Berlin with Johnby Philip Greenspun
Home : Travel : Berlin and Prague : Part 2
We started our program of megatourism at the Pergamon Museum, whose main treasure is a temple frieze lifted from the city state of Pergamon (currently part of Turkey). This was built around 170 B.C. and celebrates the triumph of the Greek gods over a random assortment of giants. Gods are depicted with calm, cold, collected expressions while they inflict all kinds of horrible injuries upon the giants who wear expressions of agony as they fall helplessly. John was convinced that a slim 18-year-old blonde in the museum had been following us, but I managed to drag him away to the old Jewish quarter, which is one of the more peaceful spots in the city (it is not on the "old Prussian Berlin" or "wonderful modern Berlin" tours that Germans take, so we saw just a handful of foreign tourists).
Die Neue Synagoge on Oranienburger Strasse had a tired Oriental look and was under restoration. This building demonstrates the power of a single person of conscience. When the Nazis rolled around on Reichkristallnacht and set fire to the synagogue, a lone policeman decided that it was a valuable historical building. He got a fire brigade to put the fire out and then arranged an all-night guard for the place. His efforts were ultimately in vain, for the Nazis had learned something from the Turks in Athens: when you want something to be destroyed, e.g. the Parthenon, put a lot of explosive stuff inside and wait for an accident. Thus the building was used as an ammo dump and an Allied bomb blew the place to smithereens in 1943.
The nearby Jewish cemetery now contains only one gravestone: that of Moses Mendelssohn. The Nazis were aware that Jews, unlike Christians, preserve old graves indefinitely as sacred ground. They took special care therefore to not only smash all the tombstones, but also to dig up the bones of the 12,000 people buried there. Immediately to the left of the cemetery are two Soviet-sponsored reminders of Nazi days: a sculpture of emaciated concentration camp inmates and a tablet marking the collection point for 55,000 Berlin Jews on their way to labor and death camps.
The rest of the quarter was devoid of tourist attractions, unless you count a 10-year-old boy hollering at us for crossing a tiny street against the "don't walk" signal.
We ventured deeper into East Berlin and were struck by the general shabbiness of the place. Every building facade is pock-marked with shell and bullet holes. It was easy to remember that the Red Army lost about as many soldiers in the Battle of Berlin as the U.S. Army lost in all of WWII fighting both the Japanese and Germans. Fighting was at such close range that artillery shells had to be refused to explode after flying only a block or two.
Even if the war damage were repaired, life in East Berlin would be far from sybaritic. The predominant car is the Trabbi which makes a Volkswagen seem positively luxurious. None of the little shops had a cold drink for sale and it occurred to me that simple tasks can be very time-consuming here. For example, in any boulangerie in France one can get a sandwich, cold drink, and napkin. In Germany, buying the same items might involve visiting three stores. John ducked into a big new supermarket looking for limes or lime juice but found neither. He'd been looking all over northern Germany for weeks without success because German supermarkets only carry about 10-20% of the items an American supermarket might have. Ethnic food here is corn chips.
We stopped into the Humboldt University Physics Department so that John could use Internet, the worldwide network linking millions of computer users. East Germany must not have been all bad; hospitality at Humboldt reminded me of New Zealand. Herr Professor Doctor Thiele stopped what he was doing and walked us 100m down a corridor to some associates with a lame old IBM PC-clone. They quit their program, rebooted the machine for us, then waited patiently while John connected to his home computer in Bielefeld and read his mail. As we were walking out, Dr. Thiele showed us a vacuum deposition machine and posters derived from research papers. We were invited for coffee and everyone wanted to know about our touring program so they could recommend things and help us. They were knowledgeable about Nazi and Jewish sites and didn't seem surprised at our interests. A lab technician actually walked down three flights of stairs and across the street to get us to the natural history museum's reconstructed dinosaurs.
Just a block or two from the dinosaurs, we had our first Käthe Kollwitz flashback of the day: the East German monument to early German Communist Karl Liebknecht, whom Kollwitz had portrayed following his murder by rightist thugs. We strolled past the Bertolt Brecht house and caught a bus to the sterile monumental Alexanderplatz. This ugly East German wasteland has been further despoiled by garish signs advertising Western products: Panasonic, Pioneer, Coca-Cola, etc. For five marks we rode to the top of the 360m high television tower (roughly the height of the World Trade Center, not as high as the towers in Moscow or Toronto). Here one can "sit on it and rotate" in a cafe with that good old surly Communist service: a request for a Coke, a liqueur, and some tapwater was met with refusal on the tapwater score. First our waitress said that they had no tapwater, but when pressed admitted they had some but couldn't serve it "for health reasons." Presumably she was referring to their financial health; they are perfectly happy to serve it to you heated slightly and with a teabag. Despite the shocking prices, indifferent service, and smoking clientele, the view was more than worth it. The difference between East and West Berlin was very evident from this vantage and the day just got sunnier with every hour.
After being whisked down from the tower, we walked up Unter den Linden toward the Brandenburg Gate. We got sidetracked at the Marx-Engels statue where John stuck a 100-mark note in Marx's hand for a photo. Our next Käthe Kollwitz flashback was The Neue Wache (new watch), the famous architect Schinkel's first big commission. It was supposed to celebrate victory over Napoleon and was designed as a guardhouse for the Kaiser's Palace across the street. (You can't see the Kaiser's Palace, which was bombed by the Allies and then pulled down by the anti-Royalist East Germans to make room for some kind of People's palace.) It looks kind of like a Roman Temple, which is perhaps why it became Germany's unknown soldier monument after the First World War. Hitler remade it slightly into a monument glorifying militarism and victorious Russians turned it into a monument to the victims of fascism, i.e., the Nazis.
As soon as the Russians cleared out, people agitated to turn the thing into yet another monument to the victims of Stalin, but eventually settled for a universalist monument to victims of all wars. A Kollwitz statue will be the centerpiece of the monument. Thus will the artist who fought against the government in 1933 posthumously assist today's German government in erasing the memory of the Nazi period.
We resolved to walk until we came to an S-Bahn station, but ended up stuck in the transitless wilderness of the Tiergarten, just past the lovely Soviet memorial to the heroic Red Army. A tough Russian soldier stands atop a semicircular colonnade, flanked by howitzers and two T-34 tanks. It must be pretty irritating to locals who drive by this all the time. Imagine a monument to B29 bombers in the middle of downtown Tokyo.
While we stood at a street corner, cluelessly leafing through various guidebooks, an Aryan goddess stopped on her bicycle and asked (in beautiful English) if she could help us. We explained our problem, and she told us that all S-Bahn stations were a 15-minute walk. She directed us past the Reichstag to the main Friedrichstrasse interchange. Meanwhile, she had utterly charmed us with her smile and friendliness. After she left, John couldn't stop talking about her perfect skin, "intelligent hair," and generally remarkable personality. He mentioned all the things we should have said to her to get her phone number and spend more time with her. I said that if we'd let an opportunity like that pass us by, we deserved to be single and lonely.
It was fixing to be a beautiful sunset on the Reichstag and I set up my tripod in the middle of a vast lawn for a photo.
[The Reichstag contains an exhibit, "Questions on German History," that is very popular for public school trips and famous among the local diplomats for its whitewashing of the Nazi period. It was, closed, however, so we couldn't see for ourselves.] History seemed palpable as I stood in front of the building whose burning provided Hitler with an excuse to declare a state of emergency. This was the beginning of Germany's quick slide from constitutional democracy to dictatorship and I thought about the complacency with which Americans have given up so many civil rights in the name of the Drug War.
John and I S-Bahned to the Wannsee the next day and considered a walk down to Heinrich von Kleist's grave. This writer's death was called by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué "one of the most marvelous suicides of all time." In 1861, Max Ring wrote an allegedly superb tribute to Kleist that was placed here on a marble slab. However, we decided to skip the grave because the Nazis ripped up the tribute in 1936 (due to Ring having been Jewish) and replaced it with something boring.
Anxious to rest our flat fleet, we caught a tour boat to Potsdam under blue skies. Our cruise was narrated (in German only) by a man with an enthusiasm for detail. We learned the speed of the boat, the history of villas built by cousins of brother-in-laws of cousins of obscure German princes, the past and present uses of patches of forest and islands, all while breathing that famous refreshing Berlin air. Although the lake doesn't offer the dramatic scenery of, say, Lake Tahoe, it is remarkable to find such a peaceful beautiful place so close to a large city.
As we passed the famous Villa am Grossen Wannsee (site of the January 20, 1942 Final Solution conference), our guide's fund of history dried up and it received only passing mention ("on the left is the Villa am Grossen Wannsee, on the right the beautiful sandy Wannsee beach").
The weather turned greyer and colder as we cruised under the famous Glienicker Bridge and learned about all the East-West spy exchanges held here, including that of U2 pilot Gary Powers and dissident Natan Scharansky. We put on more clothing and stayed on deck as we crossed back to former East Germany and its unmistakable air of shabbiness, rubble, and reconstruction. As we lounged on the deck amidst a group of older Germans, John remarked how pathetic it was that, at the ages of 29 and 30, we were living like retired people. I said that we should have brought a shuffleboard set.
We walked through Downtown Potsdam and over to Frederick the Great's Sans Souci (without a care) castle. Fred admired Louis XIV and built his gardens and palace in imitation of Versailles. Although the place offered fountains, serenity, vast lawns, broad avenues, hundreds of sculptures, immense palaces, something was hideously wrong. I was reminded of Rémy de Gourmont: The copy of a beautiful thing is always an ugly thing. It is an act of cowardice in admiration of an act of energy.
My favorite spot was the Chinese teahouse, where the ceiling paintings include a monkey bearing Voltaire's features. It seems that Voltaire was a house guest here for three years and he and the king parted on bad terms. A year later, the monkey showed up. People with money did more interesting things in the old days.
John caught a train back home to north-central Germany, and I met Jean and Carlos at the Deutsche Staatsoper (the Communist opera company) for a performance of La Traviata. This grand building with crystal-clear acoustics was completed in 1743 and houses only about half as many people as the Met. The Royal Air Force opened up the roof and redecorated the interior during the war then the place was rebuilt in the style and quality of a Marriott banquet room. When the curtain rose, there was nothing but a bare stage and a few sewn-together bedsheets where the Metropolitan Opera would have million dollar sets showing Paris better than it ever was.
The opera was a great window into East Germany. It looked as though they'd mustered up money to rebuild the place, albeit shabbily. Then they managed to get an orchestra to follow the conductor's commands and a group of singers with no obvious technical flaws (although they were the thickest-waisted Parisiennes you ever saw). Out of funds, they had to borrow sets and equipment from an American junior high school. Thus, when the gypsies were rolled out during Flora's party, the creaking of their dancing platform drowned out their voices at times. Still, an $8 student ticket here beats sitting in the back of the Met for $20 with a telescope.