Image: Felix Kiessling
By Joanna Chen
The fact that a Lufthansa plane had crashed the day before I flew to Berlin did not deter me in the least. El-Al is safer, a neighbor told me, referring to Israel’s national airline. Their security is better, she said. On my walk to the forest the morning of my flight, a friend made a face when I said I was flying Lufthansa. “Oh well,” she said, realizing I really was going. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice.”
I’ve been to Berlin several times in the past few years. Last autumn I got on the plane with hand luggage only – a pair of flip-flops, my laptop and a couple of swirly summer skirts. My dismayed partner, accustomed to my dubious packing talents, handed me his sweater and bought me an umbrella when we met up at Berlin’s Tegel airport.
It rained on and off. I spent the entire week sitting in a café, working on a translation I was doing, but mostly eavesdropping on conversations in a language I do not understand. In the afternoons, we biked around the streets of Berlin without a map. Berlin lets you know where you are historically, if not geographically. By this I mean that Berlin has a gloomy history and does not deny it. Rather, it acknowledges it unblinkingly. Everywhere you go, it is evident. Nothing is hidden, at least not from a historical point of view, but anything is possible. Perhaps for the very reason of its openness, Berlin feels liberating to me.
The capital of Germany is far from perfect. Like other major cities, it has its share of gentrification and a widening economic gap. There are vagrants huddled at U-Bahn entrances. There are trashy fast-food joints and pick-pockets on the streets. It’s not charming the way Paris, for example, is. It’s gritty and there are entire blocks that have not been rebuilt since WWII, when eighty percent of Berlin was destroyed. But there is a cultural richness to Berlin that amazes me more than anywhere else in the world. I am drawn to the multiplicity of art and of music here, the graffiti, the juxtaposition of old and new architecture. I am also drawn to the multiplicity of the people who fill the streets, the cafes and the art galleries, and the fact that I can get lost in all of this.
This trip, however, I am trying to be more introspective. On the plane, I read Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover story in The Atlantic Monthly about the steep rise in anti-Semitism throughout Europe. Then I discover that Lufthansa has internet facilities, and I go online to read David Brooks’ piece in The New York Times about how anti-Semitism should be combatted. I am trying to get into the mood.
I was very much in the mood the first time I went to Berlin, eight years ago. So much so, in fact, that I didn’t even want to go. I was resistant. I was afraid of having my face shoved into the Holocaust. I did not want to go to the Topography of Terror Museum; nor did I fancy a visit to the Holocaust Memorial, or a stroll along Wilhelmstrasse, where the Nazi headquarters were situated. So the day we landed, three kids in tow, I resolved to get it over with as soon as possible. We would do the obligatory tour right away, before lunch. We dumped our cases in the hotel and trailed out into the sticky summer heat. We marched up and down the main sites of Nazi activity, we raised our heads to read plaques detailing the horrors of WWII.
There is no one in my family who died in the Holocaust, at least not that I know of. The popular Israeli song “Every Person Has a Name”, written as a poem by Zelda, , is played constantly on Holocaust Day in Israel, but I do not have names of grandparents or great-grandparents that I can say, nor photos. I have never gone on a tour of concentration camps because, quite simply, I’m not ready for it, and this makes me feel guilty.
As a child growing up in northern England, I had little awareness of my Jewish roots. We had a Christmas tree at home in the holiday season and we ate chocolate eggs filled with M & M’s at Easter. I went to an Anglican girls’ high school where I attended assembly every single morning, down on my knees on the polished wooden floorboards. I can still recite “The Lord’s Prayer” perfectly and sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” I remember my mother telling my teacher that I could play the part of a sheep or goat in the Christmas nativity play, but not Jesus or Mary. So I was a goat.
All this changed when I was about 13 years old. I do not know what initiated the shift, but one day I was informed that from now on there would be Jewish prayers in the library every morning. We were a small group of girls, all faintly ashamed of being singled out in this way. And I had liked morning assembly, where we would giggle and whisper together when we were supposed to be silent. I don’t remember us doing anything special there in the library with the French windows and heavy bookcases. But what I do remember is what happened after prayers, when we were called into general assembly for the reading of school notices. If we were even one second late for the end of assembly, a particular stillness would fall over the hall and it seemed to me that the entire school was looking at me, trailing shamefacedly in with the other Jewish girls. All heads turned as we entered the hall, and the low heels of our sensible shoes echoed to the very front. I called it “walking the plank”; it certainly felt like that. By the time I arrived at the end of my class row and squeezed myself into position, the headmistress had already begun reading out general school notices. My face was beet-red.
Sometimes, while waiting for main assembly to finish, I would hide behind the pillars, polished to a deep red shine. Random mice scampered around the pillars, carved out of the wood. I would run my fingers over their winding tails and beady eyes while the final hymn was being sung and all the time my Jewish lips would mouth the words I knew so well.
On the connecting flight from Munich to Berlin on my latest visit, we blend into the crowd: a woman of Chinese origin eats a salmon sandwich out of a brown paper bag; a man in a checkered shirt and gold-rimmed glasses talks very loudly on his cell phone as the plane rises into the air. An Israeli couple, cracking jokes about the punctuality of Germans, enters the plane late. Drinks and a snack are handed out deftly; the trash is swept up just as deftly as we begin the descent. There’s a palpable nervousness on board; the cabin crew are jumpy. Later that day, more details of the crash that killed 150 are released. Outside the airport is a makeshift memorial with candles and flowers. People pause briefly as they walk by, releasing little sighs of relief because they arrived safely.
The next day, I meet my friend, Angela, for lunch at Sissi, an Austrian restaurant with wallpaper dotted with huge roses. I walk there from my hotel and the walk takes me along the posh Freiderichstrasse to Potsdamer Platz and then into more sleazy neighborhoods where I’m vaguely afraid to ask the way and hold a little more tightly on to my backpack. After lunch, we head for Café Einstein on Kurfuerstenstrasse, the original branch of this famous German chain. A waitress in a long white apron greets us curtly at the entrance. “We close at 3:30,” she says. I glance at my watch. It’s only 2:45. Time enough for jasmine tea and kuchen. At precisely 3:30 we are presented with the check. Afternoon tea comes to an abrupt close and we leave, Angela wheeling her bike beside me because I did not have time to rent one. We talk anti-Semitism and then move on to racism. Angela tells me she went to a meeting to discuss the aftermath of the shooting of twelve members of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine, after publishing controversial cartoons against the Muslim community. Many people came, she says, but distrust for minorities still exists, predictably meshed together with Israeli politics.
Angela takes me to the opening of “The Tel Aviv Museum Visits Berlin” at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. The exhibition commemorates fifty years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. When Angela first suggests it, I laugh. Why would I want to go see Israeli-owned art while I’m in Berlin? But then I feel ungrateful and we have free tickets, so we go. We are stopped at the entrance as a thin drizzle begins to fall. “Extra security,” the guard apologizes to us. At the door, we’re directed to a table, where my bag is checked by a stern-looking man wearing white plastic gloves. He shines a pocket torch into the cavities of my bag: laptop, Kindle, glasses case, pens and some loose shekels. One of his gloves gets caught in the zipper and I apologize although it’s not my fault. I’m British, after all.
Before we are let loose in the exhibition, there are speeches, mostly in German, held in the main hall. I understand nothing, although occasionally words float up into my consciousness: Dizengoff, Chagall, Auschwitz, military offense in Gaza, SS. I clap at the end of each speech and watch the huge oval Zero exhibit that dangles above us. It slowly rotates as the minutes tick by, turning from a white sun to a sliver of a moon and a dark gray shadow over the well-heeled crowd.
As soon as the speeches are over, there is a stampede to the exhibition. To avoid the crowds, Angela and I decide to tour the rooms backwards, beginning with the last room. A couple is in there, taking photos of their little girl against the backdrop of the video installation. It’s a digitalized oriental carpet draped over a box and from time to time the flowers on the carpet slip down and move off. The little girl keeps reaching her hands into the beams of light and her hands follow the descent of the flowers. Angela and I sit down on the bench, alone in the darkened room with the couple and their child. After a few minutes, when a crowd of noisy Israelis enters the room and someone beckons the woman over, I realize this is Nevet Yitzhak, the video artist. On the way out, I thank her and she smiles shyly and asks me if I live in Berlin.
A mother and child stand by a video installation by Raafat Hattab that pictures a Palestinian watering an ancient olive tree in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. “Mommy, why’s there Arabic here?” the little girls asks in a loud voice, pointing to a poem hung beside the installation. “I thought this was an exhibition for Israelis.” The mother laughs. “Well, yeah, you know there are some Arabs as well,” the mother says, steering her daughter into the next room. Come, I’ll show you something Israeli.” They walk off, hand in hand. Angela and I leave the exhibition. Angela fishes two apples out of her bag and we walk back out onto the wet streets of Berlin. Night has fallen and rain glistens on the streets.
The day after, I go to another Café Einstein at Checkpoint Charlie. I sit there for a few hours, working and watching the crowd milling around what was the most famous crossover point between East and West Berlin, monitored by the Western Allies. Three men dressed in US army uniforms encourage the crowd to wear military hats (set out in a neat row on the sandbags) and have their photos taken. They’re jovial, patient. They put their arms around the tourists and wave the American flag. They salute. I see only later that it costs money to do this. They raise two fingers. Two Euros. One of them takes a break and walks slowly over to the cafe. He winks at me and half-salutes as he passes under the window where I am sitting. I blush. He must have seen me sitting here for the past couple of hours. He knows I’ve been watching him. Later, it begins raining and the holiday crowd disperses. The men dressed in military fatigues put down the American flag so it won’t get wet and open their umbrellas. They stand there, counting the money and stamping their feet to keep warm. Eventually, the sun comes back out, the flag is unfurled and the tourists return. They take selfies on cell phones, looking as if they’re reaching out to some god at the end of a plastic stick.
While sitting there, I listen to American poet Sylvia Plath reading “Daddy”, in a clip from YouTube:
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you…
Her words continue to echo in my head. I want to know more.
I decide to join a bike tour of Berlin. We spend the day biking along in a biting wind, stopping at all the main sites, many of which I have probably walked by but not noticed. One of the stops is the Führerbunker where Adolf Hitler hid in before committing suicide in April, 1945. His body and that of Eva Braun, his longtime mistress who he wed one day before his death, were burned there. There’s a sign there noting the site, but not the exact site. It’s a huge parking lot in a residential area of East Berlin, and I’m surprised its precise location is not noted. The tour guide, an Australian called Craig who has lived in Berlin for four years, laughs at my question. “Ah, that’s a well-guarded secret,” he says. This, apparently, is the one spot that the Germans do not want to reveal. It’s too sensitive, too highly charged. It’s here somewhere, thick concrete walls under several feet of earth that hide something too ugly to show. There’s a poster that has been partially ripped down, pasted there by the National Front. “They don’t want it to turn into a neo-Nazi pilgrimage,” Craig continues. “Some things are better left covered up.” It seems to me that this bunker is a metaphor not just for anti-Semitism but for racism in general. It can be subdued, its lines can be blurred but it cannot be eradicated in today’s volatile society.
Last September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a rally in support of the Jewish minority at the Brandenburg Gate. As Goldberg notes in his essay, most of the 5,000 who attended were Jews. Last January, Merkel also went to a rally organized by the Muslim community. A few hundred came to it. “Hatred, racism and extremism have no place in this country,” she said earlier that day. As I stand in the half-empty parking lot, I realize that the threat of racial hatred still hangs in the air; there will always be a fear that lightning can strike twice.
The night before I fly back home, we go back to Sowieso, the jazz club I visited last time I was in Berlin. It’s in Neukölln, a neighborhood outside of the city center. As we step out of the U-Bahn we can feel the difference in the air. Dilapidated supermarkets, falafel, fried chicken. The club is on a murky residential street. Sowieso used to be a butcher’s shop many years ago. Green brocade wallpaper has been plastered over white and green tiles with bizarre palm trees and roses. Candles are set on low wooden tables of random shapes and sizes.
The room fills up with mostly young locals. The music begins. It’s improvisational, progressive music by a trio called “Unland”. A young Iranian woman plays the flute, her eyes half-closed. She puts down the flute and picks up a clarinet. I stare at the peeling wallpaper that reveals the tiles from another era. I listen to the slow, meditative music and imagine walking through the forest at night, although I am nowhere near the forest, I’m here in a run-down jazz club where they are not playing jazz and, if I watch carefully, the pattern begins to slip slowly to the floor.