German Life, April/May 2003; (Arizona) Tribune, Sunday, December 30, 2001; Tri-City Herald, Sunday, October 21, 2001

"I am a Berliner"

©2001 Valerie Kreutzer

Berlin bus

Most Berliners where born elsewhere.  And when President John F. Kennedy proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner),” he meant to reassure the walled-in Berliners in Cold War times of the free world’s steadfast support.  He didn’t talk about native rights.  But I can.

I was born in Berlin shortly before the outbreak of World War II.  As a five-year-old I remember touring the Imperial castle on felt slippers.  Soon after my visit, Allied bombing destroyed the castle.

In 1945 I sat with my family in Berlin’s rubble and ruins, almost starving and freezing to death during the harsh times that followed Germany’s defeat.

I was 12 years old when the Soviet-imposed Berlin blockade ended.  For almost a year we had survived isolation with the help of American and British pilots who supplied us with more than 2 million tons of food and fuel.

In the summer of 1961, taking a break from graduate studies in the United States, I watched with heartbreak the communist government’s desperate attempt to stem the flight of its citizens by building a 102-mile wall.  Twenty-eight years later I wept with joy when it came tumbling down.

On frequent visits during the nineties, I explored the former communist parts of the reunited Germany and watched Berlin become again its capital.  It’s not yet as glamorous as the big sisters New York, London and Paris, but located at a strategic point between east and west it is shaping into a European metropolis.  As a city it has turned from war and devastation to regeneration.  Let me take you on a tour of the brand-new old Berlin.

Boarding the double-decker bus number 100 at the Zoo station is probably the cheapest way to see the sights.  For less than two dollars it will take you past the major monuments, a real treat at night when they are brilliantly illuminated.  But if you like to walk, you can discover Berlin easily on sneakers.  Better yet, rent a bike next to the Zoo station and pedal on special paths through parks and history. 

Let’s start at the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche (Emperor Wilhelm Memorial Church) near the Zoo station.  It’s probably one monument that improved with Allied bombing.  The klutzy neo-Romanesque tower, nicknamed “Hollow Tooth,” is flanked by a modern church with bluer than blue stained glass windows. The church is surrounded by the screaming commercialism of Kurfuerstendamm.  During the Cold War, this avenue served as most elegant and tempting window on western capitalism. 

Today it looks a bit seedy, but the department store KaDeWe with a square footage equivalent to eight soccer fields, is still a shopper’s paradise.  A glass elevator takes you to the seventh floor conservatory, complete with palm trees, waterfalls, and a gourmet section that tempts you to succumb to caloric overdose.

But being virtuous, you’ll pursue the sights and enter the Tiergarten, a vast park that used to be the royal hunting ground.  It is a favorite with Turkish families who gather kids and caboodle around their grills.  Three hundred thousand Turks live in Berlin, the greatest gathering of Turks outside their homeland.  They are mostly Muslim, and many women are covered in black from top to toe. 

In another nook of the Tiergarten are the sunbathers who like to do it mostly nude.  It is not unusual to see a naked man at a nearby intersection patiently waiting for the light to change before crossing the street.  A few years ago, Berlin’s city council felt obliged to outlaw nudity on public transportation.

A popular symbol of the Tiergarten is the Golden Elsa, the gold-covered Victoria statue standing on top of a 220-foot column.  From its viewing platform you can see Schloss Bellevue, a former princely palace, now used by Germany’s presidents as official residence.  And further down is the House of World Cultures, a gift of the Americans.  Nicknamed “Pregnant Oyster” for its swooping shell-shaped roof, this daring feat of architecture actually collapsed, but then was rebuilt.

The Reichstag, Germany’s new parliament building, on the eastern edge of the Tiergarten, is the most recent restoration of an important historic site.  Built in the 19th century to serve the German Empire’s parliament, the Reichstag was burned by arsonists in 1933. The new Nazi leadership used the fire to neutralize the political opposition and initiate emergency laws that ushered in a period of persecution and terror.  In the battle over Berlin, the photo of a Soviet soldier erecting the hammer-and-sickle sign at the top of the ruin on April 30, 1945, signaled Germany’s defeat.  That day, while the Soviet flag was already flying, Adolf Hitler took cyanide and shot himself in his nearby bunker.

The most striking feature of the restored Reichstag is a giant glass dome over the plenary hall.  Visitors can take an elevator to the viewing terrace and then walk up a spiraling ramp to the top of the cupola, for free.  At night the queues are shortest and the views most spectacular.

A stone’s throw from the Reichstag is the Brandenburg Gate, perhaps Berlin’s best-known landmark.  Historically it has been a famous backdrop for pompous Imperial and Nazi parades.  More recently it symbolized the divide between east and west.  But the hottest spot during the Cold War was Checkpoint Charlie, the boarder crossing for Allied personnel, diplomats, foreigners, and east-west spies.

Since the fall of the Wall, sleek office buildings have replaced the checkpoint’s barriers and barbed wire.  A giant photo of an American soldier marks the former crossing.  When it was newly installed in ‘99, I wondered out loud who this American might be.  “That’s me,” said the blond young man standing next to me, and seeing me incredulous, he pulled an ID to verify his claim.  Jeff Harper, it turned out, was stationed in Germany and played the tuba in a U.S. army band when his photo, unbeknownst to him, was chosen to mark the historic spot.  Informed by a friend, Harper had come to Berlin to grin at his likeness.  We shared a good laugh over his feat.

We are now at Potsdamer Platz, Europe’s biggest construction site.  Before the war it rivaled New York’s Times Square in congestion and vibrancy.  The war destroyed eighty percent of the plaza, and the Wall turned it into a minefield and wasteland.  Today, Potsdamer Platz is becoming a monument to the works of many of the world’s leading architects with corporations, such as Sony and DaimlerChrysler, footing the bill.  City planners hope that the liveliness of yesterday will eventually return, but so far the bistros, cinemas, a casino and theatre around the completed Marlene Dietrich Platz haven’t drawn the crowds.

The same can be said for Alexanderplatz, the new address for designer stores and haute couture.  During the day the plaza is alive with the hustle from colorful peddlers in a line-up of stalls.  But at night the place looks pretty deserted, a far cry from being “the pulsating heart of a world city,” as a famous pre-WWI author described it.  The sterility of socialist architecture has a numbing effect on the place.

The monstrous TV tower at the center of Alexanderplatz seems to fit the inhuman scale of its environment.  At over 1,000 ft it offers a sweeping view of the city.  Some of the landmarks at our feet are a must-see in any travel guide.  You’ve got to visit the Museum Island, especially the Pergamon Museum with its collections of antiquities.

Perhaps you’ll enjoy an organ concert in the neo-baroque Berlin Dom (Cathedral), or take in a lavish production with international talent at the Staatsoper (State Opera).  Stroll past Humboldt University where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels once studied and whose faculty has included 27 Nobel laureates.  Wave at the Red Rathaus (city hall, named for its red stone rather than its politics).  Wish the city council well as it deals with the astronomical bill for Berlin’s restoration and rejuvenation.

The most glittering symbol of Berlin’s renewal is the golden dome of the New Synagogue.  Built at the end of the 19th century in a Moorish-Byzantine style, the synagogue’s main assembly hall once could accommodate 3,200 persons, but was destroyed by Allied bombing.  Its towers and entrance hall have been restored to serve as museum and holocaust memorial.

Before the war, 160,000 Jews lived in Berlin, 55,000 perished in concentration camps, only 7,000 survived in hiding.  Today, Berlin has again approximately 20,000 Jews, thanks to a steady influx of Jews from Russia. Many live again in the area around the New Synagogue. Their kosher stores and restaurants and the Jewish school have contributed to make it one of the liveliest and most diverse neighborhoods in the former East Berlin: Dilapidated apartment buildings stand next to renovated housing; avant-garde artists live in communes; grass-roots organizations develop their world plans; the successor party to the former communist party still maintains its headquarters here.  A string of little pubs lubricates the area’s diversity.   While many neighborhoods in the former East Berlin are still defining their character, their energy is higher, their pulse is faster than in the western parts of town.   

My favorite neighborhood is the Nikolai Quarter near the Rathaus. It is a mix of middle-class apartment houses with boutiques, microbreweries, cafes and restaurants clustering around a 13th century stone church.  At an outdoor restaurant by the Spree River I sample a hearty supper of herring salad and a Berliner Weisse, the trademark Berlin beer with a shot of raspberry syrup—believe me, it’s a great summer quencher.  As the stout waitress removes the dishes she drops the knife.  “Sorry,” she says, “this wasn’t an assassination attempt.  For that I’d use a sharper knife.”  I add a generous tip to the bill.  Not for sparing my life, but for giving me a sample of Berlin cheekiness and bellicosity.  It characterizes a people that has survived militarism, Nazism, communism, and the growing pains of reunification.   Behind coarse talk, Berlin humor often hides a warm heart and a genuine friendliness.