One of the consistent themes of our travel is a realization of how little I knew about the rest of the world—what went on just before I was born and even during my lifetime. Sure, I had a general awareness about events but when it came to the gripping details, it’s scary how clueless I am. And I read a lot when I was a kid.
Berlin was one of the places that highlighted my relative ignorance.
If you’re like me, your grade school and high school history classes skimmed over modern history in the final weeks of the academic year, when your sights were already set on how you were going to get a better tan this year thank your little brother. East Germany, West Germany, East German swimmers, “Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall,” buy your piece of the Berlin Wall. Sure, I got it. I knew Berlin was a central character in the Cold War.
But I never really grasped the urgent necessity of the Berlin Air Lift or the implications of a divided Germany. Here’s a map of the occupied country circa 1945 that lays it out pretty clearly:
That tiny multicolored spot right in the middle of the USSR territory, aka East Germany, is Berlin, divided into all of its little pieces. I don’t know whether to blame our education system, our American-centric culture, or my rambling mind but a hugely critical part of this story never registered for me. I can’t remember ever thinking about where Berlin was or how West Berlin was cut off from the rest of West Germany and what that meant for the people living there.
I bring this up now because I see Tempelhof Airport, the airport that ushered in nearly 5000 tons daily of necessities for Allied-occupied Berlin, as an example of the city’s incredible transformation. After ceasing operation in 2008, the former airfield, this symbol of a Cold War standoff, has become a park—an open space in the heart of this massive urban center.
It’s hard to imagine that Berlin has only recently emerged from a dark period in its history. The city doesn’t hide its sins or its scars—there’s a well-worn path, marked in many spots by fragments of the Berlin Wall, from Checkpoint Charlie to the Topography of Terror museum to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (the Holocaust Memorial). But it’s not being held back by them either.
Another symbol of this metamorphosis: the East Side Gallery.
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, artists from all over the world came and covered the longest intact stretch of the former barrier with more than 100 paintings. By the time we arrived, a concerted effort had been put in place to restore these paintings which suffered over the past 20 years. It was remarkable.
My preconceived notion that Berlin is a harsh, grey place has been replaced by the reality of my experience with this lush and vibrant city. Berlin joins the list of places I could see myself living .
During our visit to Germany, Nellu’s cousin, Christina, gave us a booklet she thought we’d find interesting. It is supposed to be a copy of a pocket guide distributed to American soldiers during the occupation. It includes helpful tidbits on the climate, language and the U.S. Non-Fraternization Policy: “Before you get too romantic remember that foreign girls do not automatically become citizens upon marriage to an American.”
It also reflects the distrustful nature of the U.S.-German relationship: “Be on your guard particularly against young Germans between the ages of 14 and 28. Since 1933, when Hitler came to power, German youth has been carefully and thoroughly educated for world conquest, killing and treachery.”
But it concludes on a hopeful note: “One of the tragedies in Germany’s recent history is her own betrayal of her past gifts to civilized life. The country has produced great writers, philosophers, scientists, artists and musicians. Her people possess great energies which at times have been used to benefit rather than destroy mankind. In the peace to come it is hoped that those energies can be more consistently employed to benefit the world…”
It seems like Berlin has gotten that message.