February 26th and 27th.
Day three in Berlin. Today I woke up around the same time, and got out of the hostel around the same time. I ate breakfast surrounded by Spanish speakers and then took my computer to the cafe down the block. I act cute with the barista because he’s cute and so I ask if he speaks English, and then throw in words like “danke” and “zucker.” Double espresso. I type some emails that I meant to type weeks ago. Single espresso. I write a little bit and goof off on facebook. The cafe is very warm and I regret wearing a sweater but I keep it on anyway. After putting my computer back at the hostel I walk to the metro. I take the U6 two stops and have trouble switching to the S-Bahn. Eventually I find the right track and wait five minutes for a train. The car I get in smells like shit but it’s no use moving. Only a few stops away from my destination I notice the dog that two men have under their legs. It is a strange ride. Everyone seems kind of annoyed or preoccupied. I try to enjoy looking out the window but I don’t really feel comfortable.
I get off at Warscauer Straße. The station smells equally as shitty despite being in the open air. I climb my way to the top and start walking toward the fancy bridge, Oberbaumbrucke. I am heading towards Kreuzberg. I walk under the fancy structure. This neighborhood is the Berlin I have heard about. It’s punk. It’s dirty, it’s covered in graffiti and stickers and art and defiance. There are cafes and independent shops that I want to go in but also feel intimidated by. I stroll around. There are no stoplights on the streets and it feels like Philadelphia. The trees are kind of green and it’s peaceful. I go to Nil, a falafel place I read about online. It’s empty and the man has his back turned to me because he is frying chicken. I stand near the counter and wait for him to turn around. The word “vegan” identifies several of the dishes below the glass. Immediately I ask if he speaks English. We communicate in a strange way and soon I get a small plate with 4 falafel balls, some lettuce, aubergine spread, all covered in peanut sauce. It’s probably the most delicious thing I’ve ever had in my life. It cost 3€.
I go to the East Side Gallery, a stretch of Berlin wall that is covered in art, graffiti, and tourists writing their names. There are many people also walking with me, and while it’s tough to be so near a devastating structure, the presence of so many people leaves me feeling disconnected. I walk until I reach the S-Bahn station and travel on the public transport for a while. I end up on the other side of the city, in Schoneberg. When I emerge from the metro I see a Starbucks. Very thirsty and rather sleepy, I decide I deserve some wifi and a big chamomile tea. They also had vegan chocolate, so I bought that too. I drink my tea by the window and check for any emails. It’s still early in the US so nothing to read.
When I leave Starbucks I walk one block to the Käthe Kollwitz Museum.
A large sign with an arrow points to an unassuming and tiny door on the side of a very regular-looking building. Even though it says “Käthe Kollwitz Museum,” I still play dumb and look around the garden for another entrance. Then I notice the plaque near the door announcing that this was in fact the Käthe Kollwitz museum, so I push open the door. An older woman greets me at the small desk covered in books about Kollwitz. She takes my backpack and coat, and gives me a flyer. I walk into the first room on the ground floor.
The exhibit ends three floors up. In all, there isn’t exactly much and many of the works are lithographs and so there are duplicates. I read all of the long posters explaining Kollwitz’s life and work.They mention often her connection with suffering, her ability to understand and represent that suffering in art. I wish I could read German, because some of the posters lack translations. “War Never Again” stands out.
Her series on Death is fascinating and wonderful and sad. I again feel pressured by the rooms I’m in, the country and place I’m in. The suffering of the past is heavy and thick. The children who died, the families that were broken.
“Death Seizes a group of children” stands out.
The next day I got a late start because I did not even open my eyes until 9am. I try to force down a big breakfast, an apple, some corn chips with hummus, and two slices of bread with hummus. It is a lot for the morning. I don’t rush to leave the hostel. I feel tired and the sky is grey and less vibrant than my previous two days here. When I leave I walk to the Hauptbanhof. When I enter the giant and airy space (it has several floors, either side crowded with neon lights for Starbucks, gift shops, sandwich places, apothecaries) I find the information booth and ask a grouchy woman where I can buy a ticket. After she tells me upstairs and to the right, I find the do-it-yourself automated ticket booth. I fail several times at finding the correct arrival station. “Schönefeld airport” doesn’t seem to exist. Defeated, I go upstairs and to the right.
Another grouchy woman sells me a ticket for 3.20€. I look around for the S-Bahn and make my way to the platform. An ICE train pulls in from the other direction. I watch the crowd of people with suitcases. I take the S75 one stop to Freidreichstraße. I change to the U6. When I get off at Hallesches Tor I feel like I’m in a different world. It’s quiet and empty, except for a few stalls set up in the circle I’ve walked into. Someone selling flowers, some people selling old clothes and new bags. The area looks kind of run down. I follow the signs for the Jewish Museum. I see my first Stolestien. I regret that I didn’t look at long enough to catch the name of the person.
Across the street I enter the museum, and my coat and bag go into the cloakroom but I bring a pack of tissues, a notebook, a pen, and my camera with me.
The start of the museum was a strange experience. Groups of kids clunked down the stairs, shouted, and ran. Construction took place in a few corners. It was crowded and difficult to take your time reading the plaques for each object. What I expected to be a solemn and reflective experience was busy and rushed.
But purposeful voids in the hallways did not escape me. Sometimes a corner turned into nothing, and you were reminded that there is empty space because of the Holocaust. There is a dimly lit room, the floor is covered in metal circles, and into each is carved an agonizing face. You can walk to the corner of the room, where there is a light shaft. Some people walk confidently across. Others are cautious and step fearfully, as if the faces are going to berate them for what was done in the past. I chose to stand and observe the walkers. In ways I feel like a coward for not stepping across.
My favorite room was a collection of TVs which were showing a German man interview people on the streets of Berlin. It must be the 1960’s. He asked them if they think we should forget the Holocaust ever happened, and just move on. The number of “yes” answers feels shocking. But the last answer rings clear to me: “Absolutely not. And if anyone ever tries to forget what happened, we need to intervene and stop them.”