We could be heroes

Saturday 24 June 2017

I don’t think we saw or heard anyone else the whole time we were in the flat. Which was a little un-nerving. Maybe I’ve read too many cold war books. Which reminds me, if you haven’t read Stasiland yet, you should. The book and its author received a frosty reception in what was East Germany in 2004. I digress. But only a little. Things would have happened in this building where we were staying. Listening devices would have been planted in some of the flats.

We left the flat just in time to board the tram towards Mitte and especially Distrikt Coffee. We got there right on opening time (there was a queue!) and got a great breakfast (which for me may have involved a poached egg and avocado) and great coffee. The interior was trendy in a cool relaxed way and the staff was friendly.

Fortified, we walked through the atmospheric Friedhof Sophien II cemetery to the Berlin Wall Memorial. There, at Bernauer Strasse, we found a complete section of the wall still intact – with the no man’s land and one of the three remaining watchtowers. This is where the wall was first erected. In what used to be East Germany, apartment blocks were right against the wall, and early on people used to escape to West Germany through the windows. Some of these buildings were later condemned and demolished. The outdoor exhibition shows some of the successful escapes. It also tells of unsuccessful ones. People who saved their lives; people who saved others; people who took risks. The stakes were high; soldiers were under orders to shoot escapees.

The museum has more stories, some echoed the stories we’d read about the previous days. Some people had made some very difficult decisions – either informing on their friends and neighbours or helped bust escape networks.

Sure, it’s easy to be judgmental now. What would we have done in similar circumstances?

It cannot be as simple as heroes and villains.

I spent a few minutes listening to some of the audio recordings – people who had been interrogated by the Stasi; soldiers who had been told to keep guard along the wall to protect the East from the West (but soon realised that the danger was most likely internal).

There were some more uplifting stories too. Families meeting across the wall when originally the wall was just a small partition, showing off newborns or just waving to each other. Families torn apart, yet trying to keep some sense of normality.

I remember stories from my childhood. Bear with me on this one. My maternal grandmother’s brother was married to a woman. He died. She remarried. She died. Her husband remarried a younger polish woman who had escape Poland just before or just after the iron curtain. She had made the ultimate sacrifice; she’d left her family behind. Over the years, she exchanged many letters with her family – she had no doubt that her letters were censored as the ones she got from her loved ones were heavily censored. A few times, she asked for special permission to go and visit her relatives. Each request was refused. My memory is hazy here, but I think one of her later attempts was successful. She was beyond joy. My maternal grandmother kept in touch with her and her husband and this is how I know that her marriage was a happy one. She led a contented life in France. She and her husband had adopted two siblings. I remember she taught me how to pluck a chicken amongst other things.

These thoughts were circling in my head the whole time we were at the Berlin Wall Memorial. That was intense.

With mixed feelings, and some relief, we made for our next destination. Walking around Mitte was a welcome treat: the architecture is lovely and it has many cool bars, restaurants and boutique shops. Lunch at The Klub Kitchen was followed by a browse in Paper and Tea and a shop selling wrapping paper and stationery goods (a dream!). We picked up some tasty cinnamon buns from Zet fur Brot (another queue!) and returned to our sightseeing.

First on the list was one of the Alexanderplatz’s most well-known sights, the World Time Clock. Constructed in 1969, it weighs 16 tons and is 10 metres tall. The revolving cylinder has 24 time zones with the names of major cities in each zone. And, you can see the current time in each zone. I loved it.

A short walk away, we visited St Marienkirche. Only a small portion of the famous dance macabre fresco was visible, as the western portico is undergoing renovation. Very little is known about it. It’s suggested that local citizens commissioned it and that it aimed to ‘demonstrate the transience of life on earth’.

Not far from the St Marienkirche, we found larger-than-life statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of the Communist Manifesto. Another reminder that Berlin was one of the capitals of the communist world.

We took a bus to our next stop, the Room of Silence near the Brandenburg Gate. The room is located in the gate’s northern wing and it offers visitors a place to meditate, reflect and ponder in what is one of Berlin’s most touristy monuments.

We walked as close to the Reichstag as we could – big flags on display, including a huge European one. We hadn’t booked (free) tickets to enter so we made do with the monument to the Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag.

Our next memorial was the memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. Centered around a pond, it is quite understated yet peaceful.

Not memorialed out just yet, we made for the Holocaust Memorial which commemorates the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It is akin to a giant field of stelae. It contains 2,711 sarcophagus-like concrete slabs, which vary in height on undulating ground. It is stunning and poignant… as long as you ignore the kids and young tourists playing hide and seek (seriously, sometimes I don’t get people!).

There was a lot to absorb and discuss, and we did that over a craft beer at Kaschk back in Mitte (all pale ale). The décor is cool, as in Scandi-it-looks-like-you’re-in-a-homemade-shed cool. During the day, they serve coffee and baked goods there.

And then we thought we’d go back to Hops & Barley because the beer is really nice there! We sat outside, and shared our table with friendly locals. Every time a new drink was purchased, a merry round of ‘prost’ rang around.