I have barely had time for LJ at all in the last couple of weeks, but part of the reason it's taken me a while to get round to this post is that I'm finding it fairly difficult to write. Particularly if I don't want to offend people. The thing is, visiting Germany freaked me out a lot more than I expected. Or to be more precise, Berlin did my head in. Let me try to write down a factual account of what I got up to, and try to include as much of my response as I can put into words.
I landed in Rostock at 9:30 in the evening, and hadn't quite realized how much faff it was going to be to get into the centre of town from the port. So it was late when I reached my hostel, the Hanse Hostel, which was lovely, with a very sweet motherly woman in charge. I wandered a little in Rostock itself in the morning, which is a very pretty town with classic Hanseatic architecture; I almost wish I'd arranged to visit it properly rather than just as a stopover.
I had booked a hostel, the Schlafmeile in Berlin that was similarly selected randomly from the internet. My first impression was that I'd accidentally ended up in a somewhat dodgy area, with a lot of graffiti, derelict buildings and very obvious squats. I wasn't too distressed by this, but as I explored further I realized that almost the whole of Berlin is like that, even within a stone's throw of the shiniest business areas and the major tourist destinations. It's probable that living in egalitarian Sweden has made me more sensitive to these things, but in Berlin the wealth gap was so blindingly obvious that it made me rather uncomfortable. They promote the city to tourists with some amount of pride in the "street art" and "thriving subcultures" and yes, some of it is genuinely cool and alternative, but lots of it is just shabby and dirty and ugly in the unique way that hopeless poverty is ugly.
My plan to take the city on its own merits and not approach it in a morbid way didn't work very well. I absolutely did not go to Berlin looking for Holocaust stuff; if I'd wanted to depress myself I would not have skipped over Poland on my whirlwind tour of the Baltic. But that bit of history turned out to be absolutely unavoidable, partly because of the general principle that making a deliberate effort not to think of a particular topic never works, and partly because Berlin seems to have discovered Holocaust tourism in a big way (as far as I could tell this is a recent phenomenon). I picked up one of those free tourist maps and the first page proclaimed in huge letters an UNFORGETTABLE LIVING HISTORY EXPERIENCE!!!!! tour of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp SPONSORED BY STARBUCKS AND DUNKIN DONUTS!!!!! A second glance told me that the two banners were not actually connected, but even so.
The thing is that Eisenman's murdered Jews memorial itself is extremely sensitive, moving without being mawkish, and it's absolutely right that its presence in Berlin should attract tourists who want to study and remember the Holocaust. I don't have a problem with providing other activities and information for such visitors while they are in the city, and I can't even completely object to finding ways to encourage them to spend money in Berlin, because all tourists need places to eat and sleep, no matter the purpose of their visit. But all these things add up to a feeling of being bombarded with Holocaust memorabilia of various sorts, as if every single location in the city was shouting out its connection with the Nazi era. (There's also a bunch of almost-nostalgic marketing of the Communist era and the Berlin Wall, centred around Checkpoint Charlie which is basically a tourist bazaar. The ubiquitous stalls selling tat with Soviet and Russian military branding made me feel a little queasy, but mainly on the grounds that this kind of thing is not cute or funky, rather than having a problem with the subject being mentioned at all.)
I went to the Pergamon museum, because it was high on my list of places I absolutely need to visit at some point in my life. And yes, I was reminded of how Nazi ideology twisted and misused the Classical heritage, just as the modern art gallery reminded me how the Nazis banned modern art and the photography gallery had an exhibition of Holocaust-related photos and so on. Setting that aside, though, the museum itself was just as awesome as I expected. I hadn't realized that in addition to the amazing Classical stuff they have some really incredible ancient Near East exhibits, including a large part of the actual fortifications of Babylon. As well as the really stunning artefacts on display, the museum is well put together with really informative exhibitions about things like the history of writing, and how archaeologists make deductions about culture based on what they can find. I really wanted darcydodo and lethargic_man with me for this one!
Since I didn't have a lot of time in the city, I decided that the best use of the rest of it was to go on a free walking tour. This proved to be an excellent plan; the guide was a vacationing (English) history student who was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We did manage to see some impressive neo-classical architecture and learn quite a lot about the general history of the city, interspersed with all the Holocaust and Communist period stuff. As well as the more obvious tourist sites we saw a chocolatier which had made scale models of the former out of chocolate!
But it was very very hot (expect when we were caught in a sudden and intense downpour), and all the constant Holocaust references were getting to me. Some of it was silly stuff that is in no way Berlin's fault: the fact that the German that most easily comes to my mind is the vocabulary of bad Nazi thrillers, or the fact that it's not easy to distinguish punks from skinheads, at a glance. There were also odd things like a poster for some vampire-related cultural event which was making explicit the connection between vampire mythology and anti-semitic imagery, which in another context I would probably have barely noticed, but in this situation just contributed to my weird mood. I ended up doing something which I never do, namely drinking alcohol to get out of my head. That was pretty foolish and shouldn't have worked, but as it happened spending an hour or so nursing a very nice piña colada over a light meal in a gimmicky tourist bar (with swinging wicker hammocks instead of chairs) did break up the destructive thought patterns.
It's a fair distance from Berlin to Cologne, but German trains are amazingly fast, efficient and comfortable. I had a really lovely evening and day with monanotlisa, who is a fantastic hostess. We ate really well, one meal out at a delightful French restaurant and one meal of Thai curry that she cooked. And we had lots and lots and lots of good conversation, in between exploring Cologne. The cathedral is very impressive, and one of the few big European cathedrals I've visited that actually feels like a living place of worship rather than just a pretty tourist monument. And there are fun pretty Mediaeval bits.
I discovered that Swedish has absolutely driven all traces of German out of my head. I can still understand German fairly well, but I can't speak even simple phrasebook sentences, because by the time the Swedish word has come to mind, and I've worked out that I don't want that, I want its German cognate, the moment has passed and I look like an idiot. This led to things like getting chatted up by some stupid teenagers; searching for German words, I wasn't fast enough to tell them to go away (which I could have done in English if I'd been sensible). Rather amusingly, they eventually asked me my age, and ran away in horror when they discovered I was 28 (that much German I can manage!) rather than the 12 (!) they had assumed.
I want to go back to Germany for a more extended visit, preferably when I'm in a better headspace.
Yeah, it was a combination of not having really processed stuff by the time I reached you, and not wanting to dump all this on you, especially when I didn't have any distance from the emotional reaction.
Thank you for being such an excellent hostess, though. I am totally coming back to Germany; despite being wibbly about Berlin I really do want to see more of the country. And if you ever manage the unlikely circumstance of having both time and money, you should definitely come and visit me in Stockholm so I can return your hospitality :-)
How strange that your experience of Berlin was so different from mine. I think this was for four reasons: first, we've different personalities, and second, I somehow managed to see less Holocaust-related stuff when I was there. Thirdly, I was there for a seminar on Jewish renewal in Europe, holding which in Berlin felt like symbolically dancing on Hitler's grave. But primarily, I think, because it was emphasised to me that Berlin was never a Nazi stronghold.
We were told, for example, about how a Berlin policemen stood at the door of the Neuesynagoge on Kristallnacht and prevented the Nazi thugs from going in and trashing it. (Just consider the bravery that must have taken!) The mayor of Berlin was anti-Nazi, and managed to keep Berlin's Jews from being deported to the death camps (by keeping them for slave labour) until fairly late. Even after most of Berlin's Jews had been deported, a number who were married to non-Jews were permitted to remain. Eventually the Nazis ran out of patience and rounded them up and deported them anyway—and their spouses went on strike and held demonstrations in Berlin, until the authorities relented, and fetched their spouses back from the train en route to Auschwitz!
It's stories like that, grim though they are, which stopped me from seeing Berlin as the nexus of Nazi evil and helped me to see it instead as another European capital which had suffered under the Nazis. (You may also have seen the brass plaques set into the street recording the names of Berliner victims of the Nazis.) Admittedly, it was not as innocent a victim of the Nazis as other European cities, but it still wasn't in the same league as a Nazi centre as, say, Munich.
I do wish I had gone to Berlin with a Jewish group of some kind. I thought that by visiting as a secular tourist I would have avoided the Holocaust theme, but instead what happened was I got a lot of stuff on a very basic level. Hey, guess what, there was this Holocaust and it was really, really bad!
I did know that Berlin wasn't a major Nazi centre, but the kind of stuff that was in my face all the time wasn't making that kind of subtle distinction, and I didn't hear anything like the story you've just told, for example. I might have learned more if I had opted to go on the trip to Sachsenhausen, but especially with only a day and a half in the city I really didn't want to do that.
Yeah, the guide made that entirely clear, and that's pretty much what I meant by calling it a tourist bazaar. I am a bit mystified by how the history of Soviet rule in East Germany got to be so glamourous and "cool", but I suppose that's how tourism works.
We already spoke about this in real lif when I picked you up from the trainstation when you stayed with me... and it is so interesting to note our different experiences!
I visited Berlin this June to celebrate Sheva Brachot with newly married Jewish friends of mine. We went to shul (talking of dancing on Hitler's grave) on Shabbat, hung out, saw Checkpoint Charlie (they live nearby), went to the shiny business district, had breakfast at an organic, leftist restaurant (how cool is that?) and visited the Holocaust memorial.
My prime observation about Berlin is that it's a city living it's Past in the Present and enthusiastically heading into the Future. It's a city that breathes history, not just Nazi history, and yet that has such a progressive, avantgard futuristic feel to it. I loved Berlin because of all these essences it unifies so interestingly. It has real materialist dialectic, that city does. It buzzes and pulsates with it.
But like lethargic man says, maybe it's personal difference too. I often vacation as a Cultural Antropologist, which is, afterall, my field. I am often fascinated by phenomenae which others might experience as unpleasant or intimidating. I try to analyse as much as I look. I am not saying you don't, but maybe I am able to keep more 'professional' distance? Dunno, just offering a thought.
Either way, don't bin this experience altogether. I think it is crucial for every Jew, European or non-European, descent of Holocaust victims or not, to figure out where their place is amongst the Holocaust and the heavy weight it bears down. For me, as a Northern European whose country was occupied and whose father was involved in the Resistance during WW2, and as a Jew, I have my own baggage to work through too. I resent myself for harbouring prejudices and discomforts, but hey, recognision is a path to dealing with them right?
Most of the time you are a cultural optimist. You take Judaism in love and in good stride. Maybe you just ran into a darker sphere of your Jewish identity that you hadn't really expected. And that's OK too. That's part of it too.
Give yourself time to process and then see how it goes!
interesting. sorry that it wasn't a comfortable visit, to the extent that you had to get out of it. for you that must take some. Berlin's the only place on your recent tour i've been, i think, for a few days about 8 years ago. one of the main things i felt was that the 'subculture' is so different to how it is here. actually, it's more a comparison to the subculture i was aware of 8 years ago, a lot has changed, and now i'm in the big city. but anyway, your first impressions of the urban environment are very different to mine. i imagine things have changed there too. i went during the big building boom, towards the tail end of it, the skyline full of cranes. there was an 'underground' art scene, in a strangely formalised/legitimised way (so really too visible to be underground) that wouldn't happen in london (at the time) - i remember a particular place, with a graffiti-covered train in the yard serving as some kind of cafe, a huge tenement block with graffiti covered stair, gallery, cinema, studios, on different floors, operating as a big mixed-use art venue. the sort of stair i wouldn't step into in london. the thing that really struck me was that the people there, and at the (not-quite) 'underground' clubs that appeared for a few weeks here and there, were the same people that were on the streets dressed for work in the morning (a few hours later). it amazed me. it was january in Berlin, not Barcelona! the alternative art/music scene in england seemed so cliquey, exclusive, too-cool. only the cool kids could go to the (squat) party. but in Berlin it was better, because anyone could go (did that make everyone cool?) things change. the building boom stopped and a recession began. i imagine the empty tenements, at the time so exciting and full of potential and with the space to make things happen, have become derelict and full of depressed hopes. the scene relies on people having enough money to have fun, essentially. in london right now is the biggest building boom since.. well since before the last recession here. and too the alternative club scene has gone mainstream... i seem to have expanded a very small part of your post. oops. thinking about it, we went when the Jewish museum was open as a buliding, before it opened as a museum (ego, anyone?) - i imagine it played a role in the increase in Holocaust tourism...
This is a really interesting comment, thank you. You're right, a lot of what I was reacting to is simply economics, and it's very helpful to have the perspective of someone who understands the impact of economics on the urban environment. Good thoughts about the mainstreaming of alternative and underground culture.
Don't feel bad about expanding a small part; you are very good at expressing sympathy in a way that means a lot to me with just a few words. And the kind of comments I most like are the ones where people talk about stuff that's important to them, all the more so if that's bouncing off a minor part of the post, minor because I don't know very much about the topic.
I didn't mention the Jewish Museum, because I didn't do more than note its existence. But I'm sure you're right that that's part of why Berlin seems so Holocaust obsessed. They claim it's the most popular museum in Europe, and I can't decide whether I find that depressing or encouraging!
i remembered something else: skinheads. i remember cam telling me about the skinheads in smalltown ontario when he was growing up - apparently there were a lot of them, and while they were similarly immature young men, they divided into 2 camps - the neo-nazi types who were aggressive towards those they didn't think fit, racist etc, and the anti-racist/anti-fascist types who were aggressive towards the neo-nazi types. as for myself, a lot of the crowd i hung out with growing up were punks, a few skinheads were rather ignorantly romantic about the BNP etc. but the majority were anti-fascist (they saw themselves as alternative to that, allied with the punks and other alternative types) and many were distinctly less aggressive than the average (not really average, read 'typical') young man.
Oh, I'm not generally scared of punks. The fact that I was even slightly bothered is an indication of my nervy state, not a comment on the subculture as such. Most of the time if I see a punk my assumptions will be positive. But emotionally, when I was jumpy already, it was a bit weird catching sight of people with shaved heads, wearing stompy boots and old military gear (German, for the obvious reason that they were in Germany!)