Friday, July 3, 2009

Summertime and The Darkness

Berlin, Thursday

All day sightseeing, and I loved it. Though not born to be one of the boys on the tour bus, I nevertheless arrive in a new place with a list of sights, a map, a plan, and the best pair of walking shoes I can find (Merrell, of course...). Jase (a trooper, though not the same kind of sightseer as I) had work to do, so I was on my own most of the day and I used it well.

We breakfasted early with the intention of starting our day at the Gold's Gym here, but arrived at 9 30 to discover that they don't open until 10 on Tues Thurs and weekends and 7 on MWF. Odd. We decided to workout later.

On the way to the gym we strolled past and decided to look around a 2+ centuries old Jewish cemetery, still an active burial ground for a small number of prominent Jewish families, but mostly overgrown now with headstones from decedents of the mid to late 19th century and the first 30 or so years of the 20th. Tombstones inscribed in both Hebrew and German. Liebermann, Rosenberg, Cohen, you name it. Powerful memories of a once thriving Jewish community here; happily, we seem to be trickling back to the city year after year.

Jase went on to his gallery for a press event and I peeled off at Alexanderplatz to have a look at what once was the commercial heart of the former East Berlin. On a gorgeous summer day, it was hard to imagine the complex of office builings, shops, and department stores as dreary symbols of a failed regime (as described in the guidebooks). The kitsch element was a world clock capped by a large stylized sculpture of an atom--the clock is organized to provide the time in then-Communist capitals of the world: Havana, Hanoi, etc. Today the base was littered with fading Michael Jackson memorabilia, candles, flowers etc. Ugh.

Then on to Checkpoint Charlie. At many of the major historical destinations the city has erected a well executed set of small billboards with photos and historical narrative. Seeing the pics of Russian and American tanks facing off on opposite sides of the Checkpoint nearly 50 years ago was an eerie reminder of vague childhood fears.

The centerpiece of the day was the Jewish Museum. The building, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, has a different structure, look, and feel at each level. Will run a few photos here rather than try to describe the building in detail. There are hundreds of exhibits of varying quality detailing Jewish life in and around Berlin over the centuries. For me, the lower level of the building, one transverse of which was devoted to the Holocaust, was not doing it for me until I walked through a large black metal door marked Holocaust Tower, which shut solidly behind me, and found myself completely alone at the bottom of what felt like a well----a narrow four story grey concrete rectangle reaching up up up, almost completely in blackout except for a sliver of bright sunshine from a narrow triangular slit in the ceiling. It immediately conveyed the structure and feeling of the gas chambers and crematoria I saw last summer at Auschwitz--but somehow even more terrifying and devastating in the silence and solitude and darkness of the Liebeskind vision. I burst into tears.

Spent the late afternoon wandering through the commercial heart of West Berlin, including the famous bombed out shell of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church and the renowned KaDeWe department store. Lingered a long time on the 6th floor food court, which contained every shape size and color of German wurst you can imagine. Arrived at the pastry counters at one end of the floor, and was dazzled by the most tempting array of strudel and tortes and and and.....I narrowly escaped.

So there you have it, from summer sun to the darkness of hell and then culinary heaven. All in one day. Ach, Berlin......

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