Ich Bin Ein etc

Just back from Berlin and since I wasnt allowed near a computer on pain of excommunication, this is my first chance to record some of my thoughts. On the way home, I thought of the phrase ‘fur coat and no knickers’, but that isn’t strictly true of Berlin. Oh, she’s got the fur coat alright, you just get the impression the knickers are going back on in a bit of an indecent hurry, slightly red-faced, breathless- caught in the act!It was my first trip to Berlin and overall, I dont see how you could fail to be impressed. A very efficient city where the tourist is treated well, courteously and you feel you’re getting good value for your money. The train system is generally excellent, and it just all feels so well……. organised.

My main purpose was to visit some of the Memorial sites, so perhaps I wasn’t on the absolute typical tourist track,but I was able to get a good look around and fairly comprehensive perspective of the place.

When you start to look at the experiences other countries have had in their attempt to commemorate, you must remember that each experience in each country has been unique and will be uniquely remembered. There’s no international handbook on Type A memorial for genocide, Type B for Civil War and so on. So I travelled simply to feel, experience and learn a little without casting judgement on the events that were being commemorated or more importantly, without drawing any single comparison.

From my point of view then, Berlin was rich with the effort of remembering and forgetting. I had no comparator for the changing face of the East, but my guide has photographed the area for almost 20 years and bears witness to the massive changes that have taken place. You can still tell the difference between the two sectors, but that is rapidly changing. Carlo wryly pointed out that a pair of shoes in a window now cost what the entire building was worth 10 years ago. There was a very expensive car in one of the windows, a Bugatti I think, and there are only 50 in the world at a cost of £1 m each. More than slightly obscene in the setting.

Not so far from Checkpoint Charlie is an interesting sight that isnt there any longer. Up to last year, there were white crosses commemorating those who died crossing from East to West. One night the crosses were all demolished and building work started unceremonioulsy on the site. There has been uproar ever since, and a seething that the past is being sanitisied and made disappear with undue regard or memorial. Similar whitle crosses still stand at the Reichstag, by the river, and are guarded preciously by the people.

I went to the 2 main Jewish or Shoah memorial sites on this trip. The Holocaust Memorial at the Brandenburg Gate was very controversial and it took 16 years for Parliament to grant final approval. Many did not want the money spent on such a project, or to use such precious inner city land in such a way. The group spear heading the campaign persisted since 1988 and finally it was created, 2,700 granite slabs in honour of the murdered Jews of Europe but with no symbolism.

Personally I thought it was resonant of the Daniel Liebskind Jewish Museum on the Lindenstrasse. This was a really disturbing experience, although you are warned from the beginning that the visit is meant to confuse and disorient the visitor. The Garden of Exile is an amazing feature, I’m still queasy and a bit dizzy recalling it. The floors slope up and down, and you have to hold on to stop tripping or falling, so unexpected and steep are the slopes. And with both of these memorials come the educational and remembrance centres, so that no-one will ever forget.

I haven’t fully processed my trip to Berlin, but my intial ideas are certainly that our healing comes always from remembering and not forgetting. On the plane, I read Ann Dolan’s book on Commemorating the Irish Civil War. The governments of the ROI failed succesively to use the past as a way forward, as a reason to heal and forgive. They ‘honed and sharpened’ the bitterness, continuing to build and support separate identity monuments. I know full well that we are not at a point where a shared Memorial is neccesarily something that can be agreed or accepted, but I am minded of something Alan McBride wrote a few weeks ago. He said that if nothing else, we should consider a space where there were Orange feet and Green feet leading you through the exhibitions, and you followed your respective feet. He hoped that in time, people would be curious or interested and start to walk in the other footsteps for a while and gradually learn about those who are not us. For we should not just remember and memorialise, we should finally learn from our mistakes and try to ensure future generations are spared the horrors we inflict upon ourselves.

The final piece of symbolism I enjoyed was a sculpture entitled ‘Berlin’. 2 massive pieces of steel reaching over to each other across a main road. The need to reach out and find our common humanity should one day be our saving grace.