Tag Archives: World War II

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.

Travel Guide: Nuremberg

Prior to visiting, most of what I knew of Nuremberg (Nürnberg in German) was that Nazi war criminals had been tried there and justice had been served. However, there is a great deal more to this medieval town and I was glad to spend a few days there.

My favourite part of European cities, and the thing that painted my fantasies of the Europe I first read about in historical fiction novels, is the old town. And now that I live somewhere with an old town, I can attest that it remains as charming as on the first visit.

Although Nuremberg’s famed Christmas market was closed due to Covid regulations, the main market remained open and I was pleasantly surprised by its variety. Nuremberg is a city of just over 800,000 people, several universities, and what seemed to be a large immigrant community. I heard more languages than I have heard in a while, which was fun, and there was a greater variety of vegan food here than I had expected, as well as cuisine that I cannot get in my small town.

I had been told that Nuremberg has beautiful churches, and this was certainly true. Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth came to mind; I know the building of churches and cathedrals was anything but romantic but they certainly provide an atmosphere to a place.

I had also been told to visit the landmarks of the Weisser Turm and Ehekarussell, the latter of which is a rather whimsical look at a marital relationship.

But no city is charming alone. No city is without a history, and sometimes that history is dark. I had two destinations in mind to pay homage to Nurember’s more recent history, which is why I caught a tram to the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds on the first afternoon. The air field and still unfinished stadium complete with grandstand was the site of the Nuremberg rallies from 1933 to 1938. It was a cold afternoon with bright sunshine and shocking blue skies, and it was beautiful around the water. I am familiar with the history, but I never think about it with blue sky. Maybe that’s what made it difficult to be there.

And maybe that’s why it was important to be there. The woman with the hula hoop illustrated the juxtaposition of the atmosphere and I paused for a moment for think.

The following very cold morning, I returned to medieval history to visit the Kaiserburg, Nuremberg’s castle dating back to the Holy Roman Empire. It provided wonderful views of the city and the museum, which I visited as a respite from the cold, provided a nice overview of the previous nearly 1,000 years.

As someone who grew up in North America, I am still tickled by the thought of structures that have been, in some form, in the same location for such a long time. And I am saddened by the fact that North America, though it is not often considered in this capacity, has an equally old history, so much of which was destroyed by people who found no value in knowledge of the land and its environs.

As a contrast, though times are changing, I had earlier passed a memorial for LGBT victims of the Holocaust. This was a reminder of how we move beyond atrocity.

There is a history of hurt the world over and it is only through active awareness of it that we can live up to “Never again”. This attitude is also what made my later destination, the Way of Human Rights so poignant. And perhaps I am looking for signs (I don’t believe in signs but I also don’t not believe in signs) but the sunlight did take on significance that was likely undeserved.

I intentionally stopped at the Way of Human Rights on the way to the Memorium Nuremberg Trials and Courtroom 600, the room where the trials took place. It is still in use today and the audioguide provided a clear description of what the room would have looked like at that time.

It was eerie to be there, strange to see bright sunshine on the walls and to sit quietly and listen to a historical overview that I had often brushed off. I now remember why, after writing my undergraduate thesis on the Hitler Youth movement, I took a long break from Holocaust reading and research. The sense of obligation that I felt to read every single word has not gone away and each word takes a toll.

I was surprised, though, to find myself angry, and it was over Glühwein and my journal later that evening that I was able to place it. I was not angry at the perpetrators or at the bystanders. I was not angry at the deniers or those who continue spreading hate in countless communities. Rather, I was angry because the Nuremberg Trials meted out justice in a way that was reasonable, fair, and largely undisputed. These were actual trials with evidence and sentencing. Individuals were convicted as far as the evidence could provide and sentencing was carried out swiftly and with due process. These trials paved a way forward for how to deal with crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, crimes of war.

And yet, there is so much bias in legal systems today. Trials have outcomes before they happen. Consequences are seemingly inconsequential. I thought about this, I thought about recent global political news, and I was angry. The Nuremberg Trials provided a framework and an opportunity and I wondered at where this legacy has gone.

I learned a few things at the Memorium, too, like the fact that simultaneous translation was used for the first time here and that the translation staff numbered 350. The proceedings followed Anglo-American legal traditions, which differ from continental European legal traditions, and this created some controversy. There were follow-up trials in later years, including of Japanese crimes in the Pacific war, but the later trials in Europe never generated the press or popular support of the first trials.

It was dark by the time I set my journal and book aside and left the café where I had taken refuge hours earlier. Sometimes it’s just good to be around people.

As a medieval city, Nuremberg’s old town is still surrounded by walls and I found myself quite taken by them.

This fascination remained even without sunlight. The morning of my last full day was warmer than the previous days, and I was glad of this. My plan was to walk the 5k trail that is maintained around the walls. The walls are imposing and I can imagine how impenetrable they were when first built; they seem that way now, even with playgrounds for children, a skatepark, and courts for basketball and racquet sports.

Finally, I visited the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, which has an impressive and overwhelming collection of artifacts dating throughout human history. There were also installations from the Global Art Festival scattered throughout the exhibits and I enjoyed those very much. If you’re happy to spend a few hours wandering through a museum that makes its home in a former monastery, I’d recommend a visit.

The city of Nuremberg today prides itself on being a city for human rights, which is a tall order. Perhaps this is why I saw greater diversity there than I had expected, or why different languages were so prevalent. Or perhaps this commitment itself created the environment of the place. I was glad for the opportunity to be there and look forward to a return, perhaps when there are Christmas markets again.

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