A City Who's History Isn't Quite History (yet)

Elisa Stern
March 11, 2016

Two weeks ago I spent the weekend in Berlin, Germany. Since getting back I’ve been trying to find a way to write about my experience in a way that’ll do it justice, but it’s proven to be quite the challenge. There was something so real about the city and the time I spent there, and I don’t know if I’m literally articulate enough to capture it in writing, but I’m going to try.

Six of us boarded a bus on Friday afternoon, fully stocked with books and snacks and headphones for the 9-hour ride ahead. On Saturday morning we went on a 4-hour walking tour with the best tour guide I think I’ve ever had in my life. (If you’re ever in Berlin, I have a great recommendation for a tour guide company and the most incredible guide to take you around.) We saw so many of the historic sites in one go – it was actually pretty incredible how close everything seemed. The Holocaust Memorial, the Berlin Wall Memorial, the Berlin Cathedral, Museum Island, Checkpoint Charlie... The list goes on. The experience has actually inspired me to go on a walking tour in every country I go to from here on out! There’s nothing quite like hearing about it the buildings and monuments you're seeing from someone who really knows their stuff.

 {Left: Berlin Cathedral}

Let me just say, Berlin is cool. Graffiti covers the buildings that line the public streets to the extent that any portion of clean concrete almost looks out of place. People in their 20-somethings smoke and drink beer outside train stations at 9AM. Street music is at a whole new level – not just a guy with a guitar strumming some tunes, but a group of friends with various instruments and amps and speakers jamming out, their love of music simply oozing from their fingertips.

Over the course of the weekend, my friends and I did all the quintessential “German” things. We went to a brewery (as someone who identifies as more of a wine connoisseur, I can proudly say I had the first beer I’ve ever enjoyed!!) We ate pretzels, admired graffiti clad alleyways and walked through obscure street markets. We ate falafels at 2AM from the “best Lebanese place in Berlin” and sat in some grungy bars that gave off a vibe so cool I almost felt out of place. When I think back to this particular trip though, I know those aren’t the first things that will come to mind. Or rather, they’re definitely not the only memories that will come to mind.  This trip opened my eyes and forced me into an uncomfortable reality in a unique way, and I have a feeling that’s what might come to mind first.

{Above: I've never been a beer person, but Augustiner is a winner.}

I think anyone with even the slightest knowledge of European history can agree that, put extremely simply, Germany’s a country that’s had some bad luck. It’s had it’s fair share of less than desirable leaders, made some poor decisions during wars regarding allies, and surely doesn’t have the best track record for treating its citizens with the respect or humanity they deserve. When I boarded the bus in Amsterdam, I knew all those things. I’d learned about Germany and its role in the World Wars, I (thought I) knew about the Holocaust and it’s atrocities, I’d read a few books; I was headed to Germany with a clear idea of what to expect.

In more ways than I could have imagined, I was really wrong. Because see, more than any place I’ve ever been before, Berlin is a city that’s still very much wrapped up in –and recovering from - it’s own history. I know that might not make a lot of sense, but I don’t really know how better to put it. There’s a crane in every single direction you look. You can’t take a photograph without angling it just right to make sure a construction site isn’t in the background or taking up the left-hand corner of the picture. The strength, growth, and resilience of the city is ever present and undeniable.

In any North American education, Germany is inevitably brought up in any conversation regarding European history. Even as someone who’s had an extremely limited course load in world history, in high school I learned about Germany’s role in World War II, the Cold War, and the Holocaust. The horrific reality of the mass genocide of a scapegoated group of innocent people, and the tale of a city pulled in two different directions by two opposing superpowers. It always felt like a concept. A textbook chapter. Horrible things that happened at some point in the past, that we should all remmeber and learn from. Far away. Long ago. Important, but not directly relevant to my everyday life.

But being in Berlin for that weekend, I was forced to realize how real, recent, and close it all really was. The Berlin wall fell less than thirty years ago. Less than 30 years!!! My parents were alive! I was almost alive! A physical wall dividing a city?! The Holocaust began 80 or so years ago. That’s less than a lifetime. Less than one single lifetime ago, over 11 million people were burned, shot, starved, gassed, or worked to death in the very city I was standing in, simply because the country needed something to believe in, and something to blame. Now I know genocide is still a very serious present problem in various countries around the world, but this degree of man turning on man – humans seeing fellow humans as nothing more than disposable animals – I can’t even begin to comprehend it.

{Above: There's a string of red brick throughout the city where the Berlin Wall used to stand. If you can read it rightside up, it means you're on the East, and if you're looking at it upside down, you're on the West!}

Honestly, what got to me more than anything was seeing elderly people. People in their late 70’s, early 80’s, who had lived through it all. Through the destruction of the country, the repercussions of the decisions that were made, the memorials that went up in the names of their friends, their family, their neighbors, and now the tourists that came to see the remnants of events that were so deeply interwoven into the fabric of their lives. Two weeks later, I think I’m still processing that idea. When I sit back and really think about it, it still baffles me.

Late Sunday night as we boarded a bus back to Amsterdam, I realized how much I’d learned about the human experience. I realized that, although we’re all human beings, the adversities and triumphs that we’ll each endure and overcome are different beyond what I'll likely ever be able to comprehend. I wish there’d been more time to explore and roam around not just Berlin but Munich, Hamburg and other cities in Germany, but the two days I spent in Berlin are two I’ll never forget. The experience gave me even more appreciation for the fact that a textbook education can’t even begin to compare to a physical one. I admire Berlin for its tenacity and vivacious spirit, and Germany for its ability to pay respect to the people it wronged.

If it wasn’t clear by now, the trip was amazing. I maneuvered a new city with 5 other incredible girls, and learned and grew in a way I definitely wasn’t expecting.

This got really long, so here are some bullet points in case you skipped to the end:

  • Go to Berlin.
  • Unless you’re a really cool person, you might feel out of place. That’s okay. I'm living proof that if you fake it, no one will know.
  • Augustiner beer. It’s really good.
  • If you’re ever in the city, go on the “Original Berlin Walking Tour,” and ask for Merren as a guide. She’s hilarious and smart and I promise you won’t regret it.
  • Everything you learned about in European history happened a lot more recently than you probably realize.
  • Seriously, go to Berlin.