Monday, 29 June 2015

A City of Contradictions

The Husband was able to succinctly sum up my very conflicted emotions about Berlin. He described it as a city that has lived its entire history at the political extremes and is now attempting to reconcile its past with its present and future. Traces of imperialism, monarchies, facism, communism, and democratic capitalism are all bubbling just beneath the surface here at every rebuilt building and every reimagined monument or memorial. And the city is teeming with both. There was very little left untouched by the Berlin bombings at the end of World War II. Ninety percent of all buildings in the city were destroyed, and as such there has been a reconstruction and overhaul that is a strange mix of both old and new. To their credit, the Germans are neither hiding from nor whitewashing their horrific history, and are at the very least, making every effort to honour and memorialize the vicitms of both the Shoah and of the Soviet regime. A once divided city is now whole, but there are shadows of the past that haunt this place and are forever inescapable. 

I felt tremendous pain and emotional upheaval today. I instinctively understood that in every place I walked, Nazis marched. At every government building or library that we visited, I recalled visuals of black and white newsreels of Hitler giving speeches or Nazi rallies. It is terribly unfair to the modern day Berliners who are really attempting to be exemplary world citizens, but it is a part of my psyche that I will never be able to fully discard. 

So, while we visited the square in front of the Law School at Humboldt University, all I could see was the poignant memorial to the Berlin book burnings of 1933. At the refurbished Olympic stadium, still remarkably intact since 1936, I saw Jesse Owens quietly dispelling the myth of the "master race". On Museum Island, where culture has overtaken politics, I was starkly reminded of Hitler's rallies on the steps of one of the rebuilt facades. At the Reichstadt, the seat of German democracy, my mind replayed photographic images of the swastika hanging from its columns. I could not abandon my history and heritage for even one moment of today's tour. 

But, it was at the Holocaust Memorial, aptly named The Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, where I was struck mute. I silently wept as we made our way through the columns of 2711 individually-sized granite blocks. The stones are uninscribed and stark, almost like nameless headstones. As we walked through, there were times when the ground dropped and sloped and almost caused me to lose balance. We felt enveloped and surrounded on all sides, with no means of escape. I was emotionally spent after just five minutes and was relieved not to have to visit the museum below. I honestly do not believe I could have handled it. 

This is a new Berlin; fresh, vital, modern, and free. But, for those of us who are charged with and emotionally burdened by "never forgetting", it might take a little longer to see it that way. 

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