Jan 14, 2012

The unbearable lightness of history in Berlin

The statute for the killed Jews of Europe in Berlin right on
 Hannah Arendt Street, who luckily escaped their fate.

It was my second time in Berlin and yet, I am not that into the clubby-cool scenes of Berlin. There is a certain melancholy for me here despite the glittering architecture and friendlier than usual Berliners who are a different breed of Germans. Of course, certain traits like thrift remind you that you are in Germany, like the woman selling me a discounted subway card. When I asked what was so good about the card, she replied: “Sie sparen Ein Euro”. “You are saving 1 Euro” but the way she said it made it sound like I am saving a hundred dollars!

Check Point Charlie in Berlin
seems to have turned into a money making attraction.

This sign in Berlin meant once
 life and death for people.

Names of places in Berlin attest to a bygone romance such as Ruheleben; Charlottenburg; Karl Marx Allee; Unter den Linden. Because I speak German and am a little familiar with its history, it seems almost like a fairy tale…At the same time, these places also attest to political history: Check Point Charlie, Luftbrücke Platz, Brandenburger Tor. I feel that the political weight of all this has been carelessly thrown away by turning the city into a commercial show case with shiny buildings. In their willingness to bring “together what belongs together”, Germans seem to have over-done it. In that sense, two places where I could feel the weight of history have been the Jewish and the Stasi Museums. They balanced the cheerful side of Berlin for me as I feel that Berlin should not be so "light". It  should also be a place of remembrance like the moving but unassuming Statute for the Killed Jews of Europe. It’s after all where the decision to kill millions of people have been taken and carried out. Saying this, I am not advocating a Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung but I believe Berlin should be a place that carries the weight of history on its shoulders like Beirut or Sarajevo instead of turning into a theme park.

Let's remember our wall that lived 28 years.

In the Judenmuseum, Jewish history read like German history with Jews settling in various commercial spots as they were allowed to do only few trades. Interestingly, this discrimination was ended couple of times but was always reversed. The museum hosts many personal belongings, pictures, even packages sent or candle holders. The building’s architecture takes you to the Garden of Exile or “the tower” where you are made feel as cold, alone and in darkness as the Jews of the time. In that sense, it is a place that sensitizes you to the extreme suffering of the Jewish people. One of the last books published by a Jewish bookstore as shown in the museum is also telling of the political climate of Germany of the time: how to emigrate. Pictures of warning signs that “Jews enter into this village at their own risk” or detailed instructions as to what they can take with when leaving the country, manifest the intention of the authorities to acquire their belongings and wealth. Which is probably why it led to hefty sums of compensation for the victims. All of this made me think that we have such a long way to go on the Armenian front. Will I live long enough to see such museum in Istanbul?

Notice the camera inside the tree root at
Stasi Museum in Berlin.

Another object of life turned into
an object of spying at Stasi Museum.

Would you ever guess James?

My other destination was the Stasi Museum. This building was taken over by the people after the coming down of the Wall in 1990. While undergoing restoration and serving in a temporary building, it was still very interesting for the fact that it revealed how Stasi could turn ordinary items of life into objects of spying such as bags, thrash cans and watering canisters for road side surveillance. Apparently, graveyards were paid special attention because the church was considered a competition to the party’s monopoly on truth. The length of the files at Stasi reached a staggering 80 km of paper and even today, people are still able to make an application and obtain copies of their files. All of this reminded me of the great movie "the lives of others", where the hero is an ex-Stasi agent.

Scent samples of interrogated people
were kept like this at Stasi Museum.

"Freedom for my file" at Stasi Museum.

Closing on a happier note, it is a comfort to have so many Turks in Berlin which even allows you to ask for directions in Turkish right at the airport. Their cheerful ways of selling their stuff just like back home, put a smile on my face. One of them read: “döner macht schöner, einmal essen nie mehr vergessen”. (döner makes prettier, eat it once and you’ll never forget). Now that’s something that even the trio that killed döner makers cannot finish off! Bless y'all!

Döner macht schöner in Berlin, bless you!