Monday, November 21, 2016

Rain in Berlin


"Autumn in New England" (most recent blog post title) intentionally connotes the seasonal tranquility that buries the region with a flush of colors that seem at once bright and dark. The beauty of New England in early November definitely highlighted my visit and gave a very nice backdrop to my visit. However, by the time I was walking with my friend through the streets on the day after the election, the blissful aura became somewhat confused and almost contradictory.

I acknowledge the above feelings as a preface to my trip to Berlin the following week (also known as this past week), because as the title of this post suggests, darkness and rain enveloped the city throughout my visit. Given my first associations with Germany (yes, I am alluding to it's 20th Century legacy of evil), rain seemed initially appropriate for my visit. However, my Berlin visit was tremendously enjoyable and meaningful, greatly diminishing the effects of the murky setting.

In Berlin, I stayed with Samantha, another JDC Fellow, at her super cool apartment. Her apartment has been handed down between JDC Fellows for years, so it has incredible personality in its layout and decorations. My first day there, I signed up for a 3 hour walking tour, because I figured it was my best way to hit the most major sites. By the time I arrived at the meeting point, my shoes and socks were basically soaked through, and I would practice blood circulation exercises like jumping and stretching to try and fight the numbness of my toes. Despite the cold, I really enjoyed the walk through the East Berlin sites, including Checkpoint Charlie (former East/West Berlin checkpoint), remains of the Berlin Wall, the memorial to Germany's Jewish Holocaust victims, Brandenburg Gate, various Nazi sites, and more. My first impression of the city is its tremendous beauty. Really, it's a pretty incredible place with feelings of both old and new, and a really intentional and artistic embodiment of tragedy and rebuilding. The city accepts and reflects upon its dark past with regret and honesty, which is an entirely different tone than in Hungary, where the government continues to hold their moral innocence against the ugly German invasion (that didn't come until 1944). I tried keeping an open mind in Berlin about the city's full history and contemporary identity, and feel that I did so well. A few moments on the tour really hit me hard. First, our guide identified an open plot of land as the former site of the SS and Gestapo headquarters (pictured below). I felt like I was staring at a portal to the epicenter of Hell, a site where people sat down and devised the destruction of my people, and countless others. I felt both nauseous and frozen, unable to craft a facial expression, let alone words to capture my feelings. We continued up a couple blocks, and approached a street where Hitler's Chancellory stood. Imagining Hitler (the Hitler!) pulling up in his car on the street beside me and walking across where I stood to enter his residence provoked another dose of my visceral confusion. After the tour concluded, I returned to those sites to try and let the feelings linger so that I could process them, but I really could only handle a brief revisit.
Empty plot of land where the Gestapo and SS HQ once stood. It looks like the rain put out the flames of hell, leaving the ground forever charred.

That night, my friend Aryeh arrived from his JDC placement in Latvia, and he joined Samantha and me at Samantha's apartment. Ramah friends Sarah and Louise (who "commuted" to Ramah Wisconsin from Berlin each summer) joined us there, and it was a lovely night with tremendous company.

The next day, Aryeh and I spent a few hours at the Jewish Museum. The highlight for me was an exhibit of artwork by an artist named Eran Shakine (click to see), of a series of portraits (all black charcoal on white canvas) called "A Muslim, A Christian, and A Jew." The pictures all portrayed three men who looked essentially the same going on all sorts of adventures together, from playing music to trying to find God. The collapsing of the identities showed that we are all playing this game called Life together. I sort of wished there were a fourth character so that it could parallel the Passover Seder's Four Sons, but I still loved the exhibit. My least enjoyable part of the museum was this towering room/corridor with literally thousands of metal faces on the ground that are crafted to look like they are are screaming. You can walk across the sea of tortured faces, and that causes them to clink against each other and let out piercing metal screams. I thought that I had to walk across, and I held my ears and tried to tip toe through, only to find that the door at the end was not an exit, and I had to retrace my steps again. I'm sure the artist fully intended for that uncomfortable experience and its symbolism, and it surely worked. The rest of the museum was a fascinating exploration of Germany's historic Jewish roots.
After our trip to the museum, we met up with Samantha and her friend for delicious falafel, and then we visited the East Side Gallery, where artists have decorated a remain of the Berlin Wall. Below is my classic "I visited" picture.

That night, we headed to the Chance the Rapper concert, which was just an incredible show. I loved seeing his Chicago backdrops and having a carefree night of jumping, singing, and dancing.

Finally, the next day I headed to Charlottenburg Palace, before going to the airport. Built originally in the early 18th Century, the Palace housed numerous generations of Prussian royalty, and even quartered Napoleon the Great during his visit. An audio guide took me through the ornate rooms filled with impressive furniture and artwork.

I returned from Germany feeling very refreshed, having had both tremendous social experiences and a lot of individual time to explore and reflect. I am now transitioning into the next phase of my time in Budapest, during which I will help with some new BBYO projects (I led my first weekly Hadracha ["leadership seminar"] this past Sunday), and am looking into finding more supplementary work/projects in the Jewish community. My parents and Shira arrive on Xmas day, so until then I will be hopefully getting into more of a groove with work, hopefully entertaining a few guests, and we shall see what else! I will likely blog again before then with more to report from Budapest, but I hope you enjoyed this update on my last couple weeks "on the road."

1 comment:

  1. Been to Berlin and Budapest. The Jewish presence historically and currently in both cities is worth the trip. Love your reflections. Will continue to follow your posts.