Berlin only warranted a short visit since it’s so close to London (and so supremely accessible). Sure, it took me 30 years to visit in the first place but we figured we could return at any time. Three word assessment? Cool and laid-back. (Is that two words or three?) Nobody blinked at my walking boots or make-up-less face, even in the super hip districts of Neukolln and Kreuzberg. Take that Hackney, you and your judgey judgementalness.
How to spend limited time in a nearby city? Abandon what everyone thinks you should visit and spend your precious moments at places which give off an irresistible pull, however unexpected. So, we did away with Brandenburg Tor, museums and palaces, and instead spent an afternoon at the Jewish Museum.
My father is (technically) Jewish. He was bar mitzvah’d, and he’s a chartered accountant, but then he also told me the wrong word for a kippah, and was unceremoniously chucked out of his Jewish boy scouts troop for taking pork sausages to a picnic. So it goes without saying that my siblings and I were not steeped in religious dogma whilst growing up, and as such I know little of my Hebrew heritage.
Just as I struggle to understand Americans who call themselves “Irish” because their uncle four generations back emigrated from Dublin, I would be lying if I said I identified with my Jewish roots. But my surname is nonetheless (mangled) Polish Jewish, and my father’s more religiously-active family mostly adhere to the customs. My great-grandparents came to the UK in the early 20th century, but my father tells me that there are gaps in our family tree where our relatives vanished during the 1930s and 40s and were never seen again.
It’s difficult not to dwell on this at the Jewish Museum, where the entire ground floor is dedicated to the Holocaust. A chilly series of austere criss-crossing tunnels at a nausea-inducing slant display individual stories, and mind-bending numbers of people who no longer exist. Displays of belongings from Jews who hid, were killed, saved others, or fled, can be glimpsed alongside the names of cities and towns now home to the diaspora. At the end of one tunnel lies the “voided void”; an empty tower, freezing cold and lit only by a narrow shaft of weak light from near the angled roof. It represents the millions of murdered Jews who no longer occupy German society, and is oppressive in its desolation.
In another “void”, there is a temporary exhibition by Menashe Kadishman. From a distance the noise it creates suggests the clanking of a joyful, bustling cafeteria. Inside, it only takes a few moments to recognise that the sound is created by visitors walking over tarnished blocks of metal – which are in fact countless sculpted faces, mouths open in silent screams. Kadishman said that the sculptures “evoke painful recollections of the innocent victims of yesterday, today, and tomorrow”. I found his realisation of this concept, the devastation wreaked by higher powers, their minds set on a single goal, almost physically harrowing, and couldn’t bring myself to walk on any of them.
The museum’s architect, Daniel Libeskind, wants visitors to take their own experience from what he has created. I found the whole place immensely challenging, almost raw, but also fascinating and vital. It’s terrifying to consider how today we still dehumanise our fellow people when this global tragedy lives within recent memory. On a personal level, it led me to unexpectedly struggle with my own identity. When I learnt that a German needed three or more Jewish grandparents to be considered a Jew, my first thought was relief that I would have slipped through the net. Immediately I was wracked with guilt that I so quickly shunned my heritage. But I’ve never practiced the faith, so do I have the right to feel an attachment? Do I owe it to those lost souls to learn more, if only superficially, about what it means to be a Jew? Would they even want me to?
The following morning, I decided I hadn’t yet had enough of learning about human cruelty so took myself off to the Berlin Wall memorial. This is an elegantly-constructed nod to the events of the 1960s-80s. A “reconstruction” is made of a forest of metal poles, with plenty of gaps carefully spaced throughout. Simple information displays are neutral and honest. If nothing else, I was blown away by the Germans’ openness and contrition when it came to such displays; it stood in stark contrast to the awkwardly propaganda-led Vietnam Museum in Hanoi which barely stopped short of referencing “American capitalist devils”.
After so much misery it seemed only right to meet Peter and relax with a coffee at Five Elephant, another hipster cafe (sensing a theme?!). As we settled down with our artistic lattes, I casually asked if Peter had brought the keys. Panic-stricken, he replied “But – I thought you had them!” “I TEXTED YOU!” I choked, before realising that my effing phone had decided to mysteriously fish out his temporary Glastonbury number and text that instead. THANKS, SAMSUNG. There followed a mad flurry of texts, calls, emails and pinched voicemails with our AirBNB host who, of course, was ensconced at the office; a power-walk across Berlin to get his keys; a metro across town to pack our bags; another metro ride back to Berlin’s train station; the rucksacks and Peter booted off at the station to wait; me weaving between commuters in the rain to return the second set of borrowed keys; running back to the station; culminating in an asthma-inducing pelt through the tunnels under the tracks in order to reach our train to Warsaw a grand total of seven minutes before departure.
After that it was nothing short of bliss to spend six hours chilling on the train to Warsaw.
Mere moments after leaving Berlin’s suburbs, we entered a forest, and didn’t escape it for another 30 minutes. Germany has an awful lot of trees. I always assumed that every European country had decimated their forests but I’m starting to realise it was only the UK. I wouldn’t know what to do with so many trees. Build a railway through them, I suppose.
And the colours! In the throes of autumn, we sped through oranges and golds, grateful once again that we were on a train. The scenery definitely beats those tiny aeroplane windows. AND we got a free coffee from Polish Railways AND we didn’t have to go to Dusseldorf so beat that, RyanAir.
Perhaps the strangest sight on that journey was several dozen heavily-armed riot police at an otherwise unremarkable rural station, which we presumed were there to stop refugees escaping into the countryside. It was dusk as we pulled in and the only other people on the platform were a couple of middle-aged women and a businessman with a wheely suitcase, flanked by two groups of ten-strong be-helmeted men clutching plastic shields and truncheons. We sat for a minute, snapping photos, and the captain cheerfully waved across the tracks. Before long, the train pulled out, and we continued on our way, unhindered. I was reminded of one story I had read at the museum the previous day, of a Jewish woman and her daughter who had escaped to America in the 1930s by travelling overland from Berlin to Moscow, and onwards along the Trans-Siberian railway. Here we were, taking a similar trip of our own volition, for nothing more than curiosity and the fact that we could; and here, still, were more people desperate to escape from terror in their own countries, finding their way to freedom barred. I am uncomfortably fortunate, for no other reason than accident of birth, in century, in country, and for that I am eternally grateful.