Tag Archives: Memorial

Travel Guide: Berlin

One sibling loved every moment while the other did not speak highly of the experience. Friends have visited multiple times, reportedly always leaving with a desire to return. I once heard a comment that it felt wrong for a European capital to be new and modern rather than old and charming. As for me, I’ve been reading a lot and the reading has helped put Berlin into context. It is a very complicated place.

Throughout my time in Berlin, I was in awe at its history, taken in by its spirit, and curious about what I would find around the next corner. There was an unpredictability to Berlin that I had not expected, an element of surprise that makes complete sense considering the significance and history of this city. The whole time I was there, I couldn’t quite get over the fact that I was there in this place, which, not long ago, was a completely different place. People make a place and the people who made this one are amazing to me.

This is why I started my visit to Berlin in Kreuzberg, a neighbourhood known today for its art scene but a neighbourhood with a much grittier history than that.

I stopped first at the Berlin Wall Museum (expensive but worth every penny) and the East Side Gallery. I wanted to understand the people who call Berlin home and the people who stood together to rebuild it. I wanted to understand the stories that people around the world want to tell about Berlin and what its separation and reunification symbolize to them. More than anything, I felt that Berlin reflected an attitude of deliberate commitment to a very clear choice, and I think the world could use more of that.

I recently read Helena Merriman’s Tunnel 29 and it gave me a great deal of background information that I would not have otherwise had. Walking along Bernauer Straße and coming to the corner of Ackerstraße left me standing a little straighter, full of hope for the future, and deeply moved by thoughts of what it must have been like for the world to completely and utterly change over the course of a single night.

With that, it was time to find out more about the longer history of Berlin and follow a very knowledgeable guide through Mitte, the central district.

The stops that struck a particular chord with me were the memorial to the Nazi era book burnings . . .

. . . the historical significance of Checkpoint Charlie (be aware that the Disneyland-like environment around it is just really strange) . . .

. . . the carpark area built over Hitler’s bunker . . .

. . . and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The guide suggested walking through it individually and in silence, which was a powerful experience. Part confusion and isolation, part a sense of losing direction, and part a feeling of being trapped with no place to go.

I retraced some of our steps the following day to consider Germany today and its role on the world stage. When I first told friends I was moving to Germany one of them asked, “How does it feel to be going to a country led by a woman?” I have to say, it felt pretty good.

As I wandered, I paused at two quiet memorials. I’ve written about memorials before and at the very least, these made me pause. It was evident that the same was true for others. (I also really like the German word for memorial, das Denkmal. Denken means “to think” and I don’t need to say any more than that.)

My last night in Berlin, with much warmer weather than when I arrived, I happened upon a Christmas Market as I walked along the Ku’damm to take in the lights and designer shops. Christmas Markets are scattered throughout the city and are normally all over Germany, but this year is not a normal year. Clear entry points with masks and vaccine proof, but it’s a small price to pay. I was glad to spend a little time there and glad for the energy of those around.

There’s so much more to see and do in Berlin, and I admit this post is a selection of highlights. I’ll certainly be back, hopefully next time without icy wind blowing down from the north. I left Berlin having gained a new sense of respect for this city and this country, a heightened awareness of what it means to work towards something important. I am very aware that I am a guest here in Germany, and truly grateful for the opportunity to know, to learn, and to try to understand.

Stumbling Stones

Several weeks back, I looked over the notes I took years ago as my grandmothers regaled me with stories of our extended family history. I looked over the family tree that my grandmother’s cousin, who I’ve never met, had painstakingly put together, complete with full names and the dates and locations of births, marriages, and deaths. Somehow, the story feels different on this side of the world.

One evening heading home from climbing, an American friend asked how my family had responded when I said I was moving to Germany.

Later, a German friend told me he had been wondering that, too, but as a German, never would have asked. He walked with me through town and pointed out buildings the Nazis had built and used as offices. A small sign, so nondescript that it’s easy to miss, explains it. No fanfare.

It took several weeks of lessons before my German teacher told me she had been afraid to ask about my family history after learning my name for the first time.

My history students and I are studying the period of European diplomacy between the World Wars and it hasn’t yet come up that I’m Jewish. It might. What is obvious is the depth of understanding these young people have about propaganda, hate speech, power, victimization. They do not take today’s world for granted because they know what it cost.

Yesterday I photographed the first stumbling stones that I saw when I arrived here. Before I knew what they were. Before I knew how they got there.

Hier wohnte. Here lived.

Here lived.

Hier wohnte.

As a memorial, the stumbling stones, or Stolpersteine, are not without controversy. (Is there such a thing as remembrance without controversy?) As of December 2019, 75,000 Stolpersteine had been placed in Germany and they are in other countries, too. But not everyone agrees that accidentally tripping over a stone and then recognizing its significance, even if it forces you to kneel before the victim, is dignified. I can appreciate the disagreement because it means that people care. They care enough to argue about the best way to honour lives taken.

It is one thing to be steeped in history. It is another thing entirely to learn from it.

Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken? – Terry Pratchett, Going Postal

Travel Guide: Leipzig

Many years ago, so many that I don’t remember quite when it started, I fantasized about moving to Europe and travelling around by train. Each time I have had the opportunity to sit on a train with a book in my hands and watch the world go by, I have smiled at the hopes and dreams we have when we are young. And then, this time, it happened: I have moved to Europe and I was travelling by train.

Located in the state of Saxony, Leipzig was first known as a merchant town in the Middle Ages. It later became the centre of East German life after the Second World War, and is now a home for history and culture, telling a story a thousand years old. It’s an hour and twenty minutes from Weimar on the regional train (no changes) and slightly faster with the ICE train (but there’s a change in Erfurt). A city of 600,000 people, Leipzig made for a nice change of pace and far broader food choices.

I left early and arrived just after 9am, which gave me time to get a coffee and something to eat before joining the free walking tour (I have so many good things to say about this in so many cities). It’s always a pleasure to wander, but wandering becomes something different when you know what you’re seeing. I will not relay the history of Leipzig here, but I will say that much of the old town has been reconstructed because two-thirds of it was destroyed during the war.

Leipzig University is a good example of the story architecture can tell. There was once a church here, the Paulinerkirche, which was destroyed in 1968. The reconstruction pays homage to what was while honouring the different values university communities often hold today.

Another prominent church is Nikolaikirche, which I came across on my own before our tour guide explained Leipzig’s experience as part of the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany). It made my heart soar when I first saw it, and even more so when I learned that this church was the site of the peace marches that signaled the end of communism and the beginning of a new era of life and politics. I have a great appreciation for any religious community that stands for what it preaches – justice, peace, and a better world for us all.

This mural tells the story better than I can:

Through a discussion with the tour guide, I learned that Leipzig has the largest Jewish community in central Germany and that there is also a tour of Leipzig’s Jewish history. I will have to return for this because it’s only offered once a month, so in the meantime I walked over to the Holocaust memorial. Situated on the site of the old synagogue, this memorial brought to mind not masses, but individuals. The modern restaurants and apartment buildings surrounding it demonstrate what I continue to find the most fascinating aspect of humanity – the world turns and life goes on.

Later in the afternoon, I walked south into a neighbourhood called KarLi, nicknamed for its main street. It did not surprise me that this is where many students live. Students have a way of developing areas to suit them, or perhaps it is the neighbourhoods themselves that have called students there. I currently live in a student neighbourhood and while my annoyance at their penchant for late hours is a clear reminder that I have left that world behind, I am grateful for the positivity, energy, and spirit that comes from being young and imaginative. These are, after all, the people who make the world go round.

I saw many examples of activism throughout Leipzig and that was heartening. There’s a lot to be active about right now, and while I’m aware that actions speak far louder than words, most actions begin as words. Even a whisper is better than standing idly on the sidelines.

My time in Leipzig lasted just over 24 hours. I was glad to be around more people, hear more languages, and taste different food. I appreciated the time in a new place, the ease of travel, and the excitement of learning something new. Leipzig is just down the road and there’s a literary festival in March – I suspect I’ll be back.