Amsterdam embraced me with its curved canals and sheltered me in its innovative museums.
Berlin stripped me bare.
Even on the perfect fall day in your favorite gray pea coat, this city can leave you feeling naked, raw, small, cold and lost—sometimes very deliberately.
It didn’t help that I was anxious about visiting Berlin before I’d even arrived. I felt under-researched and had no one to blame for my relative ignorance but myself: I find German unification messy and confusing, German reunification messier still, and Soviet communism has always made my head ache whenever I’ve tried to make any sense of it. Nazism and the Holocaust are the only things I have a solid grasp of because I find them to be horrifically fascinating, like a car crash you want to look away from, but can’t. The reality is atrocious, depressing, sickening and shameful, and for that reason we absolutely cannot ignore it.
Once there, wandering its wide streets, I realized that Berlin acts as its own museum, an impressive and daunting tome of living history.
It demands a different kind of tourism. Instead of being awestruck by towering gothic cathedrals and charmed by winding cobblestone streets (as is often the case when traveling in Europe), I was humbled by imposing architecture everywhere I turned: a neoclassical vestige of the Prussian empire, a scarred and jagged zigzagging museum, the remnants of the Berlin wall.
Whereas Patz and I discovered Amsterdam together, I was mostly on my own with Berlin. Patz had already been once before and thus had a different agenda. And while my friend Caitlin (who’s called Berlin home for more than a year) was a wonderfully attentive host, she prefers to interact with her city through its nightlife and music scene rather than its museums and monuments.
I thus had a lot of time with myself to see how Berlin engages with its past. It was a more emotionally taxing than pleasant experience, but that’s not to say it wasn’t an important one.
One of the things I most wanted to see was Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The monument consists of five and a half acres covered with over two thousand concrete stelae laid-out in a grid pattern on a sloping base. The concrete slabs are shorter around the edges and when coupled with the uneven base the monument appears deceptively smaller from afar. The closer you get the more impressive it gets. As you enter the field and move toward the center, the enormity suddenly engulfs you. It’s immense and seems to never end. And it demands that you interact with it.
Though I was museumed out after Amsterdam, I decided to visit Berlin’s Jewish Museum, and it was well worth it. The architecture and the emotion it projects were more interesting to me than the permanent exhibit’s contents—and by “interesting” I mean haunting. From an aerial point-of-view, the building is a large, lightning-bolt-shaped zigzag. Its facade is a dark gray metal punctured by jagged, narrow windows. It looks strong and sharp, yet torn and scarred.
Inside, the walls are white, accented with black and gray, a deliberate bleakness. The exhibit traces the history of the Jews in Germany, but is interrupted several times by “voids”—large empty areas of the building, purposefully included to symbolize and emphasize the void rent in the Jewish community by the Holocaust. One such void is the Holocaust Tower, a tall, barren and unheated room barely lit by one thin shaft of a window. Another houses an art installation called “Fallen Leaves” composed of over 10,000 open-mouthed faces made of iron. They cover the floor and in the dim light seem to go on forever.
Berlin’s iconic structures are also powerful and intimidating, but arrive at it through a different method. The Reichstag, Brandenberg Gate and Unter den Linden are impressive examples of a lavish grandeur lacking in Berlin’s communist-era buildings and sleek modern architecture alike. But it’s a cold and suppressive opulence that left me feeling minuscule and insignificant—a bit like Pascal’s idea of man as a thinking reed (inherently weak and unimportant, but redeemable because he understands that he is inherently weak and unimportant).
My favorite piece of Berlin was the East Side Gallery, a 1.3-km-long portion of the Berlin Wall. Decorated with 105 paintings by artists from all over the world, it’s an international call for freedom. The bright colors and whimsical designs popped against the gray sky and the busy street that runs alongside it.
But even here there’s a strong tone of melancholy born from a glimpsed hope for peace and change alongside a powerful reminder that the celebrated freedom remains elusive. While I still felt small and humbled, this time there was a dash of optimism in the pot.
But not everyone visiting Berlin seemed equally impressed. At the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I saw people jumping on the concrete slabs and posing for goofy photos. Right before I went in the Holocaust Tower at the Jewish Museum a group of teenagers on a school trip entered and proceded to yell and shriek in it (I could hear them from the hallway). And the East Side Gallery’s magnificent paintings are covered with unimpressive graffiti left by couples who just needed to proclaim their love for one another.
Maybe I’m becoming a curmudgeon (my body was definitely achy from all the travel strain). Maybe the people I found to be obnoxious are coping with the heaviness of Berlin in a different way than I wanted to. Still, I was disappointed by the lack of respect and sobriety and tried to shoot vibes of loathing at anyone who seemed too cheerful.
At the end of the day, though I still don’t understand the nuances of Germany’s complex history, I can say I’ve felt its presence.
Click here for more photos from Berlin.