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Hodge-podge of history

I don’t have an itinerary for Berlin in the way that I don’t really know what reference materials I need.  I expect them to find me in bookshops, to come tumbling off shelves in libraries.  I have vague lists of things I think I should see and have circled and underlined streets on maps, but really, I’m just stumbling along like usual.  So, to have found that today actually encompassed the whole of German and Berlin history is surprisingly organized!

Marienkirche was either having a service or was closed for cleaning – my German is too slight to decipher the sign propping the door open.  The crocodile of children in matching yellow caps surrounding the door, pointing inside, was another deterrent.  The Rathaus, next intended port of call, was closed due to the expansion of the Ubahn.  Clearly, today was not the day for plans.  I followed the lure of a verdigris tower which was, in fact, two (one behind the other, upright as devil horns or Churchill’s fingers).  Nikolaikirche. The Church of St. Nicholas, patron saint of merchants and sailors, is Berlin’s oldest church and exists now only after painstaking reparations since reunification.  Original foundations show ancient footings and brown-boned skeletons from Berlin’s pre-capital days as a trading post.  The church itself was damaged and rebuilt countless times, let alone the “damage” done by the reformation which saw side altars turned into burial chambers and saints removed for memento mori.  Nikolaikirche held its last service in November 1939, celebrating 400 years of Reformation, and put itself into safe keeping for reparations; then the war started.  Bombing in 1944 and 1945 led to destruction and ruin, until finally the spires and roof collapsed.  Nikolaikirche was a shell for decades and its redevelopment, as well as the surrounding Nikolaivierte, is a triumph.  If you should be passing, do go in.  Don’t worry about the workmen winching ancient paintings up on scraping chains or women by barriers who look like they could eat you alive.  Give them 5 euros and go in.

I then flew past a number of museums, but couldn’t seem to settle into them.  I had a lovely piece of cake at the Alte Museum; here is its lovely dome as proof.  I saw the lovely Berliner Dom on the way, but didn’t feel I could do justice to another church so quickly, and certainly not one about to start service with the guard making a gesture of folded hands and bent knees.  I walked by the Neues Museum and intend to return to it, and the Altes, too – they are “must sees” in Berlin, and I take my guidebooks as seriously as the next tourist.  But no.  I could delay a visit to the Deutsches Historisches Museum no longer.  I dutifully bought my entrance sticker and then couldn’t figure out how to get in.  Then I was detained by a guard earning his keep who decided that my handbag was too big to be trusted in such a marvelous new museum.  I thought that whapping him with said bag might write me into history, so I handed it in, camera, iPhone, wallet, pens, notebook stuffed into jeans.  Not a good look.

And so the 2000 year tour of German history begins!  I won’t recount it for you.  You probably already know it.  It is only I who is still catching up.  I will simply tell you some things that I found strange and intriguing.

1. Romans coined the name for the Germanic peoples.  We don’t know what they called themselves because they had no tradition of writing.  Was I not paying attention in World Civilization as a teenager or what?

2. In a painting of Pope Gregory, Christ pops out of a box, both bleeding hands in the air as if to say – Gotcha! – and so prove transubstantiation to a waiting crowd of monks, who watch in astonishment.  One appears to vomit.  Also, I did not know about Christ’s grandmother, Saint Anne.  Was I not paying attention at Arcadia Presbyterian or what?  There is a wooden figurine of Anne holding both the pregnant Mary and the baby Jesus in her lap.  Truly bizarre.

3. 1815 – 1848 is a period of peace.  The culture of the time is named Biedermeier, stressing refinement, self-identity, the life of the family, the education of children. Bourgeois.  The bourgeois will pop up again.  Here is a lovely doll from the Biedermeier period, that I must give to an ancestor of my character:

3. The Ruhr is the essential area for hard coal that will allow German industrialization to develop and finally overtake Britain after 1841.  The Ruhr will pop up again.  I am working on the ancestry of my character, clearly.

4. But who am I kidding?  I’m really here to research Weimar and Nazis.  But really, for an overview of Germany history you could do worse than stumble around the history museum with the flash removed from your camera and a pen and notebook stuffed in your pants.  This and an excellent salad in the cafe’ make for the perfect day.  Here are some other things that astonished me, once I finally reached the rooms I had come for:

Nazi planned housing, to address the housing shortage that even evacuating Jews couldn’t fix.  You lived in a house based on how many children you had, and they gave you a trial period before it was actually yours.

I love this woman’s face during the election of 1923.  It is very rare to see faces do anything other than be polite.  Even newsreel footage taken of the invasion of Poland sees groups of young men staring into the camera, giving only vague, shy smiles as their world is being pulled up around them.  What are they thinking that they can smile?  Or is that what human faces do on instinct when truly, truly  bewildered?




Here is the hair care kit for testing Aryan hair.  There is also a set of calipers nearby, for those other essential measurements.  You read about these things, but to see the tools and the instruction booklets…

I could go on and on, but it’s probably time to go to bed.  I could show you Nazi bedtime stories, propaganda posters, photographs and artifacts – I have a camera full of them – but I will leave you with this Nazi doll house.  You probably cannot see the Hitler Youth wallpaper on the walls.  Dark rooms, lots of glass.  As usual, I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew I would know when I found it.  Boy, did I know.

Sleepy in Berlin

The night train leaves Paris Est at 2020.  Already, it is too dark to see much of anything through the cabin-size picture window at the foot of the bed made up for one. And luckily so.  In cabins beside me, women and men are stacked up to the ceilings; I hope and assume they know each other – or will do, come morning.  The toilets are blocked.  It may be a long night.  The Man in Seat 61 recommends the night train and reserving a cabin.  Indeed, it is why I have booked.  I am little-kid excited.  I flit around my coffin-sized room, touching buttons, turning things off and on.  Empty platforms, wildly lit, whiz by.  The tall, bare backsides of houses.  The most constant view is myself reflected in the window, relentlessly chewing small packets of M&S cheese, waiting.  A large-fronted man with a tiny gold hoop earring serves beer and wine from his little kitchen, and he is popular with the travellers; I hear them ask for “a bottle” again and again until it is late.  They are avoiding their cabins, no doubt.  But I am not.

I have a little sink, a little pocket on the wall to hold headphones and iPod, water and warm white wine.  The distances between stations increases, leaving flat, dark terrain and the occasional lights of steeples, war memorials.  You cannot help but think of war – or perhaps that is just me.  We stop and wait at Mannheim at 2:30 am.  I did not think I was asleep but realize, upon awaking, that I was.  But that is the end of sleep.  It is no smooth ride, this.  The train groans on tracks, the folded-up bed above me rattles and threatens to open.  Doors shimmy and shake.  But then, perhaps it is also the anticipation of it, the Christmas-morning-feel of it. When was the last time you went somewhere all on your own, just because you wanted to go?  I spent much of my 20s travelling, going places just because I could.  Then all those jobs start.  My last trip for no good reason was years ago, an overnight train stopping in Portland.  (Is this a theme emerging?)  Travel is for business, for family, for sun.  How lucky am I that travel is also for writing.

Dawn breaks pink in the east, toward Berlin.  We stop in Hamburg, let sleepy-eyed travellers off.  The little kitchen serves teas and coffees, crusty white rolls and cheese paste.  One toilet remains unblocked.  Mist hugs the fields.  Pale cows bend to eat.  Clumps of dark woods, ripe with fairy tales, run along the tracks, trunks thin and twisted as a witch’s finger.  Suddenly the woods and fields give way to suburbs, and we are in Berlin Spandau then Berlin Haupbahnhof, the “largest crossing station of Europe.”  Adolf would have been so proud.  The lockers are big enough to accommodate massive suitcases.  5 euros means I’m free to wander until my room in Alexanderplatz might be ready.  I stagger, stinging eyed, to the Reichstag, the bird cage glass dome peeking out from behind the battle-scarred building.  Crews dismantle a stage from Sunday’s marathon and tourists queue.  I push on for Brandenburger Tor, the verdigris Quadriga, once stolen by Napoleon, facing East again in the spirit of reunification.  To my shame, I go to Starbucks.

Tea encourages me onward, toward Denkmal fur die ermordeten Juden Europas, “Peter Eisenmann’s field of stelae”, the 2711 undulating concrete blocks that range in size from sarcophagi to slabs to walls.  They pitch and jut across a city block.  It would probably be quite a moving memorial, but I am in the midst of a massive game of hide and seek.  The players seem surprised to keep finding me, when they are giggling and intent on finding each other.  It is probably a good and life-affirming use of the space for bus-bored teens “seeing Europe.”  What good are these references for them?  What use are physical metaphors?

You cannot see how the ground dips and ripples in the photo – it is disconcerting, disorienting.  You cannot see how each concrete pillar has its own level and angle.  You cannot hear how they scream and laugh here.

Potsdamer Platz, remnants of the wall, the brand-spanking new Sony Centre and the Film Museum, with rooms of Marlene Dietrich, Metropolis and Expressionism, Leni and the Nazi films.  Under a broad glass atrium there are preserved portions of The Grand Hotel Esplanade, preserved behind glass.

It is as if a life-sized dollhouse has been tacked onto a hi-tech wonderland.  It is as surreal as anything here, a city that is constantly referencing its history while trying not to let it stand in its way.  I have come in search of this history.  I have no idea what I will see here or how it will matter to my story.  I only know that I am watching and waiting.  As I type this, the sky has turned black.  Bright green neon from a shop next door glows beneath the mighty Fernsehturm that rises its 1207 feet beside me.  I am glad to be in a hotel beside it – I will always be able to navigate my way back.  Now that it is dark I will go to the 37th floor casino and peer out at the night lights of Berlin.  Lucky, lucky me.

Taucher – Jews Underground in Berlin

The Wiener Library is a truly wonderful resource, even if it is in hiding.  I have used the reading room before, and still I could not find it.  Google Maps had me blocks away, the glowing blue dot saying “You are here,” when you can see, very clearly, that you are not.  Or can you?  The library can be found by disregarding the numbering of buildings, mounting stairs to peer at discreet gold plaques, then squinting at the call buttons on the entry phone.  It is hidden in plain sight – a useful metaphor for the nature of historian and author Roger Moorhouse’s talk:  Eye of the Storm – Jews Underground in Hitler’s Berlin, 2 September 2010.

He starts by giving us Berliners’ name for Jews who chose to hide “in plain sight” in Berlin through the war.  Known as die Taucher, the divers, they were also referred to as U-Boats.  11,000 Jews went underground in Berlin during the war years of 1939 – 1945.  1400 survived the war.  There are no maths or statistics to explain odds which meant fewer than 10% would survive capture, hunger, illness or bombs.  Perhaps 50% died due to “betrayal.”  But Moorhouse did suggest some methods to increase the odds.
1. Remove your star
2. Destroy your deportation order
3. Learn to live on the run.  Be prepared to lie, cheap and steal.
4. Avoid your past.  Forget your family, forget your friends.  Avoid entire areas of the city, where you may be recognized.  Forget you ever were a Jew.
5. Change your appearance.  Commit visual sleights of hand if you “look Jewish” through hair dye, clothing, stolen uniforms.  Do not allow yourself to appear unkempt, even if you have nowhere to live.  Disarray, even in wartime, will attract attention in Berlin.
6. Find somewhere to live.  Available accommodation can include lofts, basements, trams, parks, houseboats, bordellos.  Find someone who will hide you for money, or for love.  Be open: the tomb of Josef Schwarz in the Jewish Cemetary in Weissensee, which remained open throughout the war, provides a hiding place to sleep in the dome of its mausoleum.
7. Have an accident, injury or illness and get yourself admitted to the Jewish Hospital, which kept patients from being deported through a variety of radical “operations.”
8. You are nothing without paperwork.  Whatever you do, find the right paperwork with the right stamps. Hope for a sympathizer to drop them before you, present yourself as a victim of bombing to receive a “bomb certificate as refugee”.  Search fresh corpses in air raids.

Moorhouse pointed out that the decision to go on the run was contrary to a Berliner’s way of life, a culture which prided itself on belief in the law and civic duty.  That was often the reason given for the “betrayals” that would find Aryan Berliners hiding, and then denouncing, local Jews.  Another risk were die Greifer, “the catchers”, particularly the “Aryan-look Jew” Stella Kubler, known as “the blonde poison”, who betrayed others to keep herself and her parents from deportation.  But Berlin was also a particularly good city in which to go underground.  There was a strong and proud Jewish tradition and Berlin had never naturally been Nazi.  Both the church and the communists provided havens and networks.

There was a lively question and answer session to follow, and a number of attendees who wanted to tell their own stories of hiding and escape.  I felt very young in the room, and I felt every inch a shiksa.  While Moorhouse spoke of the “imagination gap” between what Berliners and Jews felt was happening to deportees and what they would know following 1945, I am trying to fill my own “ignorance gaps” with all that I do not know as well as remember the imagination and information gaps that my characters would surely have.  When dealing with WWII it is nigh impossible not to reference the end.  There are things that you see that you cannot unsee, even as there are things that you learn that no one could know, let alone fathom, in 1933, 1939, or 1943.

Roger Moorhouse’s book is unusual in its coverage of Berlin at War:  Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939 – 1945; it is the first of its kind, says the author, to give a “Berlin eye view” of the war.  In my discovery of the history of Berlin, it is a book I am very much looking forward to reading.  To read The Telegraph’s review of the book, visit their site:

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