It was a lot colder than I thought it would be, thank God I wore my puffy coat. For years, I refused to get a long, down, puffy parka. They’re not exactly stylish after all. But after moving back to New Hampshire last winter, I gave in and began wearing one. It’s served me well, especially through the cold Prague winter (that I was also not expecting). And today, I was incredibly grateful that I had sucked up my style misgivings and worn it. Because that wind, it would have gone right through my stylish wool pea coat.
I’m down to under 12 hours left in my whirlwind 22 hour trip to the German capital. Six of the hours were spent sleeping, three were spent in the Czech embassy, and two were spent watching a movie with the friend I was staying with. I knew I wouldn’t have much time to see the city, and in my opinion, the best way to get to see a city quickly is on a walking tour. Even better if it’s free. So that’s just what I did.
I was joined by my TEFL friend Dan, who also was applying for his visa today, and together we tackled Berlin by foot. The tour covered Berlin’s history primarily from the Nazi era to present day, with a quick overview of the years prior to Hitler’s rise. Our first stop after the Brandenburg Gate was the Holocaust memorial, which is what I spent the rest of the day thinking about.
The memorial itself doesn’t seem like anything that special, to be candid. It’s a bunch of varying height concrete blocks set in a square with uneven ground. But it is actually quite visually striking, especially when you begin walking through. Being of Jewish descent, I always get such mixed feelings walking through Holocaust memorials and sites. On the one hand I of course mourn for those who lost their lives because they merely practiced a different religion. On the other hand, I am grateful. Grateful that my direct family was safely in America by World War II. Grateful that the same could be said for my friends families. Grateful that there were survivors who were strong enough and brave enough to tell their stories and fight to make sure a genocide like this never occurs again. And grateful that Judaism and its culture was not wiped out.
The creator of the memorial has never said what the symbolism of the memorial is. It’s made up of over 2,000 concrete blocks on uneven ground. He believes these memorials and monuments should be places for people to think and reflect, and thinking about what they think it represents is one way to do that. Some think it is a graveyard, and it does bare a resemblance to the Jewish graveyard in Prague. Others think it represents the varying ages of victims, represented by the different heights of the blocks. Me, I felt as I walked through it that it could represent the way that freedoms were stripped away from Jews until all they could see were the walls that contained them. The shorter blocks start on the outside, and as you make your way into the heart of the memorial, all you can see are the blocks around you. You feel closed in.
Throughout the rest of the tour, I was reflecting on that memorial as we learned about the Soviet history of Berlin and then the more modern history. Germany today is fighting against its old reputation of shutting those who are different out. Its welcoming refugees with open arms. And while that has caused some tensions in the country, I think it stands as a testament to the true spirit of Germany and Berlin. Berlin, before the history that most people know, was an open and cosmopolitan city. It had religious freedom and welcomed religious dissidents from other countries as well as those who wanted a new life. They were welcoming and strived to make people feel welcome, even building two almost identical Protestant churches in which the only differences were that in one the services were given in French and the other in German. This was to make the French Huguenots feel welcome after being driven from France.
Germany today is working to overcome its past history of oppression and exclusivity. Berlin is constantly under construction, cranes and construction vehicles can be seen almost everywhere, and that’s representative of how much growing the city has done and how much it still has left to do.
I can’t wait to return to Berlin to pick up my long-term visa and get to spend more than 22 hours in this amazing city!