Friday, October 28, 2011

The Angel of Death (Germany #12)

MUNICH--Our tour did not include a visit to Dachau, but because it was located nearby and served as the prototype for the other Nazi concentration camps that followed, I feel I must deal with it before saying anything else about Munich. But no words can adequately express the horrors that occurred there.
According to our museum guide at the Nazi rallying grounds in Nuremberg, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle) while in prison for his failed putsch when he tried to overthrow the government in 1923. But he got a light sentence and was soon out again and on his way to committing arguably the most monstrous crimes in human history.
Our guide said the autobiographical book is very boring--until page 314, where Hitler says Germany needs room to expand in the east; therefore, we must kill 30 million Russians! He also says we must gas the Jews because they’re running both the Soviet Union and all the western banks. The absurdity of these charges did not prevent Germany from attempting to carry out Hitler’s design, and indeed many millions of both Russians and Jews perished because of them.
Almost immediately after coming to power in 1933, Hitler began setting up the means to achieve his goals; i.e., concentration camps. Almost every community in Germany had members taken away to these camps. There were three types: political prison camps, labor camps, and death camps. Political prisoners survived longer than those in other camps. Prisoners in labor camps were systematically starved and worked to death, on average within nine months. Death camps, obviously, were for immediate execution.
Heinrich Himmler, then Chief of Police of Munich, officially described Dachau as "the first concentration camp for political prisoners." The entrance gate carries the words “Arbeit macht frei,” meaning "work will liberate." From 1933 to 1938, the prisoners at Dachau were mainly German nationals detained for political reasons. Later, it was used for prisoners of all sorts from every nation occupied by Germany. We may never know how many people died there, but it’s estimated at over 200,000 from more than 30 countries, two-thirds political prisoners and the rest Jews.
The task of deciding which arriving prisoners were to be killed and which were to become forced laborers was performed by a physician who was a member of the SS, or “Schutzstaffel,” a major paramilitary organization under Himmler’s command. This "Angel of Death," Dr. Josef Mengele, is even more infamous, however, for performing grisly human experiments on camp inmates, including children.
Together with the much larger Auschwitz, Dachau has come to symbolize Nazi concentration camps. It was the second camp to be liberated by British or American forces, making it one of the first places where these previously unknown Nazi practices were exposed to the Western world.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

By the Monks' Place (Germany #11)

MUNICH--None in sight right now, but this city’s delightful native name, München, means "by the monks' place," a reference to the Benedictine order of monks who founded it.
I’m sitting at a small outdoor pizza café next to Hotel Carat, where I arrived from Nuremberg about 5:30 p.m.  It’s very pleasant here. All half dozen tables are full. The customers look like locals, perhaps working people from the neighborhood stopping off for a coffee or beer before going home.
A vivid yellow sun is beginning to drop below the tall rooftops. Tall straight poplar trees line this busy boulevard. Across the street is a park. Leaves are falling gently on the sidewalk. The middle of the walk is reserved as a bicycle lane and it is heavily used by mostly young backpackers, who might be students; they have the look--jeans, dark colors, casual. They seem to favor fancy leather shoes, or boots.
There’s heavy, purposeful pedestrian traffic, too. Some women push baby carriages, others walk dogs. Unchained bikes lean carelessly against boxwood shrubs that surround the ivy-choked tree trunks. I can detect no hint of poverty or fear. Not too surprising--the city is ranked among the top ten in the world for its quality of life and is a magnet for migration.
Munich’s economy is booming, driven by the information technology, biotechnology, and publishing sectors. And the crime rate is lower here than in Germany’s two larger cities, Berlin and Hamburg. Located on the elevated plains of Upper Bavaria on the River Isar north of the Bavarian Alps, Munich’s population is 1.35 million.
When Bavaria was reunited in 1506, Munich became its capital. In 1871, it became part of the modern German state. After WWI, the city was at the centre of much political unrest. In 1919, a Communist takeover was attempted. After that, Munich became a hotbed of extremist politics, among which the Nazis rose to prominence.
In 1923 Hitler and his supporters staged the Beer Hall Putsch here, an attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic and seize power. The revolt failed, resulting in Hitler's arrest and the temporary crippling of the Nazi Party, which was virtually unknown outside Munich. But when Hitler took power in 1933, Munich again became a Nazi stronghold and the first concentration camp was built at Dachau, ten miles from the city.
It was during meetings in Munich that Britain and France tried to appease Hitler by letting him annex part of Czechoslovakia, leading up to WWII. Munich was also the base of the White Rose, a student resistance movement from June 1942 to February 1943, whose core members were arrested and executed. The city was heavily damaged by 71 allied air raids. After U.S. occupation in 1945, Munich was completely rebuilt.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On The Autobahn (Germany #10)

SOMEWHERE IN BAVARIA--After all I’d heard about the autobahn, I was prepared to see wild-eyed Germans driving 130 mph, but it didn’t happen.
True, there is no general speed limit on Germany’s “federal expressways,” the nationally coordinated motorway system, but the advisory speed limit is 81 mph and I rarely saw anyone going a whole lot faster than that. Yes, traffic in the fast lane didn’t fool around. But for the most part, the autobahns did not seem all that different from American Interstate Highways. Germans even drive on the same side of the road as we do.
Back in Louisville on the way to the airport, our cabbie (a former G.I. who’d been stationed in Germany) had told us a story about the autobahn that he claimed would illustrate the German character. When you drive on the autobahn, he said, you’re not supposed to be in the fast lane unless you’re passing other traffic. Drivers are taught to respect this, so it’s highly unusual to get stuck behind someone.
But that’s what happened to our cabbie. So he decided to turn off. But another driver rushed up behind him on the exit ramp and said excitedly, “I got his license number. Let’s go to the police station--it’s nearby--and turn him in.” The cabbie made excuses, which I guess is his point about the difference between Germans and Americans.
Most autobahns have multiple lanes of traffic in each direction, separated by a central barrier, but the number of lanes varies widely. In Munich, for example, there are five lanes in each direction. In some parts of the country, they’re three-lane with an emergency lane, but many are just ordinary two lane highways.
Though conceived during the Weimar Republic, the autobahn didn’t really develop until Hitler put 100,000 to work on it all over Germany. During WWII, some autobahns were converted into auxiliary airstrips by paving the center of the road, but most were militarily insignificant.
As we drove in our comfortable bus from Nuremberg to Munich on day seven of our tour, Joachim told us more stories about his childhood days. A precocious student as a boy, he attended his Bavarian hometown's finest school. One day, the principal advised him to collect his transcript and never return; the school soon was closing because of the war and, once it had, all academic records would no longer be available.
Joachim’s father, an engineer, was away serving in the German army. So it was up to his stepmother, who had two younger children, to arrange for him to go and live with an aunt in the east. At his new school, he once again became a top student. Upon graduation, the Nazis wanted him. But by claiming he was too sickly (he was so tall and thin he was nicknamed “Matchstick”), his parents kept him out of the party.
The eastern town where he was living was located near a U-shaped forest bordered by a lake, a handy night-time landmark for American and British bombers. When low on fuel, they would drop their bombs on the way back to their base. Since this happened all the time, it was important for the townspeople to be warned. This became Joachim’s job.
His aunt had a radio in the parlor. There were only two approved channels (one when the Nazis were broadcasting), and it was strictly forbidden to listen to any others. Since the only heat in the house was in the kitchen, his aunt and her family would gather there at night for warmth. But someone had to stay in the parlor and monitor the radio. When a warning came about imminent bombing, he'd run out and blow a whistle to alert the other twelve apartments of the danger.
Cold and bored, Joachim eventually succumbed to the temptation of listening to the BBC World News. At first, he was amazed at how differently the war effort was being portrayed there. Gradually, he learned to distinguish the truth. But he knew he could never tell anyone.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Nuremberg Trials (Germany #9)

NUREMBERG--This city held great symbolic significance for the Nazis, which is why the Allies chose it as the site for war crimes trials.
Today, the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rallying Grounds is a fantastic museum whose permanent exhibition attempts to explain the fascination the Nazis exercised upon rally participants, as well as dealing with the causes, connections, and consequences of Nazi terror. Topics that have a direct reference to Nuremberg are especially taken into account.
During my tour, I was deeply impressed by the frankness with which all this was treated. Clearly, the purpose is educational--to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.
          A little background:
From 1927 to 1938, huge Nazi conventions called “the Nuremberg rallies” were held here annually. After Hitler's rise to power in 1933, they became monumental propaganda events. The 1934 rally, for example, was turned by director Leni Riefenstahl into the infamous propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.”
At the 1935 rally, Hitler ordered the Reichstag to convene here to pass the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, which revoked German citizenship for all Jews. A number of premises were constructed solely for these assemblies and many examples of Nazi architecture can still be seen in the city. A concentration camp also was constructed here and extensive use was made of slave labor.
From 1943–45, Allied bombing severely damaged the city, which was a military production headquarters for aircraft, submarines, and tank engines. On January 2, 1945, the medieval city centre was systematically bombed and 90 percent of it destroyed in only one hour. Some 1,800 residents were killed and roughly 100,000 displaced.
Despite the intense degree of destruction, Nuremberg was rebuilt after the war and somewhat restored to its pre-war appearance, including some medieval buildings. However, the biggest part of the old Imperial Free City was lost forever.
The museum is in the north wing of the unfinished remains of the Congress Hall of the former Nazi rallies. Austrian architect Günther Domenig won an international competition to design the museum with his proposal to spear through the northern head of the building with a diagonal glass and steel passageway.          
The exhibition is in chronological order and size ranges from corridors of just a few square meters to large halls. It’s presented in narrative form with easy-to-use electronic display stations and filmed eyewitness interviews.
Between 1945 and 1946, German officials involved in the Holocaust and other war crimes were brought before an international tribunal in the Nuremberg Trials. The Soviet Union had wanted these trials to take place in Berlin. However, Nuremberg was chosen as the site for the trials because it had been the location of the Nuremberg rallies and included undamaged space for a secure courtroom and prison complex. Although many Nazi leaders like Hitler himself were already dead, others were brought to justice in the trials.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m curious about how today’s Germans feel about the Nazis and the destruction of their country during WWII. So when I got a  chance to ask our museum guide questions, I took it.
He was a thin, dark-haired, very down to earth type of person, the son of a historian who ironically didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. He told me that after WWII, the older generation of Germans--the ones who’d been Nazis, whether by choice or not--tried to sweep the whole thing under the carpet. They wouldn’t even talk about it to their children. As a teenager, our guide said he and his brothers demanded that their father come clean about his role. He answered by banging his fist and saying, “Don’t ever ask me about this again or I’ll throw you out of my house forever.”
          This was during the 1960s. The world youth movement, fueled by American and British popular music and American movies, was having a profound impact on younger Germans, who began insisting that their questions about the Nazi era be answered. Today, now that his generation occupies adult positions of responsibility and power, he says they’re determined to tell the true story in an effort to keep it from ever happening again.
          When asked directly, he said there are some 40,000 neo-Nazis in Germany today, but that is out of a population of 80 million. He said they’re dangerous, violent people who must be watched, but who have little appeal to German youth, who like young people everywhere are more interested in life’s pleasures.
          I left the museum heartened again by what seems a very genuine similarity in outlook between myself and the Germans I’ve met so far.        

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Imperial City (Germany #8)

NUREMBERG--When I think of this city, the trials of Nazi war criminals are what come to mind, of course, and I’ll have plenty to say about that. But after spending a couple of days here, I realize there is so much more worth knowing.
A little history: Nuremberg was founded around the turn of the 11th century as the location of the Imperial castle. It rose dramatically in importance during the medieval period due to its location on key trade routes. Often referred to as the “unofficial capital” of the Holy Roman Empire, it also was an early center of humanism, science (particularly astronomy), printing, and mechanical invention.
Perhaps most famously, the main part of Nicolaus Copernicus's work was published in Nuremberg in 1543. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Nuremberg’s cultural flowering made it the centre of the German Renaissance. In the 17th century, after the fall of Napoleon, trade and commerce revived and the city was once again prosperous.
          During my two-day visit, I stayed in what is now known as the medieval quarter, just inside the old city walls, which are made of stone and stand several stories tall. My odd-angled, charming room at the Dürer Hotel was much like an artist’s garret, appropriate since it is named for, and located practically next door to, the preserved home and workplace of Albrecht Dürer, arguably Germany’s most famous artist.
Dürer, who is perhaps best known for his praying hands and rabbit works, was born in Nuremberg in 1471. He also lived here from 1509 until his death in 1528 in a five-story, half-timbered stone house near the Kaiserburg castle on a picturesque square. I went through the house, which is now a museum. Many rooms have been reconstructed and furnished with copies of Dürer’s pictures, as well as an artist’s studio from his time.
One oddity is an indoor privy that drained into the city’s sewer system, which was illegal. This posed a problem for local government:  did they really want to impose legal penalties on their most prominent resident? The solution was to fine Dürer heavily--and then quietly give him a refund. You can’t beat City Hall, even back then.
Next stop, Kaiserburg Castle, located on a mountain north of the historical city. Built between 1140 and1400, this was the earliest residence of all Germany's kings and emperors, and hosted virtually all important leaders and royalty of the time. While German emperors never had an actual capitol or home base as such, Nuremberg came as close as to this distinction as possible. It is one of few castles bearing the imperial regalia and symbol of the empire on its walls. This is significant because it later was used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes.
Kaiserburg’s rounded towers and slanting roofs make it beautiful.  A double chapel is one of its proudest features. But my tour began at a deep well located high inside the castle. How deep? The guide poured water into this well from a pitcher; five seconds later, we heard the distant splash. When she lowered a ring of lit candles seventy meters through the darkness, we saw the bottom. The well was dug through sandstone by captives over a long period. Perhaps the famous prisoner held there was Sir Richard the Lionhearted.
Although Nuremberg was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, the rulers never lived there. Unless the emperor actually was in town (they spent a lot of time moving around to keep everyone in line, apparently), the castle was stripped of furnishings. Thus, we were seeing it as it actually was most of the time.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Formerly East (Germany #7)

DRESDEN--The bus ride here brought us through what was formerly East Germany. Joachim, our tour leader who was a boy here during WWII, said it had always been farm land with poor sandy soil. Today it is used for growing livestock feed--stunted corn and giant turnips. There’s little economic opportunity, so the region’s young people all flee to Munich, the powerhouse of the south.
          For generations, this region, Saxony, was under the control of noble land barons with the common people being little better than slaves. If you wanted to get married, you had to have the lord’s permission. If you wanted to leave, same thing. And the answer was always no. American troops occupied the region during WWII and instituted private ownership of small plots of land. But when the Soviet Union was ceded control, individual ownership was replaced by state-run collectives, which actually operated in a manner similar to the old days. Finally, after reunification, ordinary people were given shares of the large farms.
          Dresden seems more prosperous than the rest of this region, which we’ve toured while blessed with good weather: sunny, 65 degrees, low humidity. Lots of other tourists here, though not as many as in Berlin on the long weekend holiday that completed Oktoberfest. These visitors seem much like Americans, except possibly quieter and better-behaved.
Our first night in town, we dined at a popular restaurant in what was formerly an ammunition battery on sauerbraten, red cabbage, giant noodles, and dunkel beer. Seating was at large tables, and nearby a group was lustily singing German folk songs to accordion accompaniment. When it was our turn, we stumbled through “My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and the Beatles’ “Ob La Di.” I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Casablanca where the French in Rick’s drown out the German soldiers, but this was very jolly and friendly. Joachim said the younger generation in Germany has lost interest in the country’s traditional folk songs.
          Next morning, we visited the old town, going through an art museum featuring paintings by Rembrant, Botticelli, Vermeer, and Rafael. While my wife visited the porcelain museum (medieval artisans accidentally created porcelain while trying to make gold), I did some research at a nearby sidewalk café, where the dunkel proved hoppier than in Berlin.
          After that, we toured the beautiful, ornate Semperoper, originally built in 1841. After being destroyed by fire, the opera house was rebuilt in 1878. It burned down again during WWII. But in 1985, it once more rose from the ashes, rebuilt almost the same as before. The first performance in the new facility was a repeat of the same opera last performed there 1945. The Semperoper is made of Dresden sandstone, which due to its high iron content blackens over time and is too soft for sandblasting. But a new cleaning process may solve this problem.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Florence of the Elba (Germany #6)

DRESDEN--Before coming here, I knew only two things about this lovely old city situated in a valley on the River Elbe near the Czech border, and one of them was wrong. I’m referring to Dresden “china,” which actually is a fine white porcelain, and Kurt Vonnegut’s great novel, Slaughterhouse Five, which is partly set here.
I’m confident most Americans know no more about Dresden than I did. There’s a really good reason why:  a controversial Allied aerial bombing towards the end of WWII that completely destroyed the entire city and killed thousands of civilians.
Whatever possible justification for such a thing, clearly we’d just as soon forget it. And we have. Of course, this is harder for those who live here, having lost both city and loved ones. In fact, peace demonstrations, devotions, and marches are held on the anniversaries of the bombing (13 February 1945) in remembrance of the victims (estimated somewhere between 25,000 and half a million).
          In the novel (which I read many years ago), an American p.o.w. survives the fire-bombing in a deep cellar of a disused slaughterhouse where he is imprisoned. As a big Vonnegut fan, naturally I was eager to see the actual slaughterhouse five itself. Alas, this was not to be, for it was inconveniently located outside the city, and our busy tour schedule made it impossible. I got the feeling that it really wasn’t regarded as a tourist attraction around here anyway; and as the reality of what happened to Dresden in WWII sunk in, I felt increasingly uncomfortable about it.
          Dresden has a long history as the capital and royal residence for the Electors and Kings of Saxony. A cultural and art center, it was known for centuries as the “Florence of the Elba” and the “Jewel Box” for its baroque and rococo city centre. The fire-bombing, plus forty years of ugly communist development, have changed it. But since reunification in the early 1990s, restoration work has helped to reconstruct parts of the historic inner city and Dresden is flourishing once again.
           Now a few words now about our small group tour, a joint venture of the American “Road Scholars” program and “Experiment” in Germany. My wife and I prefer the small group option (in this case, unusually small--only ten, plus our husband-and-wife tour leaders) because you don’t have to speak the local language, everything is topnotch but affordable, and they do all the work. Our fabulous tour leaders, Eleanor and Joachim, both unpaid volunteers under Experiment’s mission of improving international relations one person at a time, were professors with doctorates. When Eleanor had to depart mid-tour, as planned, for medical reasons, Joachim took over and did a great job. An eminent professor of comparative law, he has taught at American universities including Michigan, Chicago, and Cal-Davis. In coming posts, I’ll share a few of his many gripping stories about growing up during WWII and the postwar era.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

How they really feel about us (Germany #5)

BERLIN--The day begins with an illuminating talk by a German history professor who speaks perfect English and has lived in the U.S. (in Georgia). He provides an outline of German history going back to 800 when the First Reich began with the Holy Roman Empire. It lasted until 1871, when the Second Reich began with Germany finally unified as a modern nation by the Prussians of Wilhelm. Hitler’s Third Reich, of course, was supposed to last a thousand years.
          The prof, a warm engaging bearded man named Wolf, describes how by saddling Germany with crushing reparations after WWI, the winners made WWII inevitable. Hitler’s rise to power was fueled by German resentment and economic deprivation. But after WWII, the Allies did something different by being generous victors, and that has made everything since possible.
I’ve been wondering how Germans really feel about Americans who destroyed so much of their beautiful country in WWII, and I think this man, Wolf, has given me part of the answer. He likes Americans and American culture. And in essence, is grateful to us for rebuilding Germany--and for not being “The Russian.”
He does not feel any personal guilt for what was done before his time, and feels his children certainly are blameless.
Discussing the Greek debt crisis, which Germany largely is being asked to fund, Wolf says peace is more important than money. Germans must now think of themselves as Europeans, he says, and go forward with unification because the only alternative is a return to the competition and conflict of the past.
          After Wolf's talk, it’s off to Museum Island, where I visit the Pergamon and Alte Nationalgalerie. The Pergamon houses ancient original-sized, reconstructed monumental buildings consisting of parts transported from Turkey. The Alte Nationalgalerie has a collection of Classical, Romantic, Biedermeier, Impressionist, and early Modernist artwork. Both museums are great.
In between museum visits, I eat a currywurst (delicious) from a sidewalk vendor and drink a good German beer. The draft offerings so far have been pilsner, dunkel (dark and malty with little hop bitterness), or wheat. All three kinds are smooth and satisfying, though I’d prefer more bitter.
          In the evening, I attend a concert by The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the world’s finest, founded in 1882. Its first concert hall was destroyed in 1944. The impressive new hall designed by architect Hans Scharoun opened in 1963. The musicians play in the round. Boy, do they play! Tonight, an impassioned audience of two-thousand brings back the visiting American conductor for multiple ovations.
          My visit to Berlin is coming to an end; in the morning, it’s off to Dresden.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Burning Memorial (Germany #4)

BERLIN--German culture is ancient, but only the twelve years of Hitler’s infamous Third Reich (1933-45) seem to get much attention. Perhaps this is inevitable, given that the Nazis systematically murdered six million Jews and caused the terrible destruction of WWII. Before turning to other periods of German history, I want to discuss two dramatic memorials I visited with my excellent guide Burkhard.
At a central square by the opera house and Humbolt University, a glass window in the ground looks down on a room with empty bookshelves with enough space for 20,000 volumes. It’s a monument to remember a book burning ceremony held on this spot May 10, 1933 by the S.A. brownshirts and Nazi youth groups. The book burning was the idea of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. In all, 20,000 were burned.
Nothing announces this memorial until one is standing virtually on top of it; but then it is arresting. Viewed from certain angles, surrounding buildings are reflected in the glass, along with the sky and, of course, ourselves. At night, its glow amid the darkness is even more powerful. Various subtle interpretations of this memorial are possible, but the overwhelmingly obvious message is that we must not forget that one of the first things the Nazis did was to take over the universities and burn the books. As a writer, I find this appalling beyond words.
In mid-sentence, Burkhard pauses, upstaged by a most amusing sight peddling by: half a dozen bicyclists yoked together with a bar top and a keg of beer. I’ve never seen such a thing before, and this veering from the sublime to the ridiculous seems very in character for Germany to me. We’re at the very end of Oktoberfest, which actually occurs during September, and I have missed the party. But this place is far more interesting than any mere festivities, however massive.
In another part of the center city, Burkhard leads me to a second highly unusual memorial: the Jewish Museum Berlin, which covers two thousand years of German Jewish history. I am not Jewish myself (nor is my guide), but I find this eccentric building fascinating, in part thanks to Burkhard’s expert commentary. The museum, like so much German art I’ve seen, becomes more meaningful the more you learn about it.
It consists of two buildings. One is an eighteenth century former courthouse, the other an addition designed by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind's radical, zigzag design is shaped somewhat like a warped Star of David. Intersecting underground tunnels connect the museum proper to the Garden of Exile, a forty-nine pillar structure whose foundation is tilted to make visitors feel anxious, and to a tall empty concrete silo called the Holocaust with only one dim light source at the top. No wonder the Nazis tried to control art.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Brand New City (Germany #3)

BERLIN--A few words on the food and hotel so far.
My day began with a phenomenal breakfast buffet at the hotel, featuring scrambled eggs, French and other kinds of breads, pastries, sausages, cheeses, and numerous other items I can’t even identify. There was also orange, apple, and grapefruit juice, plus excellent American-style coffee--something you can’t always find in Europe.
          After yesterday’s visit to the Reichstag, I had a wonderful lunch of leek soup and red fish with risotto in the beautiful center courtyard of the Albrechtshof, a former Lutheran hostel. So far, oft-maligned German cuisine has been far better and more imaginative than I've been led to believe. 
          The accommodations have been satisfactory, too. I’m staying at the Hotel Winter, a six-story building whose clean lines and flat-roof reflect the modernist Bauhaus influence.  (Interestingly, the Nazis denounced Bauhaus for its so-called degenerate art and foreign, probably Jewish influences, and pressured the Berlin Bauhaus to close in April 1933.) The lobby is light and airy with arched windows and contemporary easy chairs and glass box coffee tables. The bright yellow bar is chrome with sculpted S-shaped seats. Everything seems new and stylish.
My white-walled room features brick-red doors and bed, and a pop art painting of Check Point Charlie. The marble floor is gray, the carpet and window treatments sage. There’s a flat screen TV with several English language channels available, mostly news. And the plumbing is the most American I’ve yet encountered on this side of the Atlantic.
In many ways, Berlin is a brand-new city, especially East Berlin, rebuilt on the ashes of fifty years of Communist dictatorship. These people have suffered, but are resilient. Berlin considers itself a haven for free-thinking and cutting-edge artistic expression, and you see signs of that everywhere. Still, it’s hard to believe that practically every structure is new because they’ve been built to look old.
Across the street from the hotel stands a seven-story apartment/condo building, each unit with its own balcony garden overflowing with red geraniums and other greenery. Some have festive table umbrellas, many satellite dishes. The German economy is among Europe’s strongest and unemployment is practically nonexistent here. So is street crime; I’ve strolled through the city at night without fear.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Visit to the Reichstag (Germany #2)

BERLIN--From the moment I stepped onto German soil yesterday, I felt oddly at home. It was a feeling I've never had in any of the other countries I’ve visited in recent years (England, Wales, Scotland, Italy, Spain, France, Costa Rica). Standing on a Berlin street corner, I might as well have been in Indianapolis or Cincinnati; the Germans looked just like Americans (although the 200,000 Turks who live here may not). I myself already have been mistaken for a German.
          This morning, after an hour-long Q & A with a young woman who works as an assistant to a member of the German parliament, it was off to the historic Reichstag building, which symbolizes the new unified Germany. The Reichstag housed the German Empire’s parliament from 1894 to 1933, when it was burned by the Nazis. It fell into disuse until 1999, when it became the meeting place of the modern German parliament.
The Bundestag meets in a large gray-walled, carpeted chamber brightened by blue chairs and a glass dome ceiling. (Two cleverly entwined winding pathways connect the dome overlooking this city of 3.5 million.) Political parties control the portion of time allotted to each speaker; no filibustering is possible. Voting is by raised hand unless there is a tie, in which case they leave and file back in through one of three doors: aye, nay, or no vote.
          Walls throughout the building contain a smattering of graffiti and bullet holes from the end of WWII when the Russians occupied the Reichstag. Much attention has been devoted in the restoration to both art and the victims of war. A Jewish artist who lost loved ones in the Holocaust created a piece out of the old walled mailboxes of parliament members. He chose to leave even the one belonging to Hitler (who actually was elected before taking over in a coup d'etat) because he felt that being human outweighs the evil men do. Not everyone agrees; Hitler’s mailbox is kicked in every week or two.
In the afternoon I meet my tour guide, Burkhard, a youthful fit-looking German actor with a resonant voice who speaks flawless English and displays a ready wit along with deep knowledge about Berlin. For the next four hours, it’s on and off the bus many times to actually see the settings of events that Burkhard is describing. There's a plane that took part in the airlift the Allies mounted when Stalin closed the border to Berlin in 1949. At Checkpoint Charlie, we're reminded of President Kennedy’s famous 1961 speech and the standoff  that almost started WWIII. At the Brandenberg Gate, Burkhard talks about the Berlin Wall finally coming down.
But what makes the guide's commentary even more lively and interesting are his personal memories. At seventeen, Burkhard was thrown into prison by the East Germans for being a few minutes late for curfew as he was leaving East Berlin. He jokes about it being an adventure, but admits those were also the longest two days of his life. The story illustrates the random and totalitarian manner by which the Communist sector was ruled during the Cold War.
          At that time, watching western television was illegal in East Berlin. But Burkhard had an aunt who still lived there and wanted to know what was going on in the outside world. He took a tv set to her so she could secretly watch the news. Meanwhile, her young son and his classmates were asked to draw crayon pictures of what their family watched on television. Soon came a visit from the secret police. “We know what you’re doing, and we’ll be back.” This terrifying threat is not the end of the matter.
Years later when secret East German police files are opened, Burkhard learns that his aunt’s son, who’d always wanted to go to college, has been prevented from doing so by the East German state. A note confirming this punishment is found, along with the crayon drawing, in the files. Neither Burkhard nor his cousin ever tells the aunt what happened so she won’t feel guilty. Even today, after all these years, the subject is verboten at family gatherings. Such are the scars left behind by the Cold War in Berlin.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Our Man in Berlin (Germany #1)

BERLIN--The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. "Ich bin ein Berliner." Checkpoint Charlie. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
          This is what comes to mind sitting under a forest green beer umbrella at an outdoor café by the river in the museum district. Yet on this warm sunny day at the end of September when every table is full of tourists, this once divided city is divided no more.
At Checkpoint Charlie, where American and Soviet tanks once faced off, young Polish men in fake American military uniforms pose for tourist photographs. Only a fragment of the Berlin wall that was finally torn down twenty years ago remains, although its course may be traced in the cobblestones. Between sixty to ninety percent of Berlin was leveled in WWII; though construction continues everywhere, most of the city has been rebuilt to look like it did before the war.
          I’ve come here seeking my German roots, not in records but by breathing in the country, walking in the footsteps of my immigrant great-grandparents, seeing the world they left behind. When I think of Germany, I can’t help but think of two world wars and the holocaust, which always produces a vague sense of guilt, even though my family came to America back in the nineteenth century. How could the Nazis have done such evil things to their fellow human beings? How could good Germans allow this to happen?
          Even sixty-five years after WWII, these horrifying questions remain. But I also wonder how Germans today feel about us, the victors who reduced their entire country to rubble and left half of it to be occupied by the Soviet Union. I try to put myself in their place: How would I feel if my world was destroyed, my loved ones killed?
I really want to know, but I suspect they are not going to tell me.
How do we know the world and is it a true representation? The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that how we know the world is not only the experience of our senses but how our intellectual makeup shapes it. In other words, we create our perceptions.
To see more clearly what is right in front of me, I decide to put my preconceptions about Germany aside. Alas, this is not easy.

NOTE: In this 20-part series of reports from Germany, I'm more interested in gaining a better understanding of my ancestral homeland than in writing a travelog. Also, while I'm not going to footnote Wikipedia every time I turn to it for generally accepted information, it's certainly no secret that I'm using it to supplement my experiences. Every time I do, I feel like I'm trapped in a futuristic science fiction novel. What an amazingly useful, wonderfully handy tool!