BERLIN — It’s the eve of the anniversary here and, if Berliners are like me, they have already reached sensory overload with images and stories from many sources: the site of the celebration itself at the Brandenburg Gate, television, newspapers, magazines, and even the cab drivers who brought us here.
One of the most unexpected and poignant images for me was a scene I came across today while going someplace else. I was headed to see the display of the giant dominoes in Potsdamer Platz that will fall Monday night as an apt metaphor to freedom, when I found myself in a maze of concrete boxes of various sizes and shapes. Altogether there are more than 2,700 of them.
A lone woman, dressed in black, was resting against one of them, and it was obvious she had something deep on her mind. Suddenly, I realized this garden of stone was the most visible part of Berlin’s version of the Holocaust Museum although, in typical German directness, it’s called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Germans have never been known for an overuse of euphemisms.
When you think about the collective loss of lives signified by this memorial and the remaining chunks of the Berlin Wall arouind this city, you realize that you are standing on hallowed ground. The last time I remember feeling like this was when I walked the battlefield at Gettysburg a dozen years ago. A lot of people paid for their ideas of freedom with their lives, and the pain and hardship visited on their loved ones was incredible.
It would take a book just to convey the stories I’ve heard and the imagery I’ve encountered just in the past three days in Berlin. Everytime I sit down to update this blog, I have a small mountain of material I want to squeeze in; everytime I hit the “publish” button, I feel frustrated I covered so little. Today is no exception.
Getting back to the dominoes, this should be fun tomorrow night. At about 8 p.m., these dominoes that follow the path of the Berlin Wall in the center part of this city will start to fall. Within a few minutes it will be over, but the imagery of it should last a long, long time. For a decade I’ve remembered the many scores of torches that came to life along the path of the Wall back in 1999 on the tenth anniversary of this event.
Does all this mean everything is running smoothly in Germany, 20 years after the fall of the Wall and eastern communism? No, there are still problems, certainly. Berlin has not taken on the guise of a a neo-Garden of Eden, nor has the rest of Germany. The economy is a big bother here, and some former East Germans (“Ossis”) are still upset about having to make their way in a competitive capitalist system when the state used to provide for their basic needs. Some “Wessis” are upset that the country has had to subsidize the East so much over the past 20 years, although all Germans have to kick in for the “solidarity tax.”
But — and I’ve heard this time and time again — no one wants to return to the tyranny of the past. And, as many will freely admit, the divisions between east and west have diminished over the years.
A writer for Der Tagesspiegel, Helmut Schuemann wrote about all this today in an article headlined, “What is Germany in 2009?” He phrased his observations in a series of questions starting with, “Are We Reunited?” Noting several advances — not the least of which is twice electing a woman chancellor who comes from the East, no less — Schuemann points out the country has a ways to go in spreading the wealth and workload. He concludes this answer by noting, “The nostalgia for the East and the supposed desire for the past spring from the same melancholy that infects West Berlin.” Simply stated, we all tend to take refuge in the familiar past, remembering the decent times and forgetting the worst.
Yesterday I took my second visit to an important standing memorial here in Berlin: the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. In it is contained some of the most inspiring, death-defying accounts ever heard about a people who just wanted to be free to go where they wanted to go and when.
In fact, 40,101 “barrier-breakers” (those East Germans without exit visas) risked their lives successfully in doing just that during the 28 years of the Wall’s history. Sadly, another 220 lost their lives trying to get over, under, or through the Berlin Wall. More than 700 others lost their lives at other border crossings in Germany.