen from the Aspen or Birch trees was floating thickly on the warm breeze. Bill and I had been ignoring the many street-side currywurst stalls, waiting to taste a real German pork sausage, and we finally found them at this local foods restaurant. Great sauerkraut as well. Of course. Long walk home. Small parks filled with young Germans enjoying BBQ weather.
The next morning we were out and onto the streets by foot and towards the Island of Museums. Of course we picked up coffee and a cake on the way provided by a master baker. Marzipan slice. First stop the Pergamon museum. Unbelievable with Mespotamian artifacts, a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gates and approaches to the city of Babylon, as well as an exhibition of the history of Islamic art. Very impressive reconstruction of an ancient fortress decorated with animate and inanimate representations: the Mschatta fascade.
Lunch back up at the Hackescher markt area. Beers and sausages of course. Then to the DDR Museum which was really entertaining. The little plastic Trabants, East German's recreating in the nude as a way of breaking from conformity (FKK), planned lives and a dismal economy. Huge efforts to spy
on and control the populace. Then to Check Point Charlie (CPC) as well as the Haus of CPC. On the way to CPC we walked through areas that we all old DDR. Concert hall, cathedrals and trendy shops. Amazing to think of all this public culture behind an iron curtail. At CPC there was a billboard of an US GI on one side, and the other had a soviet agent - the name badge of the US agent was 'Harper'. CPC itself took a reasonably lighthearted approach to this significant landmark. Touts selling photographs of themselves with tourists, with US GI or Russian Soviet Army. The Haus of CPC documented the people who were involved in the resistance against the Nazis, the horrors of life under the Soviets, the creation and initial optimism of the DDR. Incredible ingenuity in working out how to escape East Germany, the brutality of the Stasi in collaboration with the Soviets, the power of the people in finally refusing to put up with the inefficiencies and frustrations of a planned economy and society. Visiting these sites and museums in sequence made a nice juxtaposition. The DDR museum did its best to avoid ridicule or condescension
toward the previous administration. The Haus of CPC had no such restrictions. Listened to readings from Fairground by Werner Braunig an East German author. He emphasised the drudgery, corruption and squalor of an industrial town. Final posters from the Nov 1989 demonstrations read "Macht Frauen Politik so werden wir noch mer kinder los!" - Women's politics helping drive the reunification of Germany.
At the Haus CPC, great photos and paintings representing the amazement the easterners experienced when confronted by the joy of other Berliners in being reunited, the diversity of culture and the consumer products enjoyed just 100 metres away from rationing. Video of the two brothers flying ultralights to rescue a third trapped in the DDR. Cars that were used to smuggle easterners to the west. Bits of the wall available for purchase, of course. The day before we had been to Alexanderplatz which was the centre of protests in the lead up to the fall of the wall in 1989, and the reunification of Germany in Oct 1990.
Headed back to Hauptbahnhof to meet with other travel buddy Wendell. Dinner was at the cheap-and-cheerful Italian place across the road from the apartment. France was
playing Romania in the World Cup, shown on the big screen.. The atmosphere was light and partially inebriated.
Saturday: Catherine and I went down to the southwest to visit the Leica shop. Catherine guessed we needed to have an agreement before the fact about what we would buy. Saw the fantastic T series, but came back to the latest D-Lix 6 (type 109). Did not buy but did much poking and prodding. Out onto the lovely Kurfürstendamm which was apparently modelled on the Champs Elysees, and down towards the bombed out cathedral which has been left standing in the destroyed state (the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church). Inside was a small museum commemorating the loss the church from the parishioners perspective. Local money started the process of renovation almost immediately after the bombing but was ultimately stalled even with with state support. Marvellous new church built next door. Modern stained glass window and a deconstructed Christ on Cruxifix icon. Lovely area. Onto the U at Uhlandstrasse and across to the German Jewish Museum. Waited for Bill and Wendell but noted the strong presence of police around the museum. Bill and Wendell had been at the German History Museum and despite
only getting half the way through it, they were mentally exhausted. A brief break and into the Museum
The three alternative paths for German Jews was represented architecturally: extermination; exile or continuity. Three particularly impressive sites, the hollow Holocaust Tower for the murdered, the disorienting Garden of Exile and the chamber of a thousand metal faces, called the Memory Void. All very impressive. The exhibitions charted the history of Jewish life in German from the Middles Ages until the present. Describing times of great integration and joy - times of prejudice and persecution, time of reconciliation. Noted the role of German Jews such as Albert Einstein who found more opportunity and less prejudice in the natural sciences.
From there to the East West Gallery of the partially dismantled wall along the River Spree, with its amazing public art and representations of the community impact of the wall. We noted the many examples of wall artists, returning to Berlin to refresh their works over the years since. Over beers beside the Spree, we decided we needed a boat cruise, despite the touristic nature of that decision. Then to the Friedrichstadt Palast Theatre to see The Wyld which
was part Los Vegas extravaganza, part drag show, part ballet recital, part circus, and part gymnastic event. Remarkable theatre and incredibly entertaining though more than a little weird. Vietnamese supper later, as you would in Berlin.
On Sunday we were back to Warschauerstrasse U and on a Spree cruise. Really enjoyed the atmosphere. The pubs and "beach-shacks" along the banks. The adjustable cabin top of the passenger ferry was also cool, sued to travel under the low bridges. Great view of the architectural highlights of the city. The trip through the city locks was slower than normal because apparently the water of the Spree was unseasonally low.
On to Potsdam from the Zoological Garden S Bahn station, and to meet two friends of Bill and Wendell, Christian and Monsay, as well as their children. They showed us the opulent and extensive Sanssouci Palace as well as the Dutch district. We drank beers and wine and enjoyed the German version of tapas or ante pasta. Another great local weiss bier.
Bill and Wendell left us at the Zoological Gardens. Fond farewells for perhaps 12 months. We had pre-organised a tour of the Reichstag buildings and the earliest time
that was available was 2145 this evening. As per normal behaviour, Greg was willing to follow the rules and wait until that unfortunate hour. Catherine on the other hand was quite prepared to chance her hand at negotiating an earlier time and so we made our way over to the Federal area by U bahn. Of course when we presented ourselves at 1830 the German security guard expressed his surprise and commented on the abnormality of the request, but a smile ensured we would get access nonetheless. There was a Canadian diplomatic delegation visiting the building at the same time: Greg expressed surprise that we were not allowed into that delegation as well! Access to the Reichstag building was nonetheless restricted to the wonderful dome area, a bit like a bee hive. Self-guided audio tours gave us an unparalleled sense of the architectural and technological marvel of the dome, as well as a great overview of Berlin and its key governmental buildings. We must have been there for 90 mins and we were mildly disappointed we could not access the Bundestag sections as well. We'll have to leave that to real Germans.
On our last day, the 13 June,
we were out of the apartment by 0650, and along the Invalidenstrasse by foot towards Hauptbahnhof. Catherine's wheelie bag had had a blow-out. There was a bit of a hold up at the ticket machine - the guys ahead of us seemed to need a whole range of unavailable travel options and repeatedly poked at the DB ticket machine hoping for a better outcome. With our tickets in hand, we raced toward track number 11. The merest of glances at the destination for track number 13, which was the other option. We were within minutes of the scheduled departure time and German trains run on time. We slipped into the correct train with one minute to spare! Near us two Cockney-speaking, tattooed punks had a lovers disagreement. We were on the way back to Australia via Luton and Heathrow. As every Australian knows, getting home requires the patience of Job and the serenity of a yoga guru. Just dealt with it.
Home to Australia via Royal Brunei. Catherine would say the unavailability of alcohol on the flight was a big advantage for her sleep.
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