City Of Loss, City of Renewal
Tue, 12/08/2009
Special To The Jewish Week
Climbing up the stairs of the Victoria Luise Platz subway station, I had the anxious feeling that I was going to a place that was filled with quiet importance. I expected myself to feel connected to this place, this West Berlin neighborhood surrounding a tree-lined park with benches scattered about, a fountain at its edge. While I can’t say that I felt a sense of belonging in my grandmother’s pre-Holocaust neighborhood or one of entitlement to her former building, to the sidewalk in front of it, I felt a sense of urgency of needing to understand this place. I had spent that Sunday morning at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the Berlin suburb of Oraniensburg. It was my first visit to a camp; it was my third day in Germany. It was the camp ordinary Berliners were sent to; my grandparents were ordinary Berliners. My grandmother and her parents got out of Berlin, hiding for part of the war in Paris; all three made it. My grandmother grew up secular, thoroughly German. Her Jewish instruction came by way of her public school which offered sectarian lessons as part of the school day; the Jewish students were offered Hebrew school in their German state-funded school. My grandfather, whom she met in elementary school, and his family, all escaped too but in bits and pieces, through Portugal, England, and Cuba, ending up scattered, in New York and Buenos Aires. Later that day, after a wrenching tour of the concentration camp, a visit to a Jewish bunker, a moving Kaddish said for all those who perished and a solemn bus ride back to the city, I made my way, transferring trains three times to get from my trendy East Berlin hotel to the residential West Berlin neighborhood where my grandmother grew up. I had a purpose. I had directions. I had a destination. My trip to Berlin was multifold: I went to see a city that was described to me more than once as “continuously becoming,” one that is a center of contemporary art, a leader in green technology and sustainability, a city ravaged by the Second World War, then severed into pieces afterwards, and only relatively recently reunited, an almost whole. The evidence of these world events still looms large. There are still doubles of some things, one in East and one in West. The architecture in the East is still catching up: characterless buildings from its communist past still stand, waiting to be demolished, rebuilt. The question of rebuilding was one of concern for me, too. When I arrived at Motzstrasse 68, in the heart of what I learned is the city’s gay neighborhood, I wasn’t sure if the beige stucco building I found was actually the one that my grandmother and her parents lived in, or if this was rebuilt, a substitute for the original. I approached a man who worked in a local Italian restaurant, rainbow gay pride flags hung near the entrance swaying in the breeze. “Are the buildings in this neighborhood from before the War?” “No.” “So they have been rebuilt since?” “No.” To my surprise this man’s opacity hardly bothered me. Did it really matter if I was at her actual building, so many years after she was forced to flee it? I was more taken by the Victoria Luise park, which, according to a sign at its entrance, has been around since the 19th century. Studying small black-and-white photographs reproduced on the park sign, it was easy to imagine my grandmother’s childhood self playing in the park just a few steps from her city apartment, running around with groups of friends, my prim great-grandmother reprimanding her, keeping her in line, ladylike. I fast-forwarded to my grandparent’s teenage days in the 1930s wondering if they took walks there, strolled the placid area after an outing. Throughout my trip, I was of three minds. Each place I visited, each street I walked down, I thought of as a modern place — a building, a road, a park to admire on its own, for its own value. Behind this surface observation, the history of each place in relation to the Holocaust always came to mind. Driving near the main train station on my first day in the city, I sat frozen in my seat, thinking what the tracks may have been used for 70 years ago, whom those trains might have taken — and where. I had doubts about every park I walked by — thoughts of roundups, mass shootings, and mass graves crowded my mind. The bronze “stumbling stones” inserted into many of Berlin’s sidewalks served as constant reminders of families who had once lived at those addresses. And lastly, and most acutely, everywhere I walked I wondered if I was retracing steps that my grandmother had taken. It was surreal to ask myself who she might have been with, where she might have been going. I wanted so much to see Berlin as she had seen it, to understand how she grew up, to visit the Tiergarten as she had with her father, to stroll along Unter den Linden street and not see only a tree-lined boulevard housing a row of stately museums but museums she may have visited. She has been dead for five years now, and never more than on this trip have I regretted the questions I didn’t think to ask her. Drinking a coffee in New York, sitting in a worn leather recliner inherited from my grandparents with my sleek laptop resting on my thighs, I find myself having trouble reconciling. The Berlin I encountered was wholly different from the one my grandmother left behind. This isn’t simply because seven decades have passed but because of what happened in those years: the war, destruction and renewal. The city that comfortably housed my grandfather’s Orthodox family along with my grandmother’s secular one, that sustained Jewish news, Jewish summer camps, Jewish schools — very much like my New York of right now — seems somewhat unsure of how to grapple with its past and move forward. It is once again possible to shop at a Jewish bookstore, to attend services, to see Jewish theatre, to eat kosher food. Likewise, Jewish and Israeli offerings are there to be experienced. A visit to the Martin-Gropius Bau Museum allowed me to see the work of a German-born Jewish photographer who moved to Israel in 1934; a disc jockey at a small café-bar happened to be Israeli, splitting his time between Tel Aviv and Berlin. The Shabbat service I went to in East Berlin, the traditional Jewish quarter of the city, was attended mostly by other tourists like myself, trying to blow some life back into this city’s slowly rebounding Jewish community. That synagogue, with its glittering cupola, was built in 1866, bombed during the Second World War and partially rebuilt. The service I attended was in a small upstairs prayer room since the main sanctuary was never reconstructed. However, Berlin’s main Jewish attractions are in many respects Holocaust-related. Even in some places that aren’t meant to serve as memorials one is constantly reminded of the past, like the train line whose terminus is Wannsee. Germans seem to have conflicted feelings about residual guilt, the Holocaust and Israel. I encountered young Israelis looking for a change of scenery, a change of attitude in a hip European city — even though it is for some the city (or country) their grandparents fled. They, as well as other immigrant groups, now call the German capital home. And maybe this is why Berlin, with its open acceptance of its past, after all of its transitions, its welcoming of outsiders and embrace of diversity felt oddly comfortable, more so than other cities I’ve visited where I do not speak the language; almost like a German New York but with more baggage. I liked how I was able to blend into the crowd much as I do on the streets of Manhattan, that I could navigate Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg with relative ease, and order a cappuccino at Café Einstein. But mostly I liked being in the modern incarnation of my grandmother’s city, recalling her truisms and conversations we’d had about her childhood, looking back at leather photo albums in her living room, their pages filled with black-and-white snapshots of her with friends,  enjoying themselves at dances and parties.