An American Couple in Delft
Home Up Initial Dispatch Letter from Holland Christmas in the Netherlands Thanksgiving Driving Initimate Experiences Intimate Experiences - followup Two Wheelers Big Night Out in Delft So This Was Christmas Word Play Space Domiciles Bringing a Car up to European Standards St. Who? Weekend in Maastricht Dutch Health Care The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars Queen's Day Liberation Day et al Power Cycling I Love It in the Springtime Independence Day Far Away We Moved! A Real Home Train Ride from Hell Berlin On the Road Again - Part 1 On the Road Again - Part 2 Striking It Rich Christmas Bazaars Istanbul Turkish Rug Dealers You Are Invited to Take Advantage of the Chambermaid Barcelona It's All Greek to Me Singapore Sydney Adelaide Perth Prague Copenhagen Getting What You Ask For European Dogs Ye'll Take the High Road and I'll Take the Low Road Normandy Roman Holiday London at 60 Tijuana Jail Tijuana Jail - Part 2 Winter of Our Hibernation Blizzard of 07 Milan Schiphol Men's Room Sweden Dordrecht Grand Tour Neuschwanstein Russian Consulate Stockholm Munich Dachau Moscow St Petersburg Switzerland Vienna The End


Lynn and I had been looking forward to our first visit to Berlin for some time. Crossing international borders in Europe is only a little more significant than crossing state borders in the U.S. We’ve entered The Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Luxembourg by train and each was a non-event. But crossing the German border, and again several hundred miles later arriving in Berlin, I felt a little bit uneasy. When we had visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, I couldn’t help but try to imagine what it might have been like to look out those very windows and know that Nazis were on that very street looking for people like me, a Jewish guy. It was chilling. Bad things have happened in Europe and there are reminders of them everywhere, but until this point, we had been in the land of the victims. Now we were in the land of the perps.

I got over it pretty quickly though. While we were sitting in a bier garden, I looked at an old man, maybe 75, the guy at the bottom on the left, and thought that during the reign of the Nazis, he was about 10. I wondered momentarily about his parents and grandparents. Were they sympathetic to, or appalled by Hitler? And then I thought it doesn’t matter anymore. The Germans of today are not the same people of then. While there is not a celebration of a glorious past in Berlin, neither is there an attempt to whitewash anything and pretend it didn’t happen. It occurred to me that the atrocities of the 30s and 40s are not the only atrocities of mankind. I know of a country that once sanctioned the kidnapping of people from another continent, bringing them back as property, and actually buying and selling these people as one might do with cattle they owned. Little regard was given to family structures or cultural institutions that these people had developed. And this activity was allowed to go on for hundreds of years in a land where it was declared that all men are created equal and other stuff about their inalienable rights. The descendants of these victims today are free people yet most have stayed in the land of their kidnappers and claimed that land as their own. I suspect that most of these descendants, with black faces, don’t look everyday at people with white faces and wonder if the white person’s great great grandfather owned his own great great grandfather. It makes me wonder why some people, Jewish like me, cling to bad feelings about today’s Germany when it is so far removed from its ugly past.

Berlin is a beautiful place. There’s a long boulevard called Kurfürstendamm. We walked a long way down this street to our hotel and I thought about how much it looked like Paris. Later we discovered that it was modeled after the Champs-Elysees in Paris. However, it’s different from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia which comes from the same model. Kurfürstendamm is like the part of Champs-Elysees with all the high-end shopping while the Parkway, as all you Philadelphians and former Philadelphians know, is like the tree-lined boulevard section.

The thing in Berlin that most drew me in was The Wall. Not much of the wall is actually left but its remnants are everywhere. In many places there is a path of bricks or brass showing where the wall went. It cuts at an angle across major streets and runs into buildings. Some of these buildings look like they pre-date the wall so it’s unclear to me how they were patrolled. One conceivably could go in the back door of a building and out the front so I suspect my perception is wrong. But there were trolley tracks that crossed the path of the wall and pictures show that those routes had to stop running. There are about ten metro lines in Berlin and two of those, I think, both started and ended in West Berlin but made several stops in East Berlin. During the 29 years of the wall’s existence, those became phantom stops, unused, and visible only as the train passed by.

The Wall was a total of about 96 miles surrounding West Berlin. The piece bisecting the city was about 27 miles and about 13 feet high. There were different "generations" of wall. It started out as a fence and was added on to. In places there were two walls and the space between was bulldozed so that people trying to escape were very visible. That area was called "no man’s land" and today is used by runners and cyclers. On the side of West Berlin that borders East Germany, the wall, from what I can tell, was not as physically pervasive but was still a great presence. It appears mostly to have been barbed wire and chain link. For the whole length there were watch towers every thousand feet with guards prepared to kill, and who did kill, people for the crime of "flight from the country." Many hundreds, and by some estimates more than a thousand, people were killed for this "crime." The Berlin Wall, along with the Great Wall of China, are the two largest structures ever built to keep people apart. There has been talk of doing it again in the Middle East which is really a swell idea given how well it’s worked before.

No visit to Berlin is complete without seeing the Brandenburg Gate and what remains of Checkpoint Charlie (and another). The Brandenburg Gate  was commissioned by Friedrich Wilhelm II to represent peace. It subsequently came to represent division. The Nazis used it to symbolize their power. The design of the gate hasn’t changed since it was first constructed in 1791. This is the place where President Reagan gave his speech in ‘87 telling Gorbachev to "open this gate… tear down this wall." In ‘89, it came to represent reunification when the riots happened preceding the opening of the gate, the Berlin Wall, and finally, the whole border. These were people who desperately wanted their freedom and there were no insurgents. The word is unfortunately so overused and therefore undervalued, but it was an awesome experience being in that place.

West Berliners and foreigners were permitted, with lots of hassle, to cross the border. It was the East Berliners who were being confined. There were several places in the wall where crossings could occur but only one for foreigners: Checkpoint Charlie.

The checkpoints were named from the phonetic alphabet, alpha, bravo, etc. Today there is a replica of the U.S. Army Guard station and the sign that says "You are leaving the American sector." The location of the wall was about 200 feet behind the station and clearly marked by a brass trail of markers. There are sandwich shops and clothing stores at the station now which probably are new since ‘89 but the Checkpoint Charlie Museum has been there since ‘63.

It was out of the way, not a major tourist attraction, but we also visited Rathaus (city hall) Schöneberg. Schöneberg is now a neighborhood in southwest Berlin. It was once a separate city. When Berlin was divided, the Rote Rathaus (red city hall), traditional seat of the Berlin government, was no longer accessible to westerners so Rathaus Schöneberg became the temporary seat. This is the place where President Kennedy gave his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech on June 26, 1963.

All this walking around and learning about world history that happened locally made us pretty hungry. Fortunately, Berlin is a terrific place to be hungry. Before we left home, Lynn looked at the expatriate website and found a couple restaurants for us to try for dinner. The first one, Oderquelle, was in a less than wonderful neighborhood in the old East Berlin. With so many people around we didn’t feel unsafe but the area looked run down. We walked into a very small but very full place. It was billed as a place that was cozy and "the clientele is agreeably mixed, with Prenzlauer Berg trendies rubbing shoulders with elderly locals." That seemed fine with us. It was terrific and pretty cheap. But wait! The next night we went to Zur Letzten Instanz which, having been there since 1621 (or 1541, I saw both dates), claims to be the oldest pub in Berlin. I believe it. Part of the website blurb said "Its illustrious patrons over the years have included Napoleon… Despite its secluded location, it’s popular with tourists and visiting heads of state; this is where Schroeder brought Chirac when he visited in 2003." This seemed like it could be fun. Go to this website and search for "Zur Letzten Instanz" You’ll see a small picture with a table in the center. Just to the right of the table is something that may resemble a reddish couch. That’s actually a chair, a very wide chair, and it could be called a throne. Not that kind of throne. Lynn sat there in the very spot that Napoleon himself once parked his carcass. We had a dinner from out of this world. I’m not the world’s biggest food connoisseur but this was maybe the best meal I’ve ever had. It was the first time I was ever actually sorry that the meal was coming to an end. And the price was amazing, a mere €33 for a superb dinner and atmosphere so thick you could cut it with a knife.

This piece wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the waitress from the bier garden that I referred to in the second paragraph above. She brought us menus and said hello. We said hello, she recognized us as foreigners and asked if we wanted English menus. Absolutely. She picked up the menus she had given us and turned to the back section where she showed us that everything was written in English. "Drinks," she said, "are not written in English, but beer is beer and Coke is Coke." She walked away while we laughed and attempted to choose among seven different kinds of Lowenbrau. She will be my memory of a Berliner.

See all my pictures of Berlin.


© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008