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Monday, August 13, 2007

Ich bin ein Berliner

Sorry folks, no jelly doughnuts here.

I've been back stateside for two weeks, and I'm finally getting around to posting a blog and some photos from my Eastern European getaway. While I'm glad to be back in a country that does not make me pay for clean drinking water, my trip certainly reminded me of how young America as a country is compared to those in Europe.

First stop: Berlin. Berlin was hands down my favorite city. It's a city rich with history, and much of that history took place in the last century. Although many buildings, churches, and monuments were destroyed during WWII and the Cold War, many iconic landmarks, including the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenberg Gate, and the Reichstag, remain. They serve as constant reminders of the city's past.

One monument in particular stays with me. Bebelplatz is a beautiful square on Humbolt University's campus, near the street lined with linden trees (Unter den Linden). It's a peaceful square flanked on all sides by buildings where students gather to learn, and that's what makes the Nazi book burning that took place there all the more unbelievable. I can't even begin to think of the number of first editions that went up in flames here. A small glass plate set into the cobblestone gives onlookers a view into a stark white room below. There are shelves, but they are all empty. It's an empty library capable of housing the 20,000 books by Jewish and other "degenerate" writers that were burned on May 10th, 1933. What's especially haunting is the bronze plaque that lays beside the glass plate. It highlights a quote from Jewish poet Heinrich Heine that reads, "Dort, wo man B├╝cher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen," ("Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.") Heine wrote that in 1821.

Berlin constantly walks that fine line between forgetting and glorifying its notorious history. Neither forgetting or glorifying are acceptable, and I think city officials have done a good job at acknowledging the past and looking to the future. For example, instead of destroying the austere Nazi government buildings, like Joseph Goebbels's Department of the Propaganda, the government still works in these buildings. Another example is the Reichstag. Once the seat of the Third Reich, the German house of parliament was rebuilt with a glass dome on the top. The dome itself symbolizes the need for transparency in government. Within the dome is an inverted cone of mirrors that serves not only as something cool to look at, but also as means of gathering energy to power the building. It is a testament to Germany's dedication to energy conservation. Looking to the future and recognizing the past.

No trip to Germany's capital could be complete without stopping by a local bookstore. I picked up a copy of Der Struwwelpeter (or Slovenly Peter), the popular German children's picture book written in 1845 by Heinrich Hoffmann. Comprised of ten illustrated and rhymed stories, the book pokes fun at the strict punishments preached by religious rulers by exaggerating what happens to children when they don't do as they are told. It's supposed to be a parody of the cautionary tale, but the gruesome illustrations and horrible consequences of each child's actions will scare, if not traumatize, even the bravest of among us.

Like Boston, Berlin seemed to me to be a city under construction. The city has become a playground for the world's best and most innovative architects. Cranes and scaffolding ruin any attempt at capturing that perfect photo of the city's skyline. However, I am convinced that unlike Boston, Berlin's construction will come to an end in the foreseeable future. I plan to go back in 5 years to find out what kind of progress they're making. Anyone want to join me?

Posted by Jenny

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