(Join Tales Told From The Road as it continues on a month-long virtual European journey.)
Would Berlin draw so many tourists to it today if the city—like Germany, the country of which it is the capital—had never been divided into East and West?
War may be bad for tourism, but the “Cold War” between the Soviet Union and “The West” which spawned intrigue and mystery of life behind “The Iron Curtain” in general, and East Berlin in particular, has undoubtedly made Berlin a top destination for those traveling to Europe.
While we might believe that the country known as Germany must have existed for at least a few hundred, if not a thousand or more years, it is, in fact, younger than the U.S. The separate kingdoms in the Germanic region only became united as a single nation in 1870. And, of course, that country was rendered into pieces after World War II when West and East Germany were formed, with Berlin, initially divided into four sectors (British, French, American, and Russian) sitting wholly within East Germany.
In 1949, less than five years after the end of the war in Europe, the Allied sectors were consolidated into one: West Berlin. Between then and 1961, two million East Germans left home and permanently moved to West Berlin, West Germany, or elsewhere. Then the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) Berlin Wall was erected, circling Berlin in a hundred mile long path.
Fifty-one years ago it wasn’t easy for U.S. President John F. Kennedy (whose “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech made him a favorite of West Berliners) to reach Berlin which was surrounded by the East German state. But today, it’s easy to reach the once and present capital of a united Germany by air, car or rail.
After spending a leisurely morning roaming around Dresden and grabbing a quick lunch there, we’ll hop on an early afternoon train and arrive in Berlin a couple of hours later. While we’ll be staying in a “West Berlin” hotel, we’ll begin our visit with a journey to the eastern side of the city.
Getting around Berlin on foot, or by riding the “U-Bahn” and “S-Bahn” trains is easy. And we’ll take one at the start of a half-day seeing many of the city’s sights on the “Discover Berlin” tour offered by the “Original Berlin Walks” tour company.
Berlin, like many European cities, was heavily bombed from the air and shelled by ground artillery during WWII. But Berliners, like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, have rebuilt many historic buildings to such a degree of perfection that we Americans (and perhaps locals, as well) cannot tell the newly built “old” buildings from the originals that were destroyed.
Prior to the war, Germans were “into” neo-classical Greek and Roman style architecture and structures, such as the Brandenburg Gate (separating Berlin from Brandenburg to the west) are prime examples of this building genre.
One building that no longer exists, except as subterranean rumble, is the bunker where Hitler, Eva Braun, and the Goebbels family spent their final days. During the Communist rule of East Germany, the bunker was completely flattened and buried. Today, high-rise luxury apartments, often occupied by high-ranking East German officials, surround the site where Hitler ended us life with a cyanide tablet and a bullet to the head.
An unimpressive section of the Berlin Wall is near the former Nazi Air Ministry, a building that the East Germans converted into a planning office and decorated with a mural of “happy” citizens from their country.
One fearless employee of the Communist regime brought his family into the building one day,m ostensibly so that they could see where he worked. Unbeknownst to the authorities, he locked them into a broom closet. When everyone else had left for the day, he rigged a cable from the top of the building over the Wall and into West Berlin. One by one, he and his family slid to freedom using a harness attached to the cable, zip-lining, East German style.
“I’m ugly, but I glow at night” read the sign on the marquee of the Michelberger Hotel located near the end of the U-Bahn #1 line and just a block from the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall.
That piece of the Berlin Wall is known as the East Side Gallery, runs for about a mile, and is covered by murals down by artists from all over the world. Barge-like boats ply the adjacent river Spree.
East Berlin has two emotionally moving reminders of the plight of Europe’s Jews during World War II.
You’ll find yourself lost in the rising blocks of stone’s in the outdoor “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.”
Berlin’s Jewish Museum is also located in the eastern section of the city. The museum’s collection was originally housed in a section of a 19th century Baroque building that was known as the Berlin Museum. Years later, created an adjacent zigzag shaped zinc-walled modern building with three axEs.
The most striking feature of the museum is the “Memory Void” at the base of another narrow tower. Walking over the 10,000 iron faces (called “Fallen Leaves” by the artist who created them) with holes for eyes and grimacing mouths littering the floor of the tower creates a clanking sound, like prison doors slamming shut, or the wheels of a train hauling Jews off to concentration and extermination camps.
The permanent collection of the museum traces the history of Jews, particularly those living in Germany, over the centuries. The exhibits and accompanying audio tour are very well done, but it would take a month of Sabbaths to see them all. In the midst of this part of collection is a decorated Christmas tree.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some German Jews began to celebrate the Christmas holiday as well as Hanukah, since both were festivals of families and lights, and a way for them to show that they were part of the greater German society.
We’ll end our day touring East Berlin on a light-hearted note with “Ampelmännchen,” which translated into English roughly means “Little Traffic Light Guy.” You’ll find him and his brethren on a variety of tourist mementoes as well as controlling pedestrian movement at intersections.
Tomorrow: The “Other Side” of Berlin