Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pearls and White Roses

We like our hotel. As a matter of fact, so far we like everything about Berlin. I've just returned from a walk to the local bakery and while Kat is showering I'm enjoying a cup of coffee and a Berliner (both coffee and doughnut are fresh and excellent) while I write my journal. Our hotel is in a "gay" neighborhood, surrounded by small restaurants, residential apartment buildings and a couple of interesting (read black leather/chain) clothes shops. The room is large and comfortable, with a twin mattress-ed bed and no top sheets. Instead we each have a covering of some sort inside a duvet. When retiring last night the skeptic in me wondered how this was going to work out, and I can report that it worked great. It's got to make cleaning/laundering and making the bed much easier. Things like this, better ideas (like lever door handles instead of doorknobs), are the small noticed differences that make traveling so much fun.

Tuesday - September 21, 2010

Walking the streets of Berlin our eyes are drawn to the architecture. We have to remind ourselves that most of the city had been destroyed during the war, so everything we were looking at was relatively young. And it is not uncommon to see a beautifully designed rococo style building sharing a wall with a flat-faced modern stucco one. When you have a clean canvas to start with you can do most anything. The walking was easy with big blocks, very little traffic, and very few taxis. Kat had to keep reminding me to walk on the sidewalk not on the bike path (which to me was part of the sidewalk and not in use anyway). We guessed everyone used the U-bahn (underground), or S-bahn (faster trains) to get around. Where was everyone?

Not at the Gemäldegalerie, our first stop of the day. This museum is of modern design, very large, and on this late September Tuesday morning practically deserted. We almost felt guilty knowing our small entrance fee would not even cover the cost of heating one of the rooms for the time we were in it. We couldn't help but think back to the time when this city was split by a wall then 40 years later reunified. It's like divorced people who marry. There is bound to be some duplication (like record collections), and right across the river in what used to be East Berlin there is also a fine arts museum. Maybe everyone was there.

Johannes Vermeer is our favorite painter. There is something magical in his work, and there are only 34 (up to 37 depending upon whom you believe) known to exist. Six of them reside in Germany and we had the chance to see four of them on this trip. Two were in this museum, two at the Old Masters in Dresden (about an hour and a half by train from Berlin), and one each in Frankfurt am Main and Brunswick. To build up the anticipation a little we browsed some Albrecht Dürer paintings (no etchings here), and some Rembrandts (who has his own room with sixteen paintings in it - prolific little guy that he was), like doing stretching exercises before running.

Then we were alone with two of Vermeer's most beautiful paintings: The Glass of Wine, and Woman with a Pearl Necklace.

In the center of the wall and brilliant in color The Glass of Wine captures your attention as soon as you enter the salon. It is amazing the way the glass the young woman holds sparkles after 350 years. So this was courtship back in 1660, the dapper young man brings his guitar and sheet music to serenade his lovely with song, before plying her with wine. She is in scarlet red and he is not drinking - I think we may have figured out the story here.

Just to the left is the small and much more subtle Woman with a Pearl Necklace. I was glad we were alone in the room, which gave me the opportunity to stand a foot or so away and really appreciate the detail. And is that the same earring the "Girl with the Pearl Earring" wore? As with so many of his paintings, he has captured her at a precise moment, looking in the mirror after just finishing her morning make-up session and tying her pearl necklace. She is no raving beauty, but she's looking as good and as young as she is going to look all day and maybe all life. The expression on her face begs you to ask what she is thinking. Kat went off to look at more stuff while I was content to sit alone with these masterpieces.

Resting on a bench in the center of the room I was about to get up to leave, when a small guided group came in. I was in luck. It was a group of Americans (mostly women - and probably widow-Floridians given all the Q-tips), accompanied by an English speaking German guide. I listened in. My guess is he was a member of the museum staff. When he spoke of the Vermeers he referred to them as the prize of the museum and how proud they were to have them in their collection. He spent about 10 minutes on Vermeer, his history, family, and the young age at which he died. Reading his audience, he then focused on the young woman tying her necklace, and the transitory nature of youth and life, as elusive as her reflection in the mirror. All of a sudden it became personal for the people in the room, each of us wondering if the young girl in the painting knew what we knew. The two women nearest to me nodded their heads to each other and dabbed their eyes. It was a very touching moment.

I collected Kat and we headed toward the exit. We had only seen about 5% of the place, but it was our 5%. On the way out we passed through a large salon with Italian paintings. Before us on the wall were two paintings by Botticelli (actually his workshop, but close enough). One was the bright and beautiful Venus (without her clam shell like at the Uffizi where it was too dark to see) the other the believed married model (and perhaps unrequited love interest - his grave is at the foot of her grave) for so many of his paintings of women, Simonetta Vespucci. They were a nice surprise.

Still early, we left the Gemäldegalerie for the short walk to the German Resistance Memorial (while Americans think of memorials as passive monuments this building is both a memorial and a museum). This building (the Bendlerblock) was the headquarters for the German military during the war. Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise played him in Valkyrie) had his office here, and it was in one of these rooms that the almost successful plot to kill Adolf was hatched (there were more than 24). As we all know, it failed, and it was in the courtyard of this building that von Stauffenberg died (they use the term murdered - not executed interestingly enough) by firing squad (there is a memorial plaque at the spot). It is a cold, and drab, and dreary place imbued with it's own history.

Dedicated to the various resistance movements (and there were many) that were active during the war, there is plenty to read and wonder about as we passed through the offices of the highest ranks of the military command. In some rooms school classes were in progress. Each German student has to dedicate some study time to the war and for Berliners at one of the local sites. The kids seemed less interested than we were. That was understandable to us, as I'm sure I would have been bored to tears back in 1960 if I had to go somewhere to learn about what happened in 1900. It says a lot about the current German society that they want the kids to know. Good for them.

The most interesting room was dedicated to the "White Rose" - a group of protest students from the Munich University. Headed by Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and Christoph Probst they wrote and distributed leaflets protesting the war and calling for active opposition to it. On February 18, 1943 a janitor at the school saw them drop some leaflets, and they were immediately arrested. Four days later they were tried, convicted and had their heads removed by guillotine. Even understanding the difference between accidental and deliberate, my mind immediately went back to Kent State.

It was not as uplifting as we thought it would be (Nazi resistance and all), but we are glad we went there. It really brought home the fact that mounting a resistance to a government (any government) is more complex than it seems at first blush. To brighten our morning and since we were so close, we decided to eat at the Sony Center right there in Potsdamer Platz. Finally we found some crowds. It is modern and lively and enclosed, and the Josty restaurant was just right. It's predecessor was the famous Josty Cafe, a hangout for poets and artists in the last century. Like most of Berlin it was destroyed during the war. Kat had flamecake (her first) and I had a delicious herb tortellini and a glass of beer, all provided with impeccable service. Fortified, we were ready for the afternoon.

With a little art and some resistance history behind us, we headed to the northeast into what was East Berlin, to get a first hand look at the famous wall (mauer - you see the word everywhere) system. The U-bahn station closest to the Wall Documentation center is called BernauerStrasse and it is worth the trip even if you don't leave the station. There are a number of "ghost stations" in East Berlin where the trains from the west could not stop. We wondered if this was one. A couple of things made this station interesting. First, it was deserted and we felt like we were the only people who had walked through it in the past 40 years. (There is some graffiti on the walls done by "artists" but I don't really consider them people). Second is the charming color scheme they picked: yellow and brown tiles with orange trim and some nice fluorescent lighting.

When the wall came down it's "footprint" was replaced with what looks like brown cobblestones to mark it's path. As we exited and looked at the sidewalk it appeared that the wall passed directly across the front door of this station sealing it off. That would explain a lot.

We walked along the famous Bernauerstrasse. It looked nothing like I expected nor remembered from the newsreels back in 1960. At that time there were large apartment buildings lining the street from which people jumped or threw their children to people on the other side of what was then a concertina wire wall. Within days the masonry wall was erected and those wacky people who ran the GDR had the building windows bricked in.

Now it is a pleasant street with a portion of the original wall in a park like setting followed by a "slice" of the wall system. To really get a look at it we went into the Documentation Center and climbed to the top. It is chilling to imagine that the "dead zone" on the other side was patrolled with guard dogs trained to kill, and that the guard tower was manned with soldiers willing to make any civilian trying to cross the area as dead as the zone. No questions asked. We got out of there and headed off to explore another facet of the conflict in this very conflicted city.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is so well done we didn't want to leave. At ground level you walk through row after row of different height rectangular cement blocks, some taller than us so we felt like we were walking through a tunnel, others picnic table height. Below ground is a high tech information center/museum that occupies the mind and stimulates most of the senses. There is a lot of information and the presentation method (video, static, audio) varies by the room.

We got stuck early on in the room that follows families from birth to execution. You get to know a little about each family and each family is different, and each story is different, and all the pictures are different but the ending to their stories is always the same. It is wrenching to start at the top of a panel and read early letters or diary entries and look at photographs of normal happy families enjoying themselves, then see the manifest of the train that took them to their concentration camp, look at the pictures of their internment, and read the entry of their termination at the bottom. We were amazed at the research that must have been done to find all the artifacts and bring them together for each family. Bravo to the German government for creating this memorial.

The day that had started with gray storm clouds over the Gemaldegalerie had turned into a beautiful early evening so we decided to walk down to the Topography of Terror museum. Along the way we noticed the cool red and green crossing signal characters on the stop light poles. After unification they were to be changed to the boring western style but a court settled the question (after 10 years of arguing) and they remain. Great story.

The T of T looks like a a cleared lot with some construction debris waiting for renovation. It is the site of Hitler's command center for the Gestapo and SS (acid soil to be sure and I wonder if that's why nothing is growing). Next door in classic East German drab is the Nazi Luftwaffe HQ. Again, below ground there is a beautifully maintained museum with artifacts and more information than can be digested in the couple of hours we had before it closed. The story of the creation and growth of the Gestapo and SS is creepy and being in what had been the bombed out basement of it's HQ made it even creepier, like watching Psycho at the Bates motel.

There are many pictures of the sacrilegious treatment of their victims but one picture in particular left it's mark with me. While taking a break from burning and torturing, and extracting gold teeth from their subjects at Auschwitz, this merry band of SS have a few smiles and a little music on a nice July day. The caption reads: "SS female auxiliaries ("SS Maids") and SS men from Auschwitz concentration camp at the SS retreat Sola-Hutte 30 kilometers south of the camp in an idyllic mountain landscape, undated (probably July 22, 1944)". I guess the smoke from the crematories was drifting to the north that day. It was really disturbing.

The second most disturbing photo was this group of merry men (including the good doctor Mengele), having a smoke break at the same retreat location. You can see how all that killing and maiming has depressed them. The guy with the mohawk cut in the front right is Rudolph Höss the commander at Auschwitz concentration camp. He tried to escape after the war, was caught and brought back to Poland for trial. At his trial he was accused of murdering three and a half million people. He replied, "No. Only two and one half million — the rest died from disease and starvation." He was sentenced to death and hanged on special gallows built right next to the crematorium at Auschwitz. Enough said.

There are more displays outside but it was just too dark and the site was closing. It is admirable that the government has been so forthright and open on this very difficult subject. As the observer, we left there as I'm sure most everyone does, asking the very simple questions of why and how. That is one of the reasons we wanted to come to Berlin, to feel these feelings and maybe get some answers. That would have to wait until tomorrow (at least).

It had been a very busy day, and as we strolled to our hotel, we debated where and what to eat. The answer presented itself in the form of a small local restaurant directly across the street from the entrance. A very nice (Turkish we think) gentlemen fixed us some hot plates of comfort food (I had the quiche), and a couple of beers. We crossed the street, went to our room, and ate dinner in the window alcove looking out at the Berlin skyline. What a day.

The aerial picture of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the politicians walking in Bernauer Strasse, the Vermeers and one of Alessandro Boticelli's paintings came from Wiki. I take responsibility for the rest.

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