As I prepared for my trip to Germany, my dad briefed me on a few simple and essential phrases, such as “What’s your name?” and “Where’s the toilet?” I also learned to count from 1 to 100, which would be handy if I decided to buy anything (I didn’t want to repeat my experience in Austria, where I stared dumbly at the bus driver as he repeated, more and more angrily, how much I owed). Luckily, the fact that I would be meeting Nils, a friend from college who spoke fluent English, decreased the likelihood of a similar episode occurring on this trip.
I flew out of London at an ungodly hour of the morning, bracing myself for easyJet’s in-flight advertisements. If it was anything like Ryan Air, a comparable budget airline that I’ve had the misfortune to fly on in the past, floodlights would turn on just as I was drifting off to sleep, and I’d be bombarded with appeals to buy everything from bags of peanuts to luxury cars. Luckily, easyJet turned out to be much more civilized, and I actually slept for most of the hour-and-a-half flight to Berlin.
Nils met me at the airport, and we began our “Best of Berlin” show, which promised to include the most notable sites in the city center while leaving us time to catch an evening train. We started out at the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, where over a hundred artists had left their mark on a remaining stretch of the physical representation of the Iron Curtain. To be able to touch the Berlin Wall, and to see the ways that artists had represented its legacy, was a privilege.
After the gallery, we trekked to a number of notable sites in the city center, including but not limited to a historic Soviet TV Tower, Alexanderplatz, Museum Island, Unter den Linden (a grand boulevard running East to West), the Brandenburg Gate, and the Victory Column (a towering monument which Hitler had moved across the city center in order to make way for his grandiose plans to restructure the city into a sort of modern Rome).
As we walked, Nils explained to me the intricacies of the German elections, which were due to take place in a few days. He expected Merkel, the center-right candidate to win a third term as chancellor, and to set up a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, the largest left-wing party. It seemed odd to me that two fundamentally opposed parties might set aside their differences and run the country together, but like many things in Germany, politics are much more civilized these days than in the United States. When I stopped by the poles on election day, there were no picketers chanting slogans and brandishing signs telling people how they ought to vote. People simply walked into the remarkably peaceful town hall, cast their vote, and left. It made me rather embarrassed for the United States, which apparently can’t even pass a law through normal processes without the government shutting down.
Near the end of the Berlin tour, we visited the Holocaust Memorial. 2700 blocks of granite covered an entire plaza. The significance of the memorial is left up to the observer, but I couldn’t help but notice that the dimensions of the blocks were very similar to those of a coffin. As I walked deeper into the plaza, the blocks towered above me, creating an overwhelming effect of disorientation. The sheer scope of the memorial, and the knowledge that these blocks of stone were only a fraction of the numbers of people murdered during the Holocaust, was a powerful reminder of the human capability for evil.
Beneath the memorial, a museum is dedicated to relating information and stories from the Holocaust. Family trees with photographs, fragments of letters written by victims, and stomach-churning accounts of the crimes committed ensured that this monstrous event won’t be forgotten. Perhaps the most difficult moment was reading a letter written by a twelve-year-old girl to her father. It was not the horror of what she faced (being buried alive in a pit with other victims) that most affected me, but rather the way that she tenderly and innocently told her father that she loved him.
As we walked away from the memorial, I thought it commendable that Germany is willing to confront the darker side of its history. It takes the recognition of injustice and some acceptance of responsibility in order to move past these sorts of tragedies. When it comes to our history of slavery and our persecution of the Native American people, I think the United States still has a long way to go.
I finished my day in Berlin exhausted. We had certainly done a lot of walking, and the fact that I was carrying my clothing for the week on my back didn’t help. It had been a marathon of a day, but it had been worth every ache and stomach-growl. As we passed towering monuments and glorious churches, it felt as though I had been plunged into history itself. Now it was time to take a train to Bad Bevensen, where the next stage of my adventure would take place.