Berlin; Potsdamer Platz; Legoland; The Brandenberg Gate; The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe; A token memorial for gay victims of the Holocaust; The Victory Column, again; In which we time-travel back to our parents' basements in the 1970s

We got so little accomplished our first day in Berlin that we decided to try and power through the sights on this, our second day. Events conspired, however. We had breakfast with everyone in the morning and didn’t leave Jens’ place until 11. Our first stop was a huge camping supply store. I needed a bunch of things, and Sheryl needed a new headlamp and a water bottle. The store was okay, but it was no Mountain Equipment Co-op - I was disappointed by the selection and range of equipment available and only left with one of the things on my list. I was also horrified at the prices, which were half again what I’d pay in Canada, or sometimes double. We spent far too much time (and money) there.

Our first stop after the outfitter was Potsdamer Platz. The only pictures I’d ever seen of the place were in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire (my favourite film) when it was a flat, empty plain of broken concrete. I knew it had had a makeover since, but I wasn’t really prepared for the change. It’s ringed with huge gleaming buildings now, with a fountain in the centre and expensive tourist restaurants, and it’s covered with a giant round canopy. More importantly, it’s home to the Legoland Discovery Centre. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows us that we’d choose to go to Legoland first instead of all the serious tourist sites. We nearly didn’t go, actually. It’s not a real Legoland, but really only a playground for kids, and the admission price of €15 each was too high. As we were moping outside, taking pictures of the giant Lego giraffe and the Lego head of Albert Einstein, a woman came up to me and asked if we wanted to go in. We sighed and said we wanted to but it was too much, and in a conspiratorial voice she said “Well, we can talk about that”. I asked in the same tone exactly what we might talk about, and she handed us two 50% discount coupons. This made us very happy and we skipped off like morons to see the Lego. We had very little time inside because we were due to meet Larissa and Orlinto in twenty minutes, but we did see the Indiana Jones jungle tour with Lego spiders and hippos, and the Lego Berlin on the top floor (which sadly didn’t include a Lego Victory Column). The highlight for both of us was undoubtedly the life-size Lego R2-D2, though.

While Larissa and Orlinto ran off to find some water, Sheryl and I hung around the outside of the Film Museum, where I was shocked and elated to find, hanging in the window, a map of shooting locations for Wings of Desire. They were on sale in the gift shop for €2.50, but I couldn’t get to the gift shop without paying to go through the museum. I settled for taking close-up pictures of the map, making sure to cover the whole area. Digital photography is a godsend to me sometimes. Sheryl and I decided to spend the next day tracking down the mapped locations - or at least Sheryl was a good enough sport to want to come with me while I tracked them down.

When the other two returned, we traipsed off to the Brandenberg gate and its famous horses and chariot. It was also a filming location for the movie, so I was able to cross one off my list right away. It was exactly as it is in the film, though - a great big gate with a green statue on top. I won’t say it was a disappointment, since I didn’t have any real expectations of it, but it just felt like I’d been looking at it all my life anyway and seeing it in person wasn’t so different. Obviously the hundred thousand tourists in the square fronting it felt differently, though. The square itself is ringed with consulates and embassies. The flags of twenty or thirty nations fly there, including, curiously, the flag of the Canadian province of Quebec. Larissa called my attention to it, and after I was finished being surprised at her knowledge of Canadian provincial flags (I certainly can’t name any of the German administrative regions, let alone recognize their flags), I started being surprised that the flag was there in the first place.

After the Brandenberg Gate was the Holocaust Memorial and museum. I didn’t precisely want to go, and I knew it would be a very unpleasant experience, but I felt it was important that we go. I wouldn’t have missed the memorial anyway, but I also wanted Sheryl to visit the museum. She missed a lot of the history lessons that cover World War Two and the Holocaust, and we both thought it was important that she finally really understood. We both knew going in that it would upset her terribly, but she too thought it was important enough to go.

The Holocaust memorial is properly titled the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, and that tells you everything you need to know about the conceptual treatment and style. It’s a huge city block filled with grey vertical blocks of different heights. The ground underneath rolls, and there are perfectly straight aisles between the steles - seen from above it would form a giant grid. The blocks are brutal, featureless slabs, and their message is terrible and clear - these are tombstones with no names and no dates. The Memorial has been the subject of much controversy for its design and treatment, but I thought it very appropriate, and very affecting, and left a small stone atop one of the slabs as my tiny gesture, following the old custom.

The entrance to the museum is a set of stairs descending from one of the featureless corridors between slabs - without directions you’d have to search to find it. At the bottom is an airport-style security check - inconvenient, but I certainly understand the necessity. The material presented was horrifying, and I agree mostly with the approach of presenting individual human stories and their supporting documents. Further, I agree with the unrelenting use of the word murdered when referring to the Holocaust dead. In fact, I applaud it. It must have been difficult to resist the temptation to use the various synonyms to spice up the text and avoid repetition, but once you do that, it’s far too easy to slide into euphemism, and from there it’s a small step to abstraction - the repeated and unvarying use of murder keeps people focussed. Another important point that was made at the beginning of the material was that the Holocaust was not accomplished by anything as abstract as a country or a government - it was accomplished by millions of individuals making the decision to kill the innocent person standing in front of them. Millions of murders done by millions of murderers.

And yet, the museum itself could have gone further, I think. Yes, the material presented was awful, but I remember my history classes, and I know that it could have been far more awful. I’m certainly not interested in gore and horror for its own sake, but I found that it erred perhaps slightly on the inoffensive side. Not much of the material was new to me, and so perhaps I could look at it with a slightly more distant eye, but I was watching people there, and I was expecting to see horrified weeping and the sick, wide-eyed look of people who have had too much awful information stabbed into them. But Sheryl was the only one crying, and that should not have been the case. Were I the curator, I wouldn’t consider my job done until every visitor was in tears.

Likewise the next memorial we visited - the memorial for homosexual victims of the Holocaust. It had only been unveiled a month previous. It’s fashioned simply - a grey cube reflecting the style of the Jewish memorial across the street - with a window cut into it. Behind the window is a screen, with a film playing over and over, of two men kissing. It’s simple and sweet and I liked it, but if I’d stumbled across it without reading the information plaque, I’d never have known what it was for. Regardless, it’s fitting that it exists, and I drew a heart with my finger on the window glass, because small gestures are important sometimes.

The mood needed lightening after that, and so we went to see my angel again - the Victory Column. It had been too dark for photos when we’d seen it the night before - and it was getting dark again as we walked through the Tiergarten. We did manage to get there in time, though it was too late to climb the tower and see the angel up close, which was a bit disappointing. I got some shots from the ground that satisfied me - about half, I’m embarrassed to admit, in black-and-white. This is embarrassing because it’s a cheap stylistic device and images should be able to stand by themselves on their own merits based solely on tone and composition - or so I was taught. But I rationalized it as an homage to Wenders.

Larissa and Orlinto had left earlier for an appointment and had elected to go back to Zehlendorf to Jens’ house afterward, but we met up with Jens and Florian and some of their friends, and had some substandard Indian food (the famous chicken restaurant from the day before being too busy) and then went for a drink. Berlin is famous, apparently, for it’s “living room” bars - places that look like someone’s basement rec-room from the 1970’s, complete with old furniture, cheesy prints, wallpaper and lamps, and fake wood panelling on the walls. The place we went was an example, and it certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard. It wasn’t as much fun as Astrobar where we’d gone the night before, but the oddness was entertaining. Alas, we were tired and decided to head back to Jens’ place after one drink. This was a stupid decision, since it took us twenty minutes to walk to the train, and we had to transfer lines and wait half an hour for the second train. Jens, having stayed an hour longer and driving home, made it back ten minutes before we did.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

July 30th, 2008

Do you remember who bought you your first Lego set??? And who helped you get started on your own creations??? Giving crdit where it is due :) Your imagination outstripped mine immediately, being Math and Science of course! Not sure how well I would have handled the Holocaust museum. Some of the parents of my friends, when I was growing up in Ottawa, had tatoos on their arms and very strange (to me at the time) habits that have since become more understandable. I like your description of millions of murders done by millions of murderers. Do you think that it accounts for the guilt complex of the German people that I’ve read about?

¬ jan liberty
August 1st, 2008

To be honest, I didn’t notice much of a guilt complex while I was there. They’re uncomfortable talking about it, certainly, but I didn’t get the impression that the younger generations feel any real guilt for the sins of their grandfathers. But maybe I’m being unjust - who knows what’s taught in school, and maybe if we had longer in the country and had been able to get to know more Germans better, some of that might have surfaced.

¬ Chris
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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