The New Berlin

The last time I was in Berlin was in the early Seventies. The Wall still divided east and west and the differences in lifestyles were shocking. Curious to see East Berlin then, I procured the necessary visiting permit after a tedious, long inspection at Checkpoint Charlie. I still recall how frightened I was during an intimidating question period. Why, they wanted to know, would I want to visit and whom was I going to see? My reasons were simple. I wanted to visit the Staatliche Museen’s, Pergamom Altar (l70CE) and the reconstructed Ishtar Gate of Babylon. I certainly didn’t want to linger in that part of the city. Unter den Linden, with its wounds of war and the patina of age, still couldn’t hide the once exquisite buildings which line the wide boulevard. I thought then, the east got the best, architecturally.

How things have changed. Nothing is familiar. Urban renewal has reached new heights in Berlin. My very first impression of this new undivided city is the panorama of the dozens of whimsically colored building cranes, on Potsdamer Platz, which create a unique psychedelic skyscape. I stand amongst mushrooming modern buildings designed by some of the world’s best architects. Renzo Piano, Sir Norman Foster, Helmut Jahn. No one could have guessed that the reunification would make this the city of the Millennium, the centre of the 21-century.

I have come to seek out Jewish life and culture in both Berlins. With the normal trepidation of a Jewish person flying to Germany after decades, I anticipate a difficult time. In advance, I know this will be a mental challenge but the genial crew of Luftansa Air is a fine introduction to convivial spirit, which I soon discover is genuine, and everywhere Nothing symbolizes the reunification more than the Brandenburg Gate. Buses, cars, trucks, all drive under the entrance with abandon. I’m mesmerized by the stunning structure, all lit up in the evening, as I sit at dinner at the fable Hotel Adlon, (Unter den Linden 77), but not without pangs about the difficult itinerary planned for tomorrow.

It’s a sunny but cold day and I’m on my way to the closest concentration camp to Berlin, in itself a chilling thought. At the start, Sachsenhausen, was a labor camp but in time, they had extermination devices. To get there, I’m driven through a quiet innocent- looking town where it would have been very difficult for the residents not to be aware of some strange and frequent transpiration.

The black wrought iron gate, smaller than the one at Auschwitz, has the same well-known loathsome slogan – Arbeit Macht Frei. I look up at a tower and see a painted replica of a clock, now frozen in time at 11.07 AM when liberation took place. On these 240 hectares, over 12,000 people died of starvation. Still not open to the public, I’m allowed into the tower where there’s a perfect over-view of all the barracks. One guard was able to control l0,000 prisoners with this l80 degree view. Only two barrack buildings remain and they are now museums. What is so ironic is the bucolic, park like atmosphere now.

A large column, stands prominently displaying triangular symbols which all, homosexuals, gypsies, political dissidents and Jewish prisoners were forced to wear. Inside the barracks, the first room is the horrific. It’s the latrine and washing area. To get to glassed-in and new very modified area, which was the inconceivable sleeping and living space, I pass some German students who look sullen and ashen. In the next building, there are groups of Germans, Dutch and Americans who walk in silence viewing the blow ups of some of the more famous personalities who died here plus photographs of others, shoes, a piece of luggage still bearing an address. I’m shattered.

My next stop is no easier. I’m at the House of the Wannsee Conference. “It’s important to state that no decision was taken here”, the guide says. “The decision- making was taken before the Wannsee Conference.” She’s referring to the final solution. It’s here on January 20, l942 that 14 high ranking civil servants and SS officers agreed to implement the deportation of Jews to the East and to their death. Adolf Eichmann took the minutes of the conference. I stand in this very room and look out at the flowing waters of an appealing stream and the floral garden. How could such inhuman dictates have taken place in this most refined, palatial villa, I ask myself. Not a stick of the original furniture of this room remains.

Tonight, in great contrast, I attend a Baroque concert in the Akademie fur Alte Musik at the Konzerthaus am Gendarmenmarkt. It’s difficult not to search the faces of the very sophisticated, cultured crowd in this intimate, gilt covered concert hall.

Today should be more upbeat. I’m meeting Dr. Andreas Nachama, the president of the Jewish community in Berlin, for lunch at Rimon Restaurant – kosher and specializing in Middle East cuisine. Dr. Nachama says the membership is now ll,000, mostly Russian immigrants. “They’re integrating into the community but still have to get to know the rules and regulations of life here explained to them.”. Dr. Nachama advocates that Jews should come to Germany and see for themselves ““how well we are treated. We are considered valued, respected neighbors.”

Just a few doors away is the New Synagogue, built in l866 (Oranienburger Strasse 28-30) and designed in the Moorish style of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Although there was damage during Kristallnacht l938, the synagogue suffered even more severely during the war. Important objects were placed in concrete in the ceiling and some architectural fragments and remnants were recovered. Only a small section of this building remains intact and is now a museum.

Outside, looking up at this mammoth edifice, there’s a dominant Star of David on the large dome, placed there in l99l. One the same street there’s a Jewish bookstore and a bagel café. The ad says, “forget everything you think when you hear the word exhibition’. Thinking that I’ll walk through this exhibit in half an hour, “The Story of Berlin” captures my attention for several hours. I’ve been on the seven levels of this extraordinary show in a bank-turned-museum. It’s a time tunnel and concentrates heavily on the Dark Chapters, the Cold War and The Undivided Sky. The show is on exhibit for the next three years (Kurfurstendamm 207-208. Open daily from l0AM to 8PM. Tel. 01805 99 20 10. Admission DM16).

On Bebeplatz, there’s a glass panel set in the middle of the Plaza. I look down into this “window” and suddenly, unexpectedly, see empty bookcases. This is where the books of Jewish writers, publishers and scientists were burned. The impact of this brilliantly conceived memorial by Micha Ullman, is haunting.

The climax of this visit is the Jewish Museum (Lindenstrasse 9-14, Tel 030 259 93 419). Designed by Polish born Daniel Libeskind, (who, coincidently, is married to Stephen Lewis’ sister) it’s shaped like a broken Star of David. Although the building was only recently opened, hundreds of thousands visitors have already been to see this incredible symbol destined to become the most talked about new structure in Berlin. “The purpose of the museum is both to depict and research the history of Jewish life in Berlin and throughout Germany “. I read this off a publicity pamphlet.

The only entrance is through the Berlin Museum, which takes the visitor into the Jewish Museum’s basement. The l0,000 square metres does have a ground level, two more storeys plus offices on the third floor. The flow is disorienting, causing a sense of confusion, which is what Libeskind wanted. A black slate floor speaks to that sense. The titled ceiling feels as though it’s coming down and the floor is rising. Windows are just slashes. In the Holocaust Tower, the outside traffic sounds are so close as though to say that the world was so near and watching and doing nothing. A shaft of light comes through a small opening of the 27 metre high room, which relates to the cattle cars transporting the Jews. In the E.T.A. Hoffman Garden, the angles and pillars between which only one person can walk make the visitor lose touch with others.

The Canadian Jewish poet Leonard Cohen’s words seem so apt. “Forget your perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”