BERLIN – The idea was innocent enough. A city map indicated that mere feet from infamous Checkpoint Charlie – that tense Cold War guard post where today actors dressed in military uniforms pose with camera-toting tourists – was a block-long section of the Berlin Wall.
My wife and I grabbed our boys by the hand, one 12 and the other 9, and started walking. The sun was out. Berliners were smiling. Little did we know we’d soon stumble into one of the darkest relics of World War II.
Any trip to Europe is bound to involve soaking up some history, no matter how Dionysian your initial plans may be. Our recent summer adventure was no exception. Strolling St. Petersburg’s canals gave way to gawking in front of Dostoyevsky’s apartment. Eating tapas in Barcelona fueled walking tours of Gaudi’s surreal treasures.
But our three days in Berlin were different. Here, history quickly became the agenda, insistently and effortlessly pushing aside our efforts to be vacationers. We didn’t resist. It was time.
Our eldest, Nicholas, was not only old enough to understand the staggering significance of what happened here more than half a century ago, but as a rabid history buff he was eager to learn in situ. Sebastian was unquestionably more impressionable, so we decided to shield him as appropriate and distill the essence of the lesson at hand.
While my wife, Courtney, and I had been to Berlin before, more than a decade had passed since those cursory visits that somehow were filled more with good restaurants and impressive art galleries than lessons about man’s sinister nature. So for all of us, this particular Berlin visit would prove illuminating and wrenching.
Checkpoint Charlie and the wall
When I first visited Berlin in 1991, two years after the wall fell, the contrast between the western half of the city, where I stayed, and the east was as striking as comparing a color photo to its black and white version. Monolithic buildings seemed to soak up the light. Foul-smelling Trabant cars darted about like insets. Grim faces spoke of oppression.
Fast forward more than 20 years and our hotel is smack in the middle of Friedrichstrasse in the former East Berlin. This boulevard now is as hip and trendy as anything in New York or Los Angeles, with storefronts touting five-figure watches, Mini automobiles and even custom-designed Ritter Sport chocolate bars.
Just a short walk south on Friedrichstrasse sits Checkpoint Charlie , which proved to be the beginning of our History Channel-type experience. Although there is the terrific Mauer Museum (mauermuseum.de) a few feet from the modest hut where U.S. troops let accredited personnel into and out of West Berlin, what instantly caught our eye was a long swath of sidewalk panels that reeled out the story of the wall and this particular crossing.
This was the first time of many we would lose Nick to the data-filled public plaques that seem to appear everywhere in Berlin. “I’m not done, Dad,” was all I got when I tried to move him along. “It’ll be a while.”
Kids on the verge of teendom can be immovable as boulders. So I tucked in alongside him and read. My eyes widened and jaw dropped at the tales. Those who risked their lives to transport escapees in automobile trunks; the bold driver who modified his sports car so that the low machine would fit under the checkpoint’s barricade; or the tragic tale of 18-year-old Peter Fechter, who in 1962 was shot by border guards at the wall and bled to death there because U.S. forces were powerless to help him.
Much of the wall is gone now, and along with its so-called “death strip,” a barren sand-filled wasteland between 50 and 500 feet wide that was in place to make shooting those who fled the Communist-led East German regime easier.
But it doesn’t take much to close your eyes and imagine the otherworldly inhumanity of the scene: Where I was standing represented a grim hopeless life in East Berlin, and just over there, a mere baseball toss from centerfield to home plate away, lay freedom.
The Stasi and Nazi Party
Moments later, we spotted a modest older building across the street and the word Stasi – the name of East Germany’s ruthless secret police.
The free exhibit at this Stasi Exhibition is but a small sampling culled from the larger Stasi Museum (stasimuseum.de/en/enausstellung.htm) across town. Between the insidious files officials kept on German citizens and breakdowns of the methods the organization used to keep tabs, the exhibit makes you conscious of Western liberties while making Wikileak-type headlines dance in your head.
Once back outside, the long stretch of wall was easy to spot, a straight line of soulless concrete slabs capped by rounded concrete cylinders, the better to prevent someone from getting a grip while climbing.
The slabs faced the street on one side, and on the other was an expansive field at the center of which stood a low-slung modernist building. Then we noticed that visitors had congregated at the base of the wall in a long ditch of sorts. Not surprisingly, they were reading more plaques. We joined them.
Quickly we understood we were being taken through the rise of the Nazi Party. A sign informed me we were standing in what was once the basement of a building that served as headquarters for the SS, Hitler’s ruthless state police.
The information rocked me onto my heels. Gut instincts battled it out. Run and shower? Stand and weep?
With my eldest leading the way, we walked and read, having inadvertently stumbled into the city’s aptly named Topography of Terror (topographie.de/en). The indoor and outdoor exhibits chronicle just what you’d expect, and short of a trip to a concentration camp they offer about as vivid a conjuring of evil as this city can dish up.
This would be one of two stops we would consciously spare our younger son. He understood that on this site men planned and carried out the unthinkable against their fellow man. But the details he didn’t need to know just yet. Our eldest dove into his reading; we were beginning to worry if this was all a bit too much.
Even in the park history haunts
It was time to move on to the iconic Brandenburg Gate for some photos, although even there the specter of Berlin’s past is never far. Wherever the Berlin Wall stood, city fathers have outlined its place with cobblestones.
Spying the lusciously green Tiergarten park nearby, we made way for the shade of countless trees. But even there history haunted us, this time in the form of a small garden dedicated just last fall to the hundreds of thousands of gypsies killed by the National Socialist regime.
The Sinti and Roma Memorial is a kin to two other nearby memorials commemorating those who perished under the Nazis, one dedicated to gays and lesbians and the other the Jews of Europe (stiftung-denkmal.de/en/home.html). We decided to make one final historical push for the day, and walked the few blocks from Brandenberg to The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe .
At first, the memorial itself eludes you. Confronted by a square city block of massive concrete blocks of different sizes set into an undulating foundation, the site seemed more like a modern maze than place of contemplation. But respect did fill the air. When someone did hop onto one of the blocks, a local guard shooed him off.
The memorial is actually beneath this cement field, endless rooms that mix sober plaques with video testimonials. Our youngest was asked to remain outside by a docent; a good call. This ignoble march of history requires equal parts emotional and cerebral fortitude.
Germans own a dark past
Back outside, a hot summer day was morphing into a warm summer night. Crowds spilled out of beer gardens, filled local squares and queued up for classical concerts. The shadow of what Berlin once was seemed far away.
But we were glad to have dug into a time of tragedy and heroism that lives just below the surface of this modern city. I remain impressed by the way Germans own their past; just imagine our own cities filled with countless plaques commemorating where the injustices of slavery were committed and you get some idea of what lengths Germans have gone to in order to shoulder this cross.
As for our kids, history has spoken to them directly. It is up to them to listen.
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