Finding my way around Berlin, Germany
I traveled to Berlin for the opening of the Berlin Foto Biennial 2016, where I am part of the Second Generation Holocaust photographers exhibit with a triptych from my seven year, ongoing series called Survivor, a study on my father’s survival of eight Nazi forced labor camps.
Another reason for Berlin’s appeal for me is its volatility, its traumatic history. I feel a Berlin traumatized by its historical suffering, its emotional past. There is almost a haunting aspect to the city. A city where Hitler came to power in 1933, the site of the infamous Olympic games in 1936, Kristallnacht – where Jewish properties were attacked and set on fire in 1938, Hitler’s headquarters–and the place where the Führer took his last breath & World War II from 1938 to 1945. A historic, reunited capital where a 96.2 miles long wall divided family and friends for 28 years, the only border fortification in history built to keep people from leaving rather than to protect them. Berlin is a capital that has been the most powerful and also fallen to the lowest of lows. Yet Berlin is also a city of tolerance, liberalism, a center of the arts and truly a cutting edge cultural center of Europe.
I spent time years ago in Frankfurt, when I was working in the publishing world and attended the annual Frankfurt Book Fair but Frankfurt does not hold the appeal for me that Berlin does. Berlin is tucked away in the north-eastern area of Germany and is only 49.7 miles from another favorite place I love–Poland.
As I walk along Friedrichstrasse, I think about the great German artist Käthe Kollwitz, regarded as the most important German artist of the twentieth century who worked with drawing, etching, lithography, woodcuts, painting, printmaking and sculpture. Käthe Kollwitz captured the hardships suffered by the working class in drawings, paintings, and prints. She went to Munich to study at the Women’s Art School. She didn’t want to be controlled by her father and also wanted freedom as a married woman.
The death of her youngest son in battle in 1914 profoundly affected her, and she expressed her grief in another cycle of prints that treat the themes of a mother protecting her children and of a mother with a dead child. Kollwitz lost her husband in 1940, her grandson during WWII in 1942. She created timeless art works after suffering a life of great sorrow and heartache believing that art not only can but should change the world. Kollwitz created art that stirred emotions, incited action and served the people.For twelve years; from 1924 to 1932 Kollwitz also worked on a granite monument for her son, which depicted her husband and herself as grieving parents. In 1932 it was erected as a memorial in a cemetery near Ypres, Belgium. Her art did not serve the state thus Hitler hated what she created. In 1936 she was barred by the Nazis from exhibiting, her art classified as degenerate and was removed from galleries. Kollwitz said “All my work hides within in life itself, and it is with life that I contend through my work.”
I also think of The Berlin Trilogy–David Bowie’s creative apex where he wrote three consecutively released studio albums that Bowie referred to as his DNA: Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979). Bowie moved to Berlin to escape the drug scene in Los Angeles (yet fell back on his bad habits initially). Berlin became Bowie’s sanctuary because he could be more anonymous there than in Los Angeles. His genius was his constant desire to reinvent himself. Low and Heroes were both recorded at Hansa Studios, known then as “Hansa by the Wall” because the Berlin Wall could be seen from the control room. I loved Lodger, a concept album about a homeless traveler. I can still hear the lyrics from Breaking Glass on the Low album. “You’re such a wonderful person, but you got problems.” I always loved Bowie because he rejected conformity, truly he was out of the box.
The nights were cold and windy and often rainy yet I feel invigorated coming from the recent relentless heat and two hour daily commutes in Los Angeles. Instead of sitting in a car for hours of traffic, I am free to roam about walking from trains to trams to underground travel.
I chose the Melia Berlin Hotel for multiple reasons but mainly for the location along the river Spree, on the corner of Friedrichstrasse and Am Weidendamn and only 100 meters from Friedrichstraße Station which provided me with great underground, city rail, and tram links to all parts of Berlin. Not to mention their restaurant with an extensive menu of Spanish tapas which is one of my favorite ways to eat in the world. I ended up never eating at the tapas bar because I was enjoying the German food so much.
S-Bahnhof Friedrichstraße Station used to be the border station between East and West Berlin. Built in 1882 to a design by Johannes Vollmer, a roof was added in 1925 that covers the hall and & the platforms. The only remaining structure from the original station is the special pavilion once used as a waiting room by those waiting for emigration clearance. The nickname of “Palace of Tears” refers to Berliners from different sides of the city would say goodbye to each other after a visit.
I ventured out in the rain (it is a venture because of my cameras) to find the Brandenburg Gate, an 18th century neoclassical monument and symbol of European unity and peace. The site of major historical events, it is considered a symbol of the tumultuous history of Europe and Germany. It is truly the quintessential symbol of Berlin and one of the few remaining historic city gates. I had the bonus of being there during Berlin’s Festival of Lights– famous landmarks beautifully lit up by lights.
The gate is one block south to the Holocaust Memorial or Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; a truly radical concept for a memorial. The construction of this memorial for the Jews killed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 began April 1, 2003 and was finished December 15, 2004. Designed by US architect Peter Eisenmann, it covers 205,000 square feet. It’s above ground, an undulating field of 2,711 visible, graffiti-resistant coating concrete slabs which you can enter from all sides and walk through. They are organized in rows, 54 of them going north–south, and 87 heading east–west at right angles but set slightly askew. The memorial leaves you to contemplate the meaning of the design. I returned multiple times during the day and the evening. Rain slowly flowing down the slabs looked like tears to me.
Around the corner is the Hotel Adlon, which opened its doors in 1907. It was largely destroyed in 1945, in the closing days of World War II. The new building is a design largely inspired by the original, other sources say only loosely inspired by the original. Only a two minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate and three minutes from the Berlin Wall, Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin stayed here but my real reason for wanting to view it was because Michael Jackson stayed in the presidential suite. On Tuesday, Nov 19, 2002, he was caught up in the moment and showed his baby nicknamed Blanket to the fans waving below his balcony.
Here are some photos I made my first day and night wandering the streets in Berlin.
“Berlin -The greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.”