Exploring Berlin

Ms. Mains: During our limited free time we explored the fascinating city of Berlin. We were able to see sights that recalled the city’s history from its Prussian period, through World War II and the Cold War, and into the present. On Monday after the conference ended for the day, we walked from the city center to the East Side Gallery, a nearly mile-long section of the Berlin Wall that stands as an international memorial to freedom. The Gallery consists of murals on a remaining section of the east side of the Wall, painted in 1990–a year after the Wall came down. The paintings express the excitement of the time and the hope that the end of the Cold War would bring about greater freedom and peace across the world.

Above: Images from the East Side Gallery (Eastern side of wall)
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Posing on the western side of the Wall, which is covered in graffiti

Tuesday night was the first night of Yom Kippur, and three of us attended Kol Nidre services at the Neue Synagoge (“New Synagogue”) on Oranienburger Straße in the city center.

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The New Synagogue facade

The New Synagogue was once the largest and most magnificent synagogue in Germany; it showcased the confidence of the established, assimilationist Jewish middle class of Berlin. In the Pogrom of November 1938 (“Kristallnacht”), the New Synagogue was attacked, though thanks to police action was spared major damage. However, during WWII it was severely damaged by Allied bombing. In 1958 the main part of the building was demolished.  In 1995 the building was reopened, though the main sanctuary and other parts of the building have not been repaired. Today the partially-restored building houses a museum, an archive, classrooms, administrative offices and the small sanctuary where we attended services (held in German and Hebrew with English prayerbooks available).

Germany, Berlin, Gendarmenmarkt Square, Deutscher Dom, Interior View of Belfry.
Interior of Deutscher Dom

Wednesday was our day for sightseeing. We took a long self-guided walking tour. First stop: Gendarmenmarkt, considered one of Berlin’s most beautiful squares, where we visited a museum on the German government housed in a historic domed building (the Deutscher Dom).

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Next we walked to Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin’s best known crossing point between West and East Berlin from 1961 to 1989. 89_02_05_gueffroyThe site features historical displays, including the harrowing stories of people who attempted to escape over (or under or around) the Berlin Wall, including 20 year old Chris Gueffroy (photo right), who was the last GDR refugee to be shot dead by the regime’s border troops. Nine months after his death, in November 1989, the border was opened when the Wall came down.

After a quick stop at the ultra-modern Berlin Mall for lunch, we paid tribute at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a large outdoor area covered with 2,711 concrete stelae of various heights, arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. As one walks among the coffin-like slabs, the outside world and other people in the area seem to disappear and reappear, creating a sense of isolation and disorientation at odds with the orderly layout. We also spent time at the accompanying museum, which recalls the complex lives and final days of individuals and families lost to the Holocaust through haunting personal stories and artifacts.

We then walked to the nearby Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, and Mr. Kahrl outlined their historical significance. The Brandenburg Gate was built between 1788 and 1791, during the reign of Prussian sovereign Friedrich Wilhelm II. In modern times, the Gate is known as the setting for  Ronald Reagan’s June 1987 speech with the famous line:  “Mr. Gorbachov – tear down this wall!” (which could be heard on the east side of the gate as well). The Reichstag is the home of the German Parliament, the Bundestag. In 1933, a fire (the origin of which is still debated) gave the Nazis a pretext to suspend most constitutional rights, a pivotal moment in the fascist takeover of power.

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At Brandenburg Gate
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Bebelplatz commemorative plaque

Our walk back to the hotel took us along Unter den Linden, “Berlin’s Champs-Elysees,” with a stop at Bebelplatz, a public square where in 1933 Nazis burned approximately 20,00 books by by journalists, writers, scientists and philosophers (many of them Jewish) that were seen as a threat to Nazi ideology. The square is now the site of a memorial to the book-burning: a transparent plate on the ground provides a view into a stark, subterranean room full of empty bookshelves that could hold 20,000 books.

We finished our whirlwind tour just in time for dinner, packing, and preparation for our morning departure.

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