Thursday, September 12, 2013


During the last week of summer break, we all went up to Berlin to explore a new city. The kids are good sports about spending afternoons inside European cathedrals and castles. But luckily with Berlin’s focus on, of course, the Berlin Wall, we spent most of our time outside in the sun, staring at the remaining bits of it. The kids were intrigued by the structure itself and when that failed, by the colorful graffiti that covers much of it. We stayed very near the Berlin Wall Memorial, an ongoing project to restore a 1.4 kilometer stretch of the wall as well as the space and fortifications around the wall. Actually, our apartment was in “East Berlin” on Brenauer Strasse, at one of the border crossings, well known for its iconic photo of an East German guard escaping to the West.
But before we got into all that Cold War history, we started with World War II. We went on an underground tour of Berlin, roaming through one of Hitler’s bunkers. Not Hitler’s actual bunker as we were told many times but one for civilians. Bunkers were built in subway stations. We toured an unfinished subway station bunker. Apparently, the side walls were thick concrete but the ceiling was quite thin. Nonetheless, people felt safer down there. We descended into the bunker, past air locks, into a warren of block rooms. All rooms were labeled with maximum capacity numbers though we were told that many more people were actually in the rooms. Authorities kept the small numbers on the wall to reduce panic. One horrible story told of people hiding down there and using a candle to determine when the oxygen was running out in the room.
Out from the depths (one of us very anxious to get out, one of us wanting to stay under), we walked around town, back in the sunshine. It was fun to walk around the city, hearing different languages, seeing signs in English. It all had a very different feel from Munich, almost non-German to me. We walked to Brandenburg Gate, famous site of various speeches and just past it to a more modern Holocaust Memorial. The memorial was made of rectangular stone blocks, resembling coffins. The blocks undulated like waves over a small hill. It was somber and sad but a necessary part of the story for the kids.
After that we felt we could go Cold War. We took a great bike tour, riding around for about six hours, visiting many points from the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous border crossing between the American sector of Berlin and the Soviet sector. Lots of interesting stories but mostly we were struck by how much former East Berlin reminded us of our days in Ukraine, the architecture, the big Soviet war memorials. Someone on our tour (not one of our kids) asked what was so bad about Stalin again? All of it seems so long ago, not just Stalin and the USSR and the Wall but even our time in what we used to call the “NIS,” newly independent states!
Our favorite part of the trip was actually our local park. We stumbled upon it when everyone was getting hungry and cranky. There was a farmer’s market selling pastries and cheeses and brats. The light lingered until late and our kids played on a huge wooden structure, mixing it up with other kids. It felt like other times when we had come to Europe in late summer and ate fresh strawberries and enjoyed the parks. But this time our kids could talk to other kids. We listened to them speaking German and for a moment, it all just worked.


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