I am writing tonight from a couch at the reception of the hostel where I am staying in Berlin– an area that doubles up as a nice bar/ hangout space. Behind me, some people are watching a football match projected onto the wall with more enthusaism than I have ever fully understood (I think it’s cool, though). Across from me a man is on an intense looking video call, and the room is full of people drinking, talking, writing, watching, being– each in their own language, each with their own drink (mine is a giant glass of terrible red wine!), and there’s something I love about that, that way of being together without necessarily interacting with each other.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about.
I spent today walking around central Berlin, including parts of the historical city, and I’ve been trying to tie together the experience in my head. in 2014, I was a teaching assistant for a class on Memory and Reconciliation at CONTACT South Asia (a wonderful peacebuilding program I have been involved with since 2013). We were working with a group where many of the participants had lived through civil wars, and we were trying to understand together how the act of memorialising, how the way we frame our past conflicts, can influence peace or conflict processes in the future. We looked at many memorials in that class, some celebrated ones and some that are acknowledged as deeply problematic and sowing the seeds of further conflict (a case in point would bee the Sri Lankan memorial which is, for one, known as the “Victory Memorial” rather than something like the “Peace Memorial”, so it’s debatable whether it was even conceived of as a peace-building measure or simply as chest-thumping). At any rate, we had talked extensively about the way Germany has chosen to memorialise its own dark history, very publicly, and in so many different ways. I was curious to see how these spaces make me feel in the flesh after all those abstract conversations about intention and execution, so I wanted to start my Berlin trip there.
I had already made plans to visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe with a dear friend later in the week, so I decided to start my day today with the Berlin Wall memorial. I thought this would be a small stop, but I ended up spending over an hour there, trying to take it in. You can find thousands of images of it online, but here’s one of a small section that might help you understand this post better.
Okay, so in this one, just notice a few things: in the foreground you see a wall with lots of little “windows”– each of those has a photograph of one person who was killed while attempting to cross the Berlin wall. A few windows have ben left blank to allow the possibility that there were others whom we do not know about, and to allow the possibility of their inclusion if we find out about them. Behind that, in the white with lots of graffiti is part of the remains of the original Berlin wall as seen from former East-Germany. And in the right corner, the rusting steel beams are how they have chosen to mark the parts of the wall no longer exist– an interesting choice because they actually feel like the most menacing part of this stretch, and yet they allow a glimpse from each side into the other, which is also part of the metaphor of this memorial, I think. This photo is one tiny part of a long stretch with lots of photos, audio-video stopping points, sculptures, and more. A truly impressive amount of time, energy, and resources have gone into reminding the city of this past, into making sure that it is commemorated and acknowledged right in the heart of modern Berlin.
I kept wanting to be moved by it. But somehow, I just wasn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. I learned a lot today about that period of Berlin’s history and realised that our high school history books kind of forgot about Germany once Hitler was gone — the Berlin wall showed up in our history books more as a metaphor and less as an actual wall. It was interesting (in a morbid kind of way) to watch some of those video interviews and try to imagine this place in another time, and I gained a lot of information, but I struggled to relate to it in a way that meant something.
Then, I overheard a conversation between a British man and his 8 or 9 year old son that somehow put this in perspective. Struggling to explain the political historical connotations of that spot to his child, but very much wanting him to understand, the man finally told him “If we were standing here 30 years ago, at this very spot, we would have been killed. They would have shot us just for standing here.” The boy’s eyes widened a little, and he asked “And we are sure they won’t any more?”.
In the boy’s wonder, in the fear, and in the father’s reassurance, I saw a bit of what was impossible for me to feel otherwise in the middle of this beautifully sunny and grassy spot full of art, this very sterilised memorial where some people were walking dogs or going for a run, and where tourist groups hung out chatting– the possibility of violence. That imagining made the site more meaningful, made history more current, just for a moment.
Later as I continued to hobble around Berlin (I’m still walking with a cane because of all the foot drama I’ve mentioned before), I found the other piece of this puzzle. My foot was starting to hurt, and I was just looking for a nice cafe where i could rest for a bit over a cup of coffee and a journal entry, and my cane stumbled upon this.
We had talked about these too in that memorialisation class– the “Stumbling stones” memorial. Across Germany (and other parts of former Nazi territory too, 22 countries in all by now), these little 10 cm by 10 cm brass cubes commemorate the homes or workplaces from which victims of the Holocaust (mostly Jewish, but also other groups persecuted by the Nazis) were captured, committed suicide, or forced to emigrate– basically, it seeks to commemorate the last place where these individuals freely chose to live before Nazism made their choices for them. Each plate tells you the names of the people, dates of birth, the date of the deportation, and the date (if known) of death. In the stones above, there was one eight year old and one twelve year old, two people in their thirties (presumably the parents?), and someone in their 60s. At the bottom, for each of them, it says “murdered” and in some cases gives one the date of death. That’s it. That’s all we know about them now, along with the sites where they lived, loved, fought, worked, dreamt, feared.
Some people find this memorial offensive, this idea of literally walking over those names and dates, as if it were an ordinary thing. For me, that was precisely what prompted a sharp intake of breath, the ordinariness of it. That was what made me forget my hurting foot and my search for a cafe, look back up at this building, try to imagine it in a different time, try to imagine this street in a different time, ask a hundred questions in a second about what happened here, how we allowed it, whether it could happen again here, or back home, and so much else. It brought the history into this living breathing moment, wrote those difficult questions into the sidewalk, made you mourn for these individuals and the lives they could have had– the life this city could have had.
I thought back to the Windows of Remembrance at the Berlin Wall memorial, which also does remember individuals, including with photos. I realised that for me the difference was that there, they were memorialised at the site of their death; here at the site where they lived their lives. There, if you didn’t want to think about that part of your history, you just didn’t go into that ground; here, you will literally stumble upon it everywhere this tragedy took place (the project is still ongoing). Above all, there, the only thing that connects those people, and therefore their only identity, is that they were killed for trying to cross the wall, but here they are connected as families, as neighborhoods, as familiar categories of people– as something I can imagine, and it is the imagining that breaks one’s heart, forces the difficult questions, and hopefully strengthens one’s resolve “Never Again”.