Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Day Devoted to Berlin's Jews

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Jewish History of Berlin:
I devoted this final day in Berlin to retracing the history of the European Jew and leaving the apartment at 9 am (after a breakfast of coffee and purchased chocolate croissants), I took a bus down Ku-Damm to Checkpoint Charlie as I wanted to get some pictures there. Since it was still rather early, there were few tourists about and I was able to get the kind of angles I wanted without too much traffic tearing down the streets.

In fact, one of the things that occurred to me about Berlin was how little traffic there was—I was never caught in a jam anywhere—and how smoothly it moved. Of course, everyone seemed to be driving a spiffy German car—there were Mercedes Benz-es and Audis coming out of my ears! And the roads were smooth as silk so that even the double decker buses glided over them effortlessly. I later found out that not many Berliners own cars as their public transport is so fabulous—as indeed I discovered for myself. It is easy to feel as if you are transported to the mid-50s in the lack of cars on the roads.

At Checkpoint Charlie:
I paid one euro to the German guy who is licensed to masquerade as an American GI so I could pose with him at Checkpoint Charlie! There is also another kiosk where for another euro you can get your passport stamped with any of the visas of the pre-1989 era that were required if passengers were crossing the border from one part of divided Germany into the other. Much as I felt tempted to have my passport stamped with one of those visa stamps, I found it hard to accept that the man is ‘licensed’ to perform this operation in a real passport! I did not have the time to visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum nearby which details the stories of the many escapees who crossed the border using the most ingenious of means.

The Jewish Historic Museum:
Then began my long walk to the Jewish Historic Museum. This quite recent addition to the Berlin skyline is the design of American Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind who has designed a structure that is supposed to look like the Star of David turned inside-out. To call it sheer genius would be an understatement. It is so superbly conceived and so amazingly implemented—here again my engagement and connection with the Modernist architecture took me by surprise, but I marveled with each step I took further and further into the building which is something of a maze. It’s a good thing that a lot of young volunteer guides are around to help you find your way to a particular exhibit. In the basement, for instance, I visited the Holocaust Tower—a structure which represents various things to various people. It is a tall column that you enter underground. You will find yourself in an unlit and unheated space (and believe me, the contrast in temperatures is striking at any time of year). The only light is natural—coming from a small slit in the walls. It represented for me the entrapment of the prisoners in the various concentration camps around Europe and their inability to escape.

I then stepped into the Garden of Exile, a series of granite columns with olive trees growing at the top—olives, of course, symbolizing the Promised Land. Of course, since this was the wrong time of year to be visiting a garden, I merely took a peek at it, but again the concepts behind these creations were just staggering.

Taking the elevator to the top floor, I got off in the Medieval section which details the persecutions that Jews encountered throughout history. In this section, I was able, through a computer, to see my name written in Hebrew and to get a print out of it which really tickled me—what an unusual souvenir! If time had permitted, I would have gone minutely through every one of the mementoes on display from various epochs in history, but I had a great deal to cover and my next port of call was the underground Holocaust Memorial. By this time, I had become so familiar with the layout of the city through my maps and taking the buses, that I felt very much at ease and did not need to ask anyone for directions to get anywhere.

The Underground Holocaust Memorial:
The Holocaust Memorial is also rather ingeniously planned. You take a stair well that leads into a darkened space underground which details the losses suffered by about six European Jewish families during the insanity of the Holocaust. Of course, having been to Dachau (about 22 years ago) and more recently to Auschwitz-Birkenau on a trip to Eastern Europe, I had decided not to visit the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp which lies a few miles outside of Berlin. And I was familiar with the ruthlessness of the Nazi machinery that rounded up Jews from all over Europe and herded them off to the camps where they were forced to labor under atrocious conditions and eventually gassed to death. But to see this part of history presented so vividly through photographs and diary jottings and postcards is always so heart breaking that I was often in tears.

In Chocolate Heaven:
Taking the bus again, I went out in search of a cheering cup of hot chocolate at Fassbender and Rausch near the Gendarmenmarkt and I settled myself by a window that overlooked the imposing dome of the Cathedral and ordered myself a Black Forest Chocolate pastry (I love the name in German—Schwartzwalden Torte!) and a cup of Ecuadorian dark hot chocolate which was laced with Chilli! It was quite the most unusual and delicious hot chocolate I’ve had (the best one still remains the hot chocolate Chriselle and I had at Cukracavalimonada, a restaurant in Prague!). The pastry was amazing—the cherries, soaked in kirsche—cherry liqueur—were frozen into the pastry and they burst into my mouth in what seemed like small shots!

Coffee at KaDeWe:
Then, I was hurrying off to KaDeWe where I had made 3 pm coffee plans with my English friend and colleague Catherine Robson who is on a year long Fellowship at a university in Berlin finishing up her next book. Catherine was awaiting me when I got there and we made our way to the Food Halls again settling down with peppermint tea by the picture windows to gaze upon the rooftops of Berlin—not a very pretty sight!

Catherine and I caught up for an hour before she hurried off to do some shopping while I went back down to the entrance to await the arrival of Anja who returned from Munich that morning and had made plans to spend the evening with me. She arrived there within five minutes and we were off after she had secured her bicycle to a tree stump (that’s another thing—bicycles are ubiquitous in Berlin even in the winter!).

Exploring Berlin’s Lesser-Known Parts with Anja:
Anja got on to the bus with me and took me to the furthest point of the city, way in the East, which she told me was a bit like Greenwich Village in New York. This area was left untouched by the war and the buildings that line the street are pre-War—the entire area retains its early-20th century ambience and it was marvelous to stroll through a part of Germany that is being preserved almost like a memorial to those years before colossal personal ambition changed the world for the worse. The area is lined with cafes, restaurants, boutique shops and cultural centers, art galleries and the like. We found ourselves a cute café (Café de Paris) to have another cup of coffee and then we were on the S-Bahn making our way back to Charlottenburg as I wanted to take Anja out for dinner and she recommended a place called Engelbecken that served Bavarian food as Anja is from Munich!

A Bavarian Dinner in Charlottenberg:
Needless to say, I was exhausted by this point as finding the restaurant involved a long walk from the S-Bahnhof (railway station) and I had spent the entire day on my feet! I was grateful when the waiter found us a table and we settled down with the equivalent of a Shandy and ordered wild boar casserole with knoddel (potato casserole) and a salad of mixed greens. Anja opted for a veal roast with spaztel (a German thick pasta, somewhat similar to gnocchi). The food was absolutely delicious and since I do not go to restaurants when I am traveling alone, I always welcome the company and the opportunity to eat good local food with someone who can guide me on what to order and how to eat it. We had a fabulous evening together and were able to catch up and make plans to meet again, next in Padua in Italy where I have been invited to give a lecture in March—Anja will be in Venice at the same time!

Anja decided to spend the night with me in Anneke’s apartment—which was a huge relief to me as I had to leave the apartment really early the next morning to take the S-Bahn to Schonefeld airport and I was grateful for her company. She, poor thing, was exhausted after her own return from Munich and the hectic week she had spent there (she is an art historian doing a rather late Ph.D. on an Italian Renaissance Venetian artist) and would have rather been in her own bed, no doubt. We continued chatting late into the night and finally nodded off to sleep.

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