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Thursday – Dienstag, I think – in Berlin

No, it’s Donnerstag. A stunning spring day in beautiful downtown Berlin. I’m happy to say that enough of my high-school German has come back for me to flounder through, when I accost those few people who don’t speak English. “Ich kann ein bischen Deutsch sprechen.” Ja!

One thing that amazes me here, in general, is the orderliness of the crowds, who stand at red lights even when there’s no traffic. The guards in the museums are very stern and strict. Even though on the streets, there’s a vitality even more anarchic than London’s, if possible, the backbone of German politeness and good behaviour pokes through.

And then there’s the haunting that I spoke of yesterday. On my way this morning to the art gallery, first I went through Potsdamer Platz, where again there are actual segments of the wall, photographs of it, and memorials to the hundreds of Germans who died trying to get over.

Then a bit later, there was a notice-board on the sidewalk with pictures, beside it a plaque on the ground. On this spot, it said, were the headquarters of AKTION T4, the Nazi program for the mass murder – “massenmord” – of disabled people and the mentally ill, which was the start of the Nazi programs to “annihilate worthless life” that soon focussed specifically on Jews. There were 6 killing centres, we are informed, where more than 200,000 people “unfit to live” – including social misfits, delinquents and homosexuals – were gassed to death. They show a picture of the Dean of a Berlin cathedral, arrested for protesting these murders, who died on his way to Dachau. And a picture of the man who ran a number of the Aktion T4 programs before moving on, like most of his peers, to continue his work in the camps. His name, ironically, was Christian Wirth.

And then you just move along to see some lovely art. The city is hallucinogenic in that way. You keep encountering traces of lunacy, criminal lunacy of the vilest kind, register it, and move right along. That’s all you can do.

The Gemaldegalerie, the gallery of European art from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, is vast, as these museums are, and very confusing, with little rooms leading to and from big ones, so that you end up turning in circles to be sure you’ve seen everything. For once, I did get the headset, because there were no explanations beside the paintings as there are in London. A big collection, no surprise, of German and Dutch masters, Holbein, Durer, Cranach – a wonderful 1546 canvas of “The Fountain of Youth,” which shows droopy hairless old hags arriving at a swimming pool, frolicking naked and emerging the other side as bouncy young things about to go to lunch. Bosch showed the horror of the world, Breughel also, complicated busy scenes with horrible human beings, devils and fools. Rubens, Van Dyck, Frans Hals, lots of beautiful Rembrandts, and here – Bruce! To Berlin immediately – two Vermeers, a young cavalier tempting a young woman with a glass of wine, and a young woman in the ubiquitous yellow top, holding a pearl necklace to her perfect neck.

An English room, a Spanish room, some Poussins and Lorrains, yes Bruce! – and then to the heavenly Italians. 5 Madonnas by Raphael, Bronzino, Tintoretto, Titian, a few stunning Bellinis including Jesus with a six-pack, Fra Angelico and Fra Lippo Lippe. And we leave through a room of Botticellis. How light, how fantastical the Italian scenes seem by then, with their stunning Marys, clouds of angels and golden haloes.

After that lengthy journey through western art, and a picnic lunch of a piece of cheese stolen from breakfast with a crusty bun, I decided to see the famous shopping and strolling street, Kurfurstendamm, which took an hour-long walk to get to, beside the Tiergarten, an enormous and gorgeously wild city park. Wished I’d rented a bicycle. This is a great bicycle city, flat and very spread out. I have been lusting after the bicycles, beautifully designed and sturdy with high wide handlebars. And also the shoes – the Germans make marvellous shoes. I was glad mine were comfortable today – lots of walking. The street was wide and impressive, the Champs-Elysees of Berlin, people sitting in sidewalk cafes, and the usual high-end shops as anywhere. Wandered more happily in the side streets – gracious tall old dwellings painted many different colours and in many different styles, unlike New York or London or Paris.

Bravely took the S-Bahn back, the elevated railway – Berliners all day were great, helping me figure things out. The railway glides over the city. Went as far as Alexanderplatz, one of the youth centres of the city, and walked back. Arrived at 5 p.m. after an entire day, from 9.30, on my feet.

Now I’m stretched out on my bed, drinking a glass of German wine, eating an apple, writing to you. I went to the Philharmonic building after the gallery and found out that tomorrow, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” is playing, Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. The woman at the hotel called for me; it’s sold out, but there are standing room tickets. I may do a lot of standing tomorrow. Because just as this country symbolizes the worst of human nature, it also produced the most sublime – Johann Sebastian Bach. Not to mention Franz and Georg Freidrich and Ludwig and and all their colleagues.



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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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