Growing up my thoughts of Germany were mostly in regard to the quaint, romanticism of western Germany, Bavaria and the Rhine region, or about the contrasting atrocities of World War II. I remember being fascinated and confused by the Wall as a child and excited when it came down, but beyond that I never really thought about visiting Berlin. Then I read Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, and I found myself with a yearning.
I needed to walk through the Tiergarten and see the grand boulevards. I needed to see the city full of so much history and vast complexities. So, back in May, we packed up and spent four days walking this vast city; and I have to say, of all the cities we’ve visited, this one surprised me the most. (You can also view Mr. N’s pictoral essay of Berlin here.)
I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but I knew this wasn’t it. I don’t mean this negatively at all, we loved Berlin, it was just the one city that I found so unexpected. First, the sheer expanse of Berlin blew me away. As you know we tend to walk most of the cities we visit, not only does it allow us to see a lot and be flexible in our plans, it also doubles as our exercise. And boy did we get it here! The first day alone we walked 11 miles. It’s immediately evident why Berlinners love their bikes – it’s a much more efficient way to do this city.
I was also in awe of the number of cranes throughout the city. I’ve read that cranes dotted the skyline throughout the past decade, but they still do in significant numbers. Berlin is still very much rebuilding – and in every direction. Given its history in the past century, it’s no surprise that Berlin had much to rebuild, but the extent of construction is both impressive and revealing.
Then there was the Tiergarten. This too was astonishing. For those of you that don’t know, the Tiergarten is a city park – a massive urban garden at 520 acres. It is beautiful, serene and amazingly quiet despite the number of people biking, sunning and walking its many paths. It was our favorite place to walk through every day whether on our way to a boat tour, the Brandenburg Gate, the zoo or the Reichstag. It seemed to extend in all directions and was a stunning respite.
But the memorials were the most amazing. We were all taken aback by the impact the sights. From the 96 stones naming each of the members of the Reichstag that stood up to Hitler…
…to the Berlin Wall memorial sight and center. Both of the kids were particularly taken by the gravity and the hope of this exhibit.
The one that stood out the most, however, was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This was by far the most dramatic, most eye-opening and most difficult of all the World War II memorials we’ve visted (with the exception of Auschwitz-Birkenau). Mr. N was particularly moved. Even Miss A understood the gravity. She took along some coloring pages provided by the museum (as it’s not recommended for children under 14), and colored when she wanted to and read things when she was ready. She handled it very well, and developed an appropriate understanding of the events for her age. If you’re in Berlin, this is not to be missed.
2,711 concrete slabs are arranged above the center. They evoke the feelings of a cemetary and are at once beautiful, disorienting and alarming. From above you can see the city around you, but walk a few aisles in and you find yourself lost in a concrete sea.
In the center under the memorial (which is free of charge), you walk past a timeline of the history of the “Final Solution,” into a room where the floor is illuminated with letters from victims to their families often thrown from trains, and then into the Room of Families. Here 15 of the stone slabs from above, transcend into the space below making a truly powerful statement. Each of the slabs highlights the stories of 15 specific families from across Europe with photos, facts and the horrific outcomes. And the final room – the Room of Names – the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims are read aloud. It is said to listen to the entire list from start to finish would take six years. Needless to say, the museum is utterly silent. (The map below indicates killing sights, work camps and extermination camps.)
But Berlin also has a lighter side. Families fill the parks, sunbathers line the walls of the river, and the Ampelmann (the traffic light symbol from East Berlin, now a city-wide icon) delights adults and chidren alike.
We lounged in parks, dined on the river and even found a light-hearted (and mathmatically inclined) magic museum.
And of course we enjoyed the city’s diverse architecture and neighborhoods.
And we had one last surprise, Berlin street food. With four full days in this vast city we dined on everything from traditional German food and beer, to Indian food, Italian, and even a few German wine bistros. Our favorite, however, was Berlin street food, specifically, Currywurst. Currywurst sounds awful, looks like a heart attack (and probably is), but is also astonishingly delicious. It’s fries and hot dogs covered in ketchup, curry powder and a dollop of mayo. It’s served in a paper dish with a small wooden fork and is perfect washed down with a German beer.
Once the “Garden of Beasts,” Berlin today is an inspiring, diverse and contradictory place. It’s orderly, chaotic, safe, unsettling, somber, light-hearted, expansive, communal, dark, bright, modern, historic, energetic, laid back, professional and eccentric. And thankfully, free and peaceful.
Perhaps it is a garden of all that is life. While it surprised us and was not what we expected, it was emotional, impactful and utterly delightful and walking through the Brandenburg Gate encompassed it all.