Poor But Sexy
If someone had told me you could see Berlin and get a history lesson in a mere eight-hour tour, I wouldn’t have believed them. Luckily, my recent trip to Germany’s capital city proved me happily wrong. The tour guide (who happened to be from Astoria, OR) from Brewer’s Berlin Tours showed up and explained that although the tour was called Brewer’s, it wasn’t a brewery tour of beer-filled Berlin. Instead, it was eight hours of interesting history delivered while trekking around East Berlin and sometimes jumping over to the West.
The tour started with this quote – ‘Berlin is poor, but sexy.’ In 2003, the mayor of Berlin said these lovely words about his city, and it has become so popular that it is now the tourism advertising slogan. While it wasn’t the most beautiful city I have ever seen in my life, it had something about it that gave it its appeal.
The first main building we stopped at was the New Synagogue. Built in 1866 with the capacity to hold 3,200 worshipers, it quickly became a symbol in Germany. During Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) on November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazis took to the streets and destroyed Jewish property – burning shops, smashing windows, and robbing left and right. They attempted to break the windows and torch the New Synagogue, but by the grace of one local police officer, they were turned away.
The lone officer told the Nazis that this synagogue was a city building and not private property like the other buildings and shops they were damaging and that they would be punished if they harmed the synagogue. By these orders the Nazis left, leaving the gorgeous building intact. Sadly, it didn’t survive as easily through the entire war, and in 1943 was hit by a bomb, but the facade stayed pretty much the same. Now, after repairs, we were able to note which bricks and parts of the building are new and which are from the original facing, and marvel at the onion domes (both of which are from after the war).
Walking along Oranienburger Strasse we came to a building that was set far back from the road. Turns out that the front half of the building was bombed during the war, but that the building that was bombed actually used to be quite a cool place. When the telephone was invented, it seemed like all Berliners wanted to own one, but they were very expensive and only reserved for the elite.
Some smart Berliner took note of this and made a restaurant that had a bunch of telephones. Each booth had a phone, and you could call from one table to the next, or place your order over the telephone to the kitchen. People were in love with the idea of the phone and so excited to be able to be talking on one! It sounds like a fun idea, something that would have been a good night out back then, but now a vacant courtyard stands in front of the entrance to the old kitchen of the restaurant that is now used as a bar.
At this point I kind of got lost. We had been wandering through courtyards and down streets we hadn’t walked on the day before and before I knew it, I was completely turned around. I did appreciate the gorgeous courtyards, though, and didn’t really worry that I had no idea where I was.
When Berlin was set up as a city, many large apartment buildings were built in the interior area of the block and then a large courtyard separated the packed apartment buildings from the apartments that line the streets. The interior buildings obviously house many more residents and are less glamorous than the exterior buildings, but it seems they also have the benefit of not having the street noise in a city of three million.
No matter which side of the courtyard you live in, everyone can equally enjoy the tree-decorated and sometimes even grass-covered open spaces between the two worlds. With small curious shops set up in the first floor of the buildings, these courtyards were a great reason to wander in and out of streets.
Carrying on with the tour, we headed back toward the center of town to see one of the most iconic places of Berlin – the Brandenburg Gate. When the Wall came down, this ‘gate’ was the scene of East Berliners rushing through to West Berlin to find family or friends or just because they finally could. We walked the long wide street leading up to the gate – Unter den Linden, which means Under the Linden trees. Our tour guide made sure to point out that along the tour we would see many things that the Germans named that aren’t very creative but instead very accurate.
The Gate was one of the 18 gates that used to lead into the city and was used as a toll house and a place to pay taxes. Atop the gate sits Nike, the Goddess of Victory. In 1806 Napoleon defeated Germany and took Nike as his war prize back to Paris for all to see. However, a few years later, in 1814, she was returned to Germany and a few things were changed. Originally, Nike held an oak wreath, symbolizing peace, but after she was hoisted back on the gate, this time it was with an iron scepter symbolizing victory. The funny thing is that she stands tall and looks over Pariser Platz (Paris Square) and her victory scepter actually now points directly at the French Embassy. I’m sure the Germans love that the goddess of victory is always there reminding the French of their loss.
While talking about its history, our guide passed around some old photos of the Gate as it was over 50 years ago. It is kind of surreal to look at a photo that was taken during a time of war when the gate stood for something so different than it does today, and to be standing in the exact same location.
Because we could, we crossed over to West Berlin, easy as that, for a short part of the tour. Throughout the city runs a gold line that shows where the wall used to stand. We took some time to jump from East to West Berlin and see if we could feel a difference. I couldn’t. Across from the government buildings stood Tiergarten – a Central Park-type-space that used to be the hunting grounds of the royal family. I don’t know if all Germans are as bad as hunters as the royal family was, but when they used to go ‘hunting’ in this massive park, the aides would pre-trap the animals and then empty them out into a small part of the park for royals to easily shoot them. I guess when you are a king or queen you have that luxury.
After walking for some time, we had tired legs and had worked up an appetite and stopped at a kebab shop to eat. Before going in the kebab shop though, our guide wanted to show us something I guess you wouldn’t normally read in a guide book, and he took us down to the metro station near the restaurant. There, in this random subway stop, were walls covered in gorgeous red marble. It seemed like any other metro stop, although it was quite ornately decorated, until we found out where the marble was before. As it turns out, the marble used to be in the building from where Hitler headed the Nazi party. When the building was demolished, they retained the marble (because I mean, it is quite nice) and now it is in some nondescript underground place. Kind of strange, but I guess recycling is good, right?
Our next Berlin stop was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s a city block full of different-sized cement blocks. The artist, when asked what the memorial is meant to symbolize, said ‘nothing.’ He said he wants it to mean something special to each person, and for that, he created it with no meaning in mind so that each person can have their own reaction to it instead of being told what it means. With undulating pathways that create a wave-like appearance of the cement blocks, each visitor can make their own impression of the monument.
Even more eye-opening was this interesting and conflicting information: because the blocks are made with cement, they are an easy target for graffiti, so the artist contracted a chemical company to create a clear paint that covers each block and makes paint unable to stick. So, when people put graffiti on the monument, it makes it easily cleanable and it quickly goes back to new. Sounds good, except that the chemical company that made this dream product is also the same company that made the chemical used in the gas chambers of the Nazi concentration camps. Unsettling to say the least – and kind of ironic that the company that contributed to so many deaths of Jewish people is now using a different chemical to honor them.
With that in our heads to ponder, we continued with the WWII theme and walked to the place where Hitler committed suicide. Now it is a bunch of apartment buildings, but during the war, it is where Hitler spent his last days – scared, paranoid and unable to believe Germany was going to actually lose the war. When he learned that defeat was imminent, he asked his doctor what was the best way to commit suicide and was told cyanide with a shot to the head to finish him off. On April 29th, he married his girlfriend Eva Braun and about a day later they committed suicide together when they heard the news that the Soviets were close and they didn’t have enough ammunition to survive the night.
With a lot of WWII history in our minds, we continued on our long day tour to see another one of the city’s most notable sights – the Berlin Wall. Like I had said earlier, a gold line runs through the city, showing everyone where the wall that used to divide the city stood, but not much remains of the actual original wall itself.
We came to a point that looked as if it were crumbling before our eyes. Across the street from the wall was a large office building, and our guide told us of an escape story of a man who once worked there. Apparently, this worker had an office with a window and contact with someone in West Berlin. One day, he snuck his family into work and they stayed there until night fell and escaped out the window. It seems almost impossible to have managed to make it to West Berlin from the complex defense system that the wall had.
While everyone talks about ‘the wall,’ the Berlin Wall was actually two walls set apart from each other. The first wall acted as a barrier, but if you managed to get past that you were confronted with spikes that you would land on after jumping over the wall. Next you would have to make it past the armed guards with floodlights. If you were tricky enough to avoid death until then, you needed to sprint through a narrow field with pointy-teeth dogs waiting to attack. Only then could you make it to the other wall and attempt to scale that and finally if you could hoist yourself over that you were in West Berlin. With all that in mind, it is quite amazing to hear about success stories.
If you didn’t attempt to put your life in the hands of dogs and barbed wire, the only other way to walk across the border was through the Tränenpalast – the Palace of Tears – so named because it was once an immigration station that separated East and West and was the sight of many tearful goodbyes.
The wall was built practically overnight. People went to sleep one night and woke up the next morning trapped in East Berlin. Because no one planned on waking up to a wall, many families were apart the night that the wall went up. Anyone who woke up in West Berlin became a West Berliner, and for the unfortunates who woke up in the East, they were doomed to be Easterners.
West Berliners could come and visit East Berlin for the day, to see family, shop, etc, but East Berliners couldn’t do it the other way around. So, families would come to see relatives on the east side, and at this Tränenpalast is where they would eventually have to say goodbye. It’s a large building of glass windows, and people could watch their families enter the Palace of Tears and see as they passed through immigration to free land, and they couldn’t do anything but stand there. Not like going through immigration to West Berlin was a piece of cake – many Germans were interrogated for long periods of time in small rooms with intimidating guards. One story we heard involved a West Berliner who came to East Berlin for the day and got in a fight and had a broken nose when he tried to leave. Obviously his face looked a bit different than his immigration photo and the guards held him for multiple days because they thought he was an East German trying to escape.
A different way to pass through to East Germany was through the Allied checkpoints. The most famous in Berlin is Checkpoint Charlie (alpha, bravo, charlie – it was checkpoint C). Still standing in its original spot as when the wall was up, the soldiers who passed through to East Berlin needed to check out of West Berlin and did so at these checkpoints. Posted next to the booth is a sign stating that you are leaving the American sector, in English, Russian, French and German. It is only a replica now but with an actor standing guard, we got a good idea of the way that it used to be crossing over.
Staying in East Germany, we finished our tour on Museum Island – you guessed right – an entire island in the middle of the city dedicated to museums! We popped a squat in front of the first museum that was built on the island in 1830 – Altes Museum. Our guide mentioned again that Germans aren’t the most creative when it comes to naming things, but instead use extreme accuracy. This museum used to be called only ‘museum’ but then another museum was built and they had to figure out how to name two museums. Hence, this became Altes Museum (Old Museum) and the second museum became Neues Museum (New Museum). Imaginative, I know.
Kitty-corner from the Old Museum sits the Berliner Dom (basically Berlin Cathedral). Known as a cathedral since it was built, it was actually a Protestant place of worship until 1930 when the Holy See created a Catholic diocese in Berlin. The biggest church in Berlin, it is a massive building that has only re-opened in the last 15 years after terrible damage during the war.
Through our eight-hour tour, we really saw that Berlin, in debt up to its ears, is rather a poor large city, but as the mayor had said before, it is sexy. From new buildings to old, half-crumbling ones; to massive churches next to little cafés; the tour showed us a whirlwind tour of the enchanting city.