For any American who grew up during the Cold War, Berlin was a city torn between two worlds: the Kodachrome present of Western consumerist culture and what we imagined to be the gray, regimented East, still scarred by the war and therefore to be pictured in the grainy black-and-white of old newsreels.
Visiting the former East Berlin last month, it was almost impossible to connect that mental image with the vibrant, hip and trendy neighborhoods we walked through, except when we rounded a corner and saw yet another building under construction or renovation.
Cranes were everywhere, their monstrous beaks slowly swiveling like vultures picking over a carcass.
But it was refreshing to visit a place whose inhabitants have collectively refused to simply pave over past crimes and pretend that it was all over and done. As someone from a country where even admitting complicity in genocides and other war crimes seems politically impossible, I was extremely impressed. Special “stumbling stones” (stolpersteine) were set into the sidewalks in front of former Jewish residences to memorialize their murdered inhabitants, and I noticed more and more of these as the week went on. The Holocaust memorial, which we visited the last night of our stay, was as disorienting a memorial as any I’ve ever seen.
But it was this building that made the biggest impression. We first noticed it from the rear, where its ranks of trees in autumn colors made a melancholy impression. What is this place, we wondered, but walked on. An hour or two later we found ourselves heading back the same way and thought, what the hell, we might as well see what it is.
It was the Neue Wache. “Originally built as a guardhouse for the troops of the crown prince of Prussia, the building has been used as a war memorial since 1931.”
On that dark, rainy afternoon, the interior was only dimly lit by a round opening in the ceiling — an oculus. Directly below, in the middle of the otherwise empty and unadorned space, visitors encounter the black stone sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz, Mother with her Dead Son.
They sat in the middle of a small puddle of rain which kept anyone from getting too close, for who wanted to risk seeing their reflection there?
All was not gloom, of course. Germany has produced many brilliant thinkers and they too were remembered in stone.
Where once two cities refused to engage, now the past and future were locked in a passionate pas-de-deux.
Darkness fell, and it was time to go to the grand old theater from the 1920s, built for silent, black-and-white movies and still in possession of its organ. Quotes from Rosa Luxemburg were engraved in the sidewalk all along the street that bears her name. From a block away we saw Babylon in red.