Saturday, August 28, 2010

Back from Berlin

The problem at the moment is that I can't upload pictures yet. Give me three days.

Succinctly, Berlin is awesome.

Over the course of five days I traveled from Erlangen near Nürnberg to Eisenach. Eisenach is the little medieval town next to the Wartburg Castle where Martin Luther translated the New Testament while he was hiding out from a very angry Catholic church. After Eisenach we drove to Bad Harzburg, which, as I've said, will someday be very famous because the ancestors of Ryan Nelson came from there. From there it was a three hour drive to Berlin.

Do you know what it's like to have a topic in your mind but you're unsure of what to do with it so you'd rather leave it alone? That's how being in Berlin feels to me, because most of the ideas I have presently for writing about it would turn this into a travelogue -- which I emphatically don't want to do.

First, a few facts: there are around 3.5 million people living in Berlin proper, and the metro area is home to a total of a little over 5 million. That's nearly twice as many people as Utah, and roughly the same as the total population of Colorado. Interestingly, there are no skyscrapers taller than about 20 stories in Berlin. Also, Berlin is the capitol of Germany. Besides that, the government buildings look awesome (just stating the facts).

It's a good sign when the first impressions you have after a day wandering a city is that's it's alive and that you could live there. There's simply so much going on.

We first wandered from the enormous train station -- second largest in the world, I believe -- to the Altstadt, the old city where the government functions. Sadly Angela was a bit too busy to see me, but then, as the president of a country she's entitled to being busy. After meandering around the old buildings (I'm bothered I can't do this justice) we came to The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

The Holocaust is one of the most terrible events known to humanity - caused by hatred and xenophobia it wiped out nearly two thirds of the Jews of Europe through state-sponsored, systematic and efficient murder. Adolf Hitler was unequivocally evil and the program of genocide the national socialist party of Germany created is beyond abhorrent. In a book entitled Die Schuldfrage (The Question of Fault) which was published a year after the end of the second world war, the historian and german philosopher Karl Jaspers said that the atrocities wrought by Hitler's regime were a sorrow that germans would have to carry as guilt and shame for generations because those actions of hatred were committed against Germany as well as against the Jews.

In Germany, nearly everything can be dicussed freely, from sex to politics to the idiotic driver in front of you. Germans tend to be quite frank and direct, which I appreciate and understand. However, the second world war and Holocaust can only be discussed carefully in good company. The swastika has been outlawed in Germany (Strafgesetzbuch §86a) and it's a mark of the people's intolerance of the symbol that one doesn't even really see it used in graffiti. There is some sort of background consciousness there that I find both fascinating -- in how it's handled -- and tragic -- in how's it's left an indelible print on this people.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (German: Denkmal für die ermorderten Juden Europas) was completed in 2004 and opened in early 2005. It consists of around 2700 rectangular grey pillars that are a little less than 8 feet long and a little more than 3 feet wide - unnervingly close in size to coffins. They take up a city block in neat, even rows, and the pillars are different heights, reminiscent of waves or the ascension of a city from its suburbs to the tall skyscrapers in the middle - indeed, the middle pillars are sometimes up to 16 feet high.

There is no plaque stating what it means. There are no markings or words or names on the pillars. On a sunny day you see people lying atop the pillars or hopping from pillar to pillar as they get higher. When you walk down the rows you eventually get lost in a sea of grey much higher than your head. It feels uneasy, and it feels wrong. And somehow, somewhere in the middle, I couldn't help but weep.

Think of it, 6 million people and all their progeny and possibilities lost to hatred. The chilling word in all of it, to me, must be "systematic." And as I sat in the shade of these pillars I felt like they could represent a huge city of lost souls, an ocean of the dead. I don't know more what to say. When you're in Berlin, visit the memorial.


To turn things around a bit, the rest of my day was glorious. After a tour on a river-boat, we sat at an outdoor café and watched an english firebreather work his magic. We wandered through old streets my aunt knew from living there, and ended up in this artistic shopping quarter where I was forced (against my will, mind you) to buy the coolest italian blazer, shirt and tie that I've ever seen.

Ernst & Young have offices in Berlin, as do Goldman Sachs and others. That gives me hope that there are enough american firms here that I could eventually live there for a while were the opportunity right. And the sun kipped below the horizon and we took the train back to the outskirts of town, I knew I had barely seen the city. The mayor of Berlin once called it the "poor and sexy" city, and, while I don't know if it's necessarily poor, the rest of his statement was right. Like I said, Berlin is awesome.

In a few days I'm driving down to Munich where I start my schooling at the Goethe Institut. I found out last night that I'll be staying with a relatively famous german modern art painter in the best part of Munich, and I hope that turns out as well as it sounds like it should.

I'll post pictures as soon as I can. Bis dann!

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