On Friday evening, we returned to the train station and set off on an overnight trip to Berlin. This was the first time I had ever been on a train that had sleeping cars. Our path took us through Belgium, so I guess you could add that to the list of countries I have been to, but I don’t think it really counts, since I was on the train and probably asleep at the time.
As with the other cities, we started our time in Berlin with a guided tour. We stopped at the Reichstag Parliament Building, which was famously damaged in a fire in 1933 that the Nazis used as an excuse to suspend civil liberties in order to go after their opponents. We saw the Brandnburg Gate, and we saw the site of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963. (“I am a Berliner!”) In honor of the speech, a few of my classmates then bought jelly doughnuts, also called “Berliners,” from a street vendor, and we shared them.
(A commonly told story is that JFK’s speechwriters used the German article improperly, and as a result, the President ended up stating that he was a jelly doughnut rather than a citizen of Berlin. I have since read that is not true and they in fact got the statement correct. Still, the jelly doughnuts were good!)
We could also see a small remaining part of the Berlin wall, every square inch of it covered with colorful graffiti. I remembered the world atlas from my childhood, with the separate countries of West and East Germany, mirrored on a smaller scale by the city of Berlin. I had seen the tearing down of the wall on the news, and I was impressed at the importance– this meant the maps would all have to be changed! (Yes, I admit that I was a bit obsessed with maps.)
Berlin was full of history as the other cities had been, but there was a difference. Whereas London and Paris were dominated by centuries-old buildings, the center of Berlin had more modern skyscrapers, a little more like an American city in some ways. Our tour guide told us that this was because so much was destroyed during World War II.
We saw a very moving memorial in the public square where the Nazis had burned thousands of books written by Jewish authors, or that were deemed contrary to Nazi ideology. The memorial is a plate of clear plastic set in the cobblestone ground, easy to miss unless you stop and look down. Through the window in the ground, you can see rows of white bookshelves, all empty. Our guide pointed out that, in the early part of the 20th century, Germany produced many Nobel Prize winners, great scholars, and scientists. Many of them were suppressed, killed, or driven away because of the Nazis (some to America)– it is impossible to calculate how much was lost. Then there is the memorial’s engraving, a quote by poet Heinrich Heine (loose translation): “Where they burn books, they will one day also burn people.”
The overall sense I got from the tour was of a city and country determined not to forget the lessons of its history, but also not to dwell on them. Other countries, like my own, can very easily fool themselves into thinking “Well, something that bad could never happen here,” ignoring the many bad things that greed or the desire for power brings about in every country in the world. The memorials in Germany are a reminder that it can, and did happen. But at the same time, Berlin did not strike me as a depressing place. On the contrary, there were lots of new building projects going on and a healthy sense of city and national pride.
Germany is a beautiful country, and there is even some country inside the city! At one point we were riding the bus through Berlin, when suddenly we entered a dense forest. I figured that we must have left the city, but our tour guide told us that we were still within it. There is a huge forest inside the city limits of Berlin– pretty neat! We would get to see more of the German countryside later on, as we were set to visit a couple of other cities.