Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Beauty and the Beast of Berlin

Well, that was quite a set of experiences we had yesterday. Everywhere you look there are little glimpses of the past snuggled against the modern (like the bullet riddled facade of the Photography Museum next to the very modern Gemäldegalerie). This city is fascinating and it's clear that there is just too much to see and do in the limited amount of time we have. Take for example the Checkpoint Charley museum that we've walked by four times now. Looking through the windows we can tell that serious time will be devoted to the inside of this building. Everything piques our interest but it will have to wait. Today we hope to climb a column, see one of the ancient world's top models, and tour the sinkhole known as the Hohenschönhausen Stasi jail. We will put our Berlin Welcome card and transportation passes to good use today.

Wednesday - September 22, 2010

Still no taxis in sight. Not that we would take one, but contrasted with other big cities (like New York or Boston) the lack of this form of mass transit leaves the above-ground world pretty orderly. We have yet to hear a car horn. We took the "U" to the Zoo and the bus (#100) to the bust. It was a bust because our plan to climb the 285 step Victory column was thwarted by renovation. Encircled by scaffolding, the workers were installing the canvas covering teased with paintings of what hid beneath and unlike Venice, there was not a spot of advertising. The climb would have to wait for a future trip.

It was a blue-sky perfect day for walking and the Tiergarten (the Central Park of Berlin) was the perfect venue for a stroll and a cigar. There are jogging and bike paths, and lots of cool monuments to act silly in front of. The circle around the monument was the original site of the Berlin Love Parade and it's difficult to imagine one and one half million people bumping and grinding to "techno" music (whatever that is) packed into this small space. We headed east along June 17th street, and directly ahead of us and off in the distance was the Brandenburg gate (looking a little like the Arc de Triomphe). It was a surprisingly short walk to the gate, so with time to kill we stopped at the Hauptbanhof train station to buy train tickets for our trip to Dresden the next day. The station was big, bold, modern and crowded, serving up all manner of mass transportation including U, S, DE and DB trains, and fed by a fleet of taxicabs. So this is where they all were. With round trip tickets in hand we continued our leisurely stroll along the beautiful Unter den Linden to our destination - Museum Island.

Situated on the northern half of an island in the middle of the Spree river are five large, beautiful buildings each containing a world class museum. Within steps of each other are collections of Ancient, Egyptian, 19th century, and Byzantine art. The fifth building is the Pergamon Museum which contains reconstructed and historically significant buildings such as the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. All in one place - amazing. It is no wonder Unesco named it a World Heritage Site.

While crossing the bridge we spotted what had to be one of the more ingenuous, and back breaking, food service contraptions we have ever seen. A pretty stout young fellow had a self contained Coney Island hot-dog stand strapped to his back (and front). You've got to love the smell of sizzling sausages at 10:00 in the morning - it brings back so many pleasant breakfast memories.

The only museum we visited was the Neuen (New?) Egyptian Museum of Berlin. In it's own large domed room is the iconic representation of ancient beauty: the bust of Nefertiti, little King Tut's mom. The statuette (all twenty vertical inches of it) was buried face down in a tomb near the ancient capital city of Akhetaten. Discovered by a German Orient Society archaeological team in 1912 it somehow found (smuggled) it's way to Berlin. And here it has stayed despite repeated requests from the Egyptian government for it's return.

When found it was in near perfect condition (given the 3,000 year internment). Sure there were some chipped ears, and a missing eyeball but those are minor problems. The paint was mostly intact and to this day is vibrant. And about the missing eye; that is still a mystery. After sifting through all the dirt in the tomb, the ear chips were found but not the eye inlay. In fact, it was never part of the original piece. Over the past century a lot of theories have been proposed to explain; everything from eye disease to a jilted love affair between the queen and the artist (a little artistic revenge perhaps). Personally I like the notion that this was a model used for many of the two dimensional side profiles that are so prolific in Egyptian art, making the other eye redundant. Whatever the story, this long necked perfectly symmetrical faced beauty is worth the trip to the island.

Leaving the museums, we headed to Alexanderplatz, home of the famous TV tower and the departure point of the tram to the prison. Now we were in the heart of old East Berlin. As we snacked at Thurmann we studied the tower. This Soviet inspired edifice is a tribute to the 1960 space race as seen through the eyes of the old USSR. The space rocket needle is even topped by a sputnik look alike round sphere near the top. Every guide book you read will point out the bright cross that is noticeable when the sun strikes this sphere. Click on this picture to see how The Pope's Revenge must have really irritated the old gray men of the godless German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Before I go any further, let me make a plea. To my (or anyone elses) children or grandchildren who read this (and it's for you that I write this): If you have any interest in the GDR and the wall, please read Anna Funder's remarkable book, Stasiland (Granta Books, 2003). It has been our guide and traveling companion for this part of our trip. It is superbly written, reads like a novel, and provides wonderful background and insight into this mostly neglected period of German history. She raises many questions about the communist/socialist experiment that was foisted upon the East Germans, and asks whether it is better to forget and put it all "under glass in museums" or to illuminate the past in the hope that doing so will prevent a recurrence in the future. OK, now back to our adventure.

We boarded the modern, clean and quiet above ground tram for our trip into a section of East Berlin that didn't even appear on the maps back in the sixties. The Hohenschönhausen remand prison is located in a pleasant enough neighborhood of multi-storied apartment buildings. We noticed that the exterior of one of the buildings was under renovation with a new gray stone cladding and window treatment being applied over the standard drab and featureless facade. Anything would be an improvement and we couldn't help but think that old sins were being covered up.

The prison itself is at the end of the street and is surrounded by a very high cement wall with a watch tower in each corner. From Ms. Funder's book we knew the horror that once existed behind those walls (she dedicates an entire chapter to it). We paid our five Euro entrance fee, grabbed a drink at the bookstore/cafe (where Stasiland was for sale) and waited in the courtyard for our 2:30 English speaking tour to begin. Groups of people milled about, many looked to be from junior or senior high schools. No doubt this would be a better tour for them than the Resistance Memorial. What's not to like about a jail? In this case plenty.

Our tour guide was a thirty-something young man who was knowledgeable and passionate about the prison and what took place within. More like a US jail than a prison, people were brought here for interrogation and to await trial, not for punishment. The typical process was:

You were arrested by the Stasi (offense unknown), and transported via police van, with little closed cells inside, to the prison (see courtyard picture above). Not right away of course; first they drove you around the streets of Berlin for five or six hours. You had no clue where you were - perhaps Poland. The vans were usually marked on the outside as bread or grocery delivery. Cute touch.

From the enclosed van, through the enclosed garage, you entered the small, closed intake processing offices. After considerable humiliation (use your imagination) you were taken to what would become your home for you knew not how long - a very small cell containing a wooden bed, toilet, sink and the always on light bulb high above. Everywhere you walk on this awful brown linoleum there is a guard at your elbow.

Your next thrill would be the meeting with your interrogator. Your world has now shrunken to 3 people - your guard, your interrogator, and yourself. Sometime that first night you are brought to the interrogator's office (he never comes to you), where for the next 6-8 hours you share lifetime experiences. He wants to know stuff. You don't even know why you are there. He is calm and his voice is soothing, so calm sitting at his spotless desk that has only a blotter, lamp and telephone. The telephone, the link to the outside world is a tease, but you know that it is for his use only. You also know that you have to sit up straight on the little stool in front of the interrogator or your guard, who has been so quiet in the background, will encourage you to.

Returned to your cell, all you want to do is sleep. And the nice people let you - for about 2 hours.

Then - NO sleeping during the day. Your guard brings your meals and slides them through the door slot. There is a peephole in the door, but you can't look out. You're sure they are always looking in. No doubt about that. That night, the interrogation process begins again.

If you really misbehave, or don't really want to buy in and cooperate, you might end up in one of the really special rooms in the "sub". Perhaps the rubber walled one, or the little small one that they fill with cold water up to your neck - you sleep, or don't stand up straight, bye-bye. You do hear the screams from other rooms, but never, ever, not once have you seen another living person.

You're smart. You finally figure out what they want. They want you to inform on your workmate, or neighbor, or wife, or husband. They want you to tell them all the nasty secrets. Yes, my neighbor listens to western TV, or reads George Orwell. Or worst sin of all, secretly wants to leave the GDR. But you wouldn't betray your friend, or your loved one, would you. No way.

After some number of days, or weeks, or months your interrogator shows you the paper your wife signed last week. It says that it was you who had a visit from a friend from Italy, or pointed your TV antenna toward west Berlin. You are the one who is an enemy of the state and that she wants an immediate divorce. At some point you give in and are finally willing to sign what they want you to sign. Depending on your "ability" you are either going to trial and prison for a few years, or going back into society as a good Stasi informer.

Got the creeps yet? To quote from the little pamphlet:

"The Stasi, being the 'shield and sword of the party', was the most important instrument in enforcing the communist dictatorship in East Germany. At the end 91,000 full-time Stasi employees and 189,000 unofficial collaborators ensured the blanket surveillance of the population. Thousands of people offering resistance or trying to flee the country were banished to one of the 17 remand prisons, which were controlled by the headquarter(s) in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen."

17 remand prisons scattered across East Germany, a country no larger than the state of Ohio. One informer per 50 citizens.

What were the interrogators trying to find out? What in this crazy, upside down, topsy-turvey world were they doing? Why would someone end up in a remand prison? Here are a couple of examples of just how crazy it was: If you filed an application to leave the GDR (yes they had a form for that) you were then suspected of "wanting to leave" which was the crime of libel. If the Stasi was interested in your neighbor and wanted you to inform on them and you refused - off to remand prison you might go until you agreed. The Stasi were not above blackmail, and the crime of coercion was a trifling matter.

What kind of society would even allow for the existence of this type of prison and what kind of people were these interrogators whose sole mission in life was to break other people? According to our guide, many of these Stasi-men live in the apartment buildings in the neighborhood we walked through to get there.

As the tour ended, our guide asked us for the following:

1.) Not to fixate on WWII or Hitler, or the GDR or the Stasi. That is not what Germany is nor whom the German people are, now. Fair enough - our observations certainly confirm that.

2.) Don't let it happen again. 50% of the ex-GDR population and 6% of the ex-West German population voted for the communist candidate in the latest election. The point was not lost on this American tour group worried about creeping socialism in our own country.

It was a great tour, which we highly recommend. The focus was not so much on the physical and degrading aspects, but the truly horrifying psychological torment that these poor people went through. Let me just say that as we walked back to the tram stop through the old, gray, Stasiman neighborhood - we tiptoed.

It was such a beautiful late afternoon day that we decided to walk from Alexanderplatz down Unter den Linden. This is a beautiful boulevard, named (obviously) for the linden trees under which we walked. At the far end is the Brandenburg gate, on this end a collection of classically beautiful buildings. We were fascinated with the Humboldt University where both Marx and Lenin studied. In Bebelplatz square there is one of those thick glass (plastic?) windows that you walk on. Beneath the window is a white room filled with empty bookshelves. This is the spot where the Nazi's had their famous book burning (reminding us of the spot in Florence where Savanarola conducted his bonfire of the vanities). Some middle eastern tourists without benefit of a guide book gathered around us so Kat read from our book and the translator explained it to the group. Nearby there is an embedded plaque that is embossed with Heinrich Heine's 1820 quote "Where they burn books, at the end they also burn people." The Nazi's proved that to be true 110 years later.

With the sun sinking we headed back to old Checkpoint Charley. Once there we decided (again) that we were too depleted to tour the museum so we did the next best thing, we ate. And once again, it was a Thai restaurant, this time the "Taisu" restaurant and teahouse, just down the street. It was great and inexpensive and gave us a chance to talk about all we had seen and heard at the prison. And to plan for our train trip to Dresden. There were still a few things left to do in Berlin but they would have to wait upon our return. The schedule called for a 9:04 am departure from the bottom level of the Hauptbahnhof the next morning. We had a train to catch.

No comments: