This is the most spread-out city. London is extremely dense, and in Paris there’s something to look at every seven steps. Here, there are many long blocks to walk from one site to another – miles. So far, except for the S Bahn yesterday, I have walked everywhere, but this morning, when I looked at the map to see the location of the Jewish Museum, I groaned.
But it was important to me to visit it, so I set off. Last night, after that last post, I walked back to the train station to get my ticket for Prague (incidentally, though I started in my clumsy German – “Ich will nach Prague gehen” – even the sales agent at the station spoke fluent English.) On the way back, passed the Berliner Ensemble Theatre. I was tempted to buy a ticket, but no matter how historic this great theatre, I couldn’t imagine spending the evening watching Strindberg’s “Dance of Death” in German. I went back to my wonderfully tranquil room to read and write. This hotel, the MitArt Hotel, is reasonable and marvellous. It provides such enormous breakfasts, I hardly have to buy food for the rest of the day so have spent almost nothing on food. Did buy two large bars of Lindt chocolate yesterday, though. Mmmmm.
On my way down Freidrichstrasse, went into the Taschen store – gorgeous art books – and into a bank that had a design store inside, believe it or not, with beautiful interesting things. German design is wonderful, but of everything I’ve seen here, it’s one of the bicycles that I would most like to bring home. And then passed Checkpoint Charlie, where the American presence in Berlin was centred. Again, pictures and pieces of wall. Hard to believe that such a stupid thing ever existed – from one day to the next, about 130 kilometres of hideous barrier put up to carve a city in two. The nearby souvenir store is selling chunks of concrete in plastic cases for 15 euros.
Recognised the Jewish Museum by the armed guard standing outside. Once you get through the security check, you have to stand in a long line to check your belongings. And of course, because I am half-Jewish, the first thing I did inside the building was to complain about this. But I had to do it anyway. The ultra-modern museum is designed by Daniel Liebeskind, and I have to say that I hated the jagged, confusing design. There are plaques everywhere about his concept, saying that he has left spaces to represent the vanished Jews of Germany – but I think it’s just bad architecture. You are completely lost from entry to exit.
Otherwise, it’s well-done – of course, a history of oppression and persecution, starting in the Middle Ages and leading to the Holocaust, about which there is blessedly little, but also a social history of a people. Lots of interesting historical stuff: the memoirs of Glikl of Hamburg, who from 1691 for thirty years kept a diary about her daily life and left it as a memoir for her children, and for us. This woman went to the synagogue every morning, had 14 children, helped her husband with his business and after his death ran her own, and still had time to write in her diary! My hat off to her.
And the Strauss family – Rebecca Strauss emigrated from Bavaria to the U.S. in 1847 with 3 of her children, the youngest of whom, Levi, invented a new kind of cloth to make into rugged workpants with copper rivets. As I stood looking at pictures of Levi, I was wearing a pair of his very pants, now stretchier than he would have believed possible. Speaking of Levi’s, there were lots of kids in the museum, and large groups of high school kids being given tours.
Of course we learn about famous German Jews, Karl Marx, the magnificent Albert Einstein, Kurt Weill, Martin Buber, Ernst Lubitsch, Max Reinhart the theatre director, on and on. And then we follow a trail of increasingly hysterical anti-Semitism until Hitler is elected.
I hope I have put my own prejudices to rest, because there have still been times in my recent life when the hair on the back of my neck stood up at the sound of German. When the German national team won the World Bridge Championships, my uncle Edgar, the most urbane and civilized of men who adored J. S. Bach and drove a BMW, refused to stand for the German anthem.
Yes, there is something in the German character that’s particularly law-abiding and punctilious, but I have to say that the people I’ve met in Berlin have been the kindest of any strangers during my travels. I do not think that the Holocaust could only have been carried out by Germans. Look at the French acquiescence with the deportations and the National Front there now; look at the recent murders and massacres of peoples by their own kind, Bosnia, Rwanda. A madman was elected here at an opportune moment, and his madness infected an entire country, an entire continent. But he was defeated. There is an appalling history in this country that has been acknowledged and apologised for.
Something made me very proud near the exit of the museum – there is a little film of the trials of some of those responsible for Auschwitz, made by Donald Brittain and John Spotton of the National Film Board of Canada. As the men responsible are led into the courtroom, several of them hit out at the cameraman. The Canadian cameraman.
And then, out into the cool, grey day, and the very long slow walk home.
The wonders of the Internet, Case # 8,727: I’ve been contacted through Facebook by Nicola, who became a good friend when I lived in London in 1971-72 and whom I have not heard from since. She and Jan had bedsitting rooms in the same house where I had one; in her initial Facebook note, Nicola asked if I was the Canadian Beth who used to climb through her window to eat whatever was in her fridge. I was sorry to respond, yes indeed, that was me. She has put me in touch with Jan, too, who though South African settled in England. So now there’s another reason to come back – a reunion of Gwendwyr Gardens, 1971-72.
And I’ve just received an email from a man in Ukraine who just read my book. He’s from Melitopol, where Jacob Gordin’s sisters lived, and wants some information for his research. Here I am in Berlin, reconnecting with English friends after nearly forty years and responding to a request from Ukraine. And off, tomorrow, to Prague. This must be what jet-setters feel like, except that jet-setters probably don’t eat buns and bananas taken from breakfast for the rest of their day.
And in the interests of complete truthfulness, as I set off again, I have to report that according to the scales at Heathrow, when my books and papers are added to the suitcase, it’s 19 kilos. I thought I had reported it as a little light. Still, I’m very happy with what I brought – very comfortable shoes, lots of lightweight warmth and Gore-Tex, 2 books, 3 tourist guides and 7 “New Yorkers.” Everything a girl needs.