Ich Bin Ein Berliner!
I got a hint of Germany’s tumultuous 20th century history yesterday at the German History Museum, but today I got hit in the face with it. I started with Dutch and German painters in the Gemaeldegallerie (“Painting Gallery” in German), but the day turned somber as I visited memorials dedicated to Hitler’s victims and the Berlin Wall.
To get to the Gemaeldegallerie, I traveled to Potsdamer Platz. Previously a wasteland because it was split in two by the Berlin Wall, Potsdamer Platz today is the Times Square of Berlin and is home of the European headquarters of several big companies. Berlin doesn’t have a lot of tall buildings, but the Deutsche Bahn building here towers over everything. The Sony Center is impressive with its dome that’s meant to evoke Mount Fuji. I saw a couple of re-erected wall pieces here as well as some glass cylinders that turned to be collecting sun power with the mirrors sitting on top.
A short walk away from Potsdamer Platz is the Painting Gallery. It is part of a collection of cultural buildings called Kulturforum.
It turned out that my museum pass covered my entry here. I didn’t want to pay extra for the temporary exhibit, but I inadvertently went through it anyway, as it was housed on the same floor and right in the middle of the permanent exhibition.
I enjoyed several portraits in the permanent exhibit, especially the Portrait of Hieronymus Holazcschuher by Albrecht Duerer. The man’s eyes are looking out at you mischievously, and if you look closer you’ll see the reflection of a window in his pupils – the eyes are literally the window to this man’s soul. I also liked the coat of arms of his family and his wife’s family hanging nearby; that was supposed to cover the portrait most of the time, as the portrait was meant to be displayed for close friends and family only.
A triptych depicting judgement day reminded me of all the art I saw in Italy. Speaking of Italy, there are some Italians here – I saw a Caravaggio painting of the Roman god of Love, Amour, as well as a round painting by Masaccio, who painted the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. Look closely at the Masaccio below. You’ll see someone carrying a round thing on the very left – that’s this painting. 🙂 It was common for paintings like these to be used as tray tables before being framed and hung on the wall.
After the Gemaeldegallerie, I returned to Potsdamer Platz, where I went up Europe’s fastest elevator to Panoramapunkt, located at the top of Kollhoff tower 300 feet above ground. There was no line, and I got to see a bird’s eye view of Berlin. I got a sense of how vast the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was (on the list to visit today). Since I won’t be going up the TV tower, this is as high as I am going to get in Berlin.
After Panoramapunkt and a quick coffee break, I headed to checkpoint Charlie, just East of here. It’s not named after a person – it’s called Charlie because it’s gate C (there were gates A and B as well, but this one was most frequently used by foreigners). On the way there, I walked by an old DDW watchtower. Note the sniper holes.
Close by, I got to see my first stretch of surviving wall (vs. just a fragment or two randomly placed somewhere). A detailed history of the rise of the Nazi party was on display right behind the wall and in the interpretive center behind that, where formerly the Gestapo and the SS were headquartered. Aptly named “The Topography of Terror”, the center included chilling pictures of Hitler being revered by the Germans.
Further down the street, ads for a new trabant museum had me wondering why this car is so popular with tourists. I finally rounded the corner to checkpoint Charlie, where I could take pictures with the American soldiers for 3 EUR (fake soldiers, of course). What would you know, McDonalds and KFC can both be found here now.
The Museum of the Wall nearby was crammed with stuff but it was fascinating to read about the many ingenious ways people escaped to the West. One woman was hidden in a loud speaker; another sat cross-legged in the passenger seat and was covered up to mimic it; another one hid in two suitcases that were cut out on the inside to allow her to lay across both while they are closed. Others chose to swim or otherwise cross the Baltic sea, while yet others employed hot air balloons or flying devices that utilized Trabant motors (now, alternate uses for trabant motors would make for a fun museum). It was a kitschy museum and a total tourist trap but that’s part of being a tourist, right?
Lunchtime was an utter delight in the cafe of the Rausch Chocolate House, recommended by my friend Sarah and thoroughly described in my guidebook but somehow completely missed by me. Everything I had for lunch had chocolate in it – the dessert, of course, but also the bread and potato salad that arrived as an appetizer as well as my pork filet with potatoes. I am starting to cook with chocolate, stat! A dilemma of Shakespearean proportions presented itself for dessert – to drink it, or to eat it? I decided on the chocolate mini torte.
Downstairs, I enjoyed looking at (not eating) the huge chocolate versions of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.
Across the street was the Deutscher Dom (not to be confused with Berliner Dom from yesterday), which I enjoyed staring at from my window at the cafe. What a delicious little detour!
The S-Bahn station here, Stadtmitte, was one of the ones that were closed off when the wall went up; West German trains were allowed to go by here but could not stop. East German guards stood in their little locked cells here guarding the train and each other. When opened in 1989, these stations were a time-warp, looking much like they did when they were closed off 28 years prior.
Next, I returned to the Reichstag, where I retraced my steps back towards the Brandenburg gate. Several memorials are located here. The one dedicated to the politicians who opposed Hitler was sadly obscured by the security booth for the Reichstag. The series of slabs, one for each opponent, were largely ignored by passers by.
Across the street were memorials dedicated to the Sinti and Roma, who were also persecuted by Hitler, as well as a memorial to the victims of the wall itself – many died trying to cross it. The wall itself passed through here, and I found the bricks in the ground that mark the former course of it. In front of me was the Brandenburg gate, in all its glory. It’s hard for me to imagine that this beautiful Berlin monument was closed off for 28 years. In June 1963, 22 months after the Berlin Wall was erected, John F. Kennedy stood here and in a speech in front of 450,000 West Berliners exclaimed, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!”
Passing through the Brandenburg gate again, I noted the US embassy on the right (facing Unter den Linden blvd), the DZ bank building (fans of architect Frank Gehry will not immediately recognize his work unless they go into the amazing lobby), and hotel Adlon, where Michael Jackson once stayed and infamously dangled his baby son from a balcony.
Behind both of these buildings begins the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Opened in 2005, the memorial is a sea of concrete pillars. The visitor center in the corner displays letters and diary entries of murdered Jews as six of them look on from their pictures on the wall – one for each million that were killed. There is a room detailing the places where death camps were built and how many perished there. There was at least one in every country occupied by the Germans except for Bulgaria. We did not deport any of our Jews, although we did allow the Jews from territories we annexed during the war to be deported. The 50,000 Jews within our original borders at the start of WWII were spared thanks to protests by assemblyman Dimitar Peshev with the support of our last monarch, King Boris III.
Barely a block away from here stood a subtle sign indicating that this is where Hitler’s bunker once stood. You have to admire the Germans for dealing with this horrible part of their history straight on and trying to balance that with portraying Hitler’s history in a non-intrusive way. Other than the sign, there is no other acknowledgement of Hitler here. You’d never know the Germans are parking their cars over his grave.
The last sightseeing stop of the day was the Berlin Wall Memorial along Bernauerstrasse. The wall has been demolished in most places but here, the entire system can be seen; both outer walls survive as well as the death strip in between – now a green space. But I have to tell you, looking at a map of the wall with the “You are here” dot clearly sitting in the death strip is quite chilling. That I am freely standing in a space people died trying to get across is truly remarkable. Visiting this area was unexpectedly emotional for me; the fall of this wall and what it stood for in 1989 is what ultimately allowed me to leave my home country some 10 years later.
Buildings along Bernauerstrasse were incorporated right into the wall itself, and served as an escape route for East Germans until the buildings’ windows were bricked over and the buildings themselves ultimately demolished to make way for the infamous death strip. Can you imagine coming into your home from the backdoor and climbing out your window into another country? Well, that’s exactly what happened here. In the early days, West German firemen stood here waiting to rescue people coming out the windows. Others came here to wave to friends and family who remained on the East side of the wall.
Not only apartment buildings were casualties of the wall; a church and a cemetery got caught up in it. The church was demolished in 1985; its foundation is retraced in the ground and a replacement chapel stands in its place.
The foundation of an apartment building at Bernauerstrasse 10 has been excavated from underneath the wall, and the rooms of the apartments that stood here are clearly marked. An exhibit where the facade once stood details escape attempts and the lives of the people who used to live here.
Further up the street, escape tunnels going from the buildings in the East towards the West are are marked with plaques in the ground.. Some tunnels were actually dug from the West, as going into an East German store and buying 4 shovels would arise suspicion. I could go on and on with the stories I read in the exhibits along this stretch of the wall, but I think you get the picture.
After all this heavy history today, I was ready for a drink. Bernauerstrasse is at the edge of Prenzlauerberg, or Prenzl’burg as locals call it. It’s home of the oldest beer garden in town, Prater, so that’s where I headed for a bratwrurst and a Prater Pilsner. I expected to see a bunch of tourists here but I heard mostly German around me. I was nice to sit outside under the trees and enjoy the day’s end.