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!

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