A wall I stumbled on in former East Berlin
I was in my 40’s, after I finished my residency and fellowship and was working as an ophthalmologist, when I first got a passport and took my first trip abroad.
My travels are usually connected with medical or scientific research or meetings. I have spoken at such meetings on every continent except Antarctica.I have friends and colleagues around the world.
I have a longstanding research collaboration in Paris that has allowed me to visit a dozen times and get to know the city, once having the honor of being one of the few Americans to have spoken at the French Academy of Ophthalmology (to an audience of 3500 doctors form around the French-speaking world).
Having a long-standing interest in art and art history, I have visited many of the worlds great art museums, gazed at Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, climbed Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence, entered pyramids, temples and tombs in Egypt (including a couple normally closed to the public), admired Zen temples in Kyoto, had a special entry to see Tang dynasty paintings in Xian, and climbed pyramids in Mexico.
I have been to a party in a foreign embassy, seen Iguazu Falls in South America and snorkeled at the great barrier reef. These are just a sample of what immediately comes to mind when I think of the trips I have packed in over the last 18 years.
I have gotten around, and would have crossed off a lot of things on my bucket list if I believed in and had a bucket list (I don’t like that idea in the least bit. Dumb and pointless).
Nice enough, I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but for the most part, all of this has had only a modest impact on my life (except for the friends).
Really. When I am struggling in this or that dark night of the soul from time to time, I promise you these memories mean little. They don’t even come up.
Water color sketch of Adam of the Sistine Chapel
But the trip that made a difference, the one that taught me something that mattered because I was actually there and so taught me what travel could be about, was my trip to Berlin for the World Ophthalmology Congress in 2010.
Berlin was about redemption.
My father fought against the Germans in World War II, in North Africa, Sicily and then starting on D Day in France, Belgium and just into Germany. It was on the beaches of Normandy on D Day stepping over the bodies of his fallen and falling comrades that he decided God was of little relevance or interest to him. He was wounded some months later in a small battle in the Hurtgen Forest on the border of Belgium and Germany just before the Battle of the Bulge. This small battle in the Hurtgen forest was an Allied defeat, all dead except for a few lucky ones like my father who were wounded.
I was brought up in a secular Jewish neighborhood in New York City in the 50’s and 60’s. Fathers of my fellow baby boomers had fought in World War II. People with arms tattooed with numbers, holocaust survivors, were not rare. I knew children of survivors (and have a couple of patients who are yet surviving survivors in LA). I have photos of family from the 1920’s and 30’s in Eastern Europe, few, if any, of whom would have made it past the holocaust and the war (as well as the subsequent Soviet incursions).
I was introduced early in life to the Diary of Anne Frank, soon after I could read a book. On my first trip to Europe I went to Amsterdam, and visited her house (OK, that was a close second to Berlin!). I bought a first edition of the book, in Dutch called Het Acheterhuis, from an antiquarian bookstore just up the canal from Anne Frank’s house. While a first edition of this book can be quite pricey, they were embarrassed to show it to me because the copy they had was in poor condition. Are you kidding? For $200 I got one of the 1200 copies that were printed (no one knows how many are still in existence) and I got it a few hundred yards from her house. Is that not one of the most awesome souvenirs ever?
So it wasn’t surprising to me that my wife didn’t want to go with me to Germany. A bit closed-minded I thought, but I understood. The sound of spoken German was something we were taught early in life was frightening and ugly.
It was the sound of death, and not pretty death. It was the harsh, guttural phonics of arrogance and hate.
But Berlin was the only trip I ever took that actually meant anything, that I got something that I couldn’t have gotten from reading a book.
I ate at this restaurant I found walking around the first night in Berlin; it was asparagus season and they had traditional German fare. It is in the former East Berlin, up the block from the upscale restaurant I ate in the last night.
I didn’t do my homework as I usually do before going someplace new; I didn’t read up on Berlin. On purpose. I didn’t want to risk adding to my prejudices and biases. I didn’t even realize at first that my hotel, the Egyptian museum and the wonderful neighborhood they were in had been deep in the heart of East Berlin!
My last night there I ate at a wonderful small upscale restaurant near my hotel in the former East Berlin. Five different salts! There was a different glass of wine with each of three courses. At any time from the mid to late 1930’s through the fall of the Berlin wall, for over 50 years, I would have been killed or imprisoned (and then likely tortured and killed) for being there.
For being American.
For being Jewish.
Didn’t matter if I believed.
I was Jewish. I was vermin.
I could barely fight back the tears, and some fell; not tears for the past, but of joy for the present. While eating in the open courtyard at this restaurant I heard some American doctors at the next table talking about medical reimbursement. Their voices were grating and distorted, the subject banal. They had no appreciation for where they were! But that was them, not me; they couldn’t ruin the beauty, the deep profound beauty, of that meal for me.
That was my last night in Berlin, but tears were frequent that trip.
There was the Neu Wachte. I didn’t know what it was; it looked like a bank to me.
But it wasn’t. This was on the outside by the entrance:
This wasn’t just about the Jews, but about all victims of war and tyranny, the disabled, Gypsies, homosexuals, the dispossessed and powerless, those who resisted oppression.
All wars, all tyranny.
And when I walked in this is what I saw. A Pieta. Mother Mary. The bodhisattva of compassion, Guan Yin/Avalokiteshvara/Kannon.
A shrouded woman, cradling a dying man, his head in her arms.
Deep warm Love in a cold, right-angled stone emptiness.
I couldn’t stand. I had to sit and cry. It literally knocked me off my feet. I was stunned. It may not do that for you. But it did for me.
It still does.
And there was the only remnants of the offices of the third Reich. Below the grey walls above there were the sickly yellow bricked walls of the basements. How much pain and suffering had been generated there?
But I was there looking at their ruins.
And there was the Jewish museum, where I bought a replacement for my lost wedding ring (a long story). They had some rings in their souvenir shop already inscribed with biblical verses, but that was not going to happen. I asked the woman there who made the rings to make me a silver ring with the Hebrew “shalom,” peace, in Hebrew, inscribed on it. She did and sent it later.
There was this monument, done by an Israeli artist on the spot of the Nazi book burnings of 1933. I didn’t see it at first because the square where it was had been set up for free opera with chairs and stands. But a young woman who was born in Berlin and returned after the wall came down and who is married to a film maker told me about it, and one evening I walked into the square and a beautiful light was beaming from the ground. Walking up to the light this is what I saw.
I cried some more.
The actual book I bought at the book fair
There is an ongoing used book fair across from this monument at Humboldt University to celebrate books as a counter to this historic travesty. Most of the books are in German. But I found this one for 5 euros. In the book is a photo of the burning that happened 80 years earlier on that very square!
The caption reads in part: “the end of Jewish intellectualism” proclaimed Goebbels.
Ha! Fuck you Goebbels!
Again, the perfect souvenir.
(Not the same photo as in the book, but for copyright purposes I looked for a free access photo)
That beautiful kind Berliner, the woman who told me about the installation in the square that commemorated the book burning, also gave me an interesting perspective. When she was growing up for her the American Embassy was what stood between her and Soviet totalitarianism.
The American embassy is by a controversial holocaust memorial. Here a people sitting on it. Casual, all light and joy.
I came across the holocaust memorial after visiting the Jewish museum and talking to that young woman having walked several miles, tired, sore and emotionally raw.
When you walk down into the memorial, between those monoliths, while they are level from above (as in the picture) they get taller in the middle because the ground slopes down. In the middle it looks like it goes on forever and they loom overhead so you can barely glimpse the sky.
But don’t give up! When you come out of it, there is light, air and the American embassy.
I appreciated that these monuments were put right in the center of Berlin, right in your face, and they were clean and respected. But even more, it was the people; the taxi drivers, the doctors, the waiters and helpful museum guards, the Jewish woman who made my ring at the Jewish museum, the young Austrian doctor I had breakfast with, the woman at the art and souvenir shop.
I am not all that naive. Nor am I attached to the Nazis as the quintessential and uniquely demonic bad guys. I know there are still German Nazi apologists and skinheads and fascists and anti-Semites. I know there have been many mass murders and genocides and examples of ethnic cleansing since then. America of late has been guilty of its own war crimes and criminal wars and criminal acts that I paid for with my taxes. Sometimes done by people I voted for.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There is redemption.
There is in Berlin.
And I wouldn’t know that from reading this or from reading anything.
No pictures or paintings or poems or works of art or interviews out of context of the city itself at the scale of real life would have done it either.
I had to be there to see it, hear it, and receive it for myself. While the irony of writing about it is not lost on me, I feel compelled to share.
Not the death camps for me, but the life of Berlin in the new millennium.
There is redemption.
There is transformation.