By Monique Burns
Admittedly, it took me years to get to Berlin. As a child growing up in the ’60s, whenever I thought of the city, I thought of the Holocaust and World War II on one hand and the Berlin Wall on the other.
Scrambling under desks during school drills to protect American children from Cold War bombings, I thought of anywhere behind the Iron Curtain as a place of sorrow and violence. Even my mother’s enthusiastic crowing about John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of June 26, 1963 could not dispel those childish fears.
As an adult, I crisscrossed Europe countless times and somehow kept missing Berlin. Childhood traumas die hard.
In modern times, Berlin has probably suffered more trauma than any other major Western European city. The German cities of Hamburg to the northwest and Dresden to the southeast were leveled by Allied bombers during World War II. East of Berlin, cities like Warsaw in Poland and Riga in Latvia bore the cruel burden of the Nazis followed by the Communists.
Berlin suffered all this, too, along with the unimaginable trauma of being cut in half.
In 2019, the city celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A year later, Berlin marks three decades of German Reunification, bringing East and West Germany together, slowly but surely. Berlin is a major European capital, once again, as well as the capital of a united Germany.
With young people arriving in droves, Berlin has become a European Capital of Cool—whether you’re talking art, fashion, and design or music and nightlife. But Berlin hasn’t forgotten its roots. Here, where the new is celebrated daily, vestiges of the past are everywhere. Along with youthful fervor, Berlin has a depth born of maturity. Perhaps that’s why I, completely grown up, have finally found my way here.
In Mitte, Berlin’s most central neighborhood, I check into a trendy boutique hotel. One of many springing up since Reunification, these small three, four and five-star hotels cost as little as $100-$150 a night.
From there, it’s a short walk to Berlin’s iconic landmark, the Brandenburg Gate. Strolling down Unter den Linden, the famous boulevard lined with linden trees feels touristy. But it also feels right. As right as visiting the Statue of Liberty back home.
Commissioned by Frederick William II of Prussia, designed by Carl Gotthard von Langhans and installed in 1793, the neoclassical Brandenburg Gate was built like a triumphal arch with a dozen Doric columns and a pediment topped by a quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses.
But unlike most triumphal arches, the Brandenburg Gate was built to celebrate peace. In fact, it was originally called the Friedenstor, or Peace Gate. That’s Eirene, the Greek goddess of peace, up there in the chariot.
Alas, the Brandenburg Gate has seen more war than peace. After defeating the Prussians in 1806, Napoleon strode triumphantly under the arch, then carried the quadriga off to Paris. When it returned in 1814, the Prussians gave Eirene a more martial appearance, adding the Iron Cross and Prussian eagle to her lance.
Damaged during World War II, the restored Brandenburg Gate was slated to become a checkpoint between east and west when the Berlin Wall rose in 1961. But when citizens protested the wall’s construction, Communist authorities sealed off the gate.
Five months after Berlin’s 750th anniversary, in June 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate and gave his famous speech—practically ordering Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
Two years later, after the wall fell in 1989, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl symbolically reopened the Brandenburg Gate, and, in 1990, a celebration was thrown there to celebrate Reunification. Held annually, it’s called “German Unity Day.”
The Brandenburg Gate, site of a tourist office, is a popular gathering place. On an ordinary weekday afternoon, the surrounding Pariser Platz is filled with happy tourists snapping photos and posing for selfies. I join the jubilant throng and my jet lag quickly fades. I feel uplifted just being there.
A block away is the Holocaust Memorial. The capital of Nazi Germany, Berlin was where many believe the Holocaust began, most egregiously, on Kristallnacht. On November 9, 1938, Nazis smashed the shop-windows of Jewish proprietors, burned synagogues and began deporting Jewish citizens to concentration camps.
In 1933, Berlin’s Jewish community numbered 160,000—one-third of all Jews in Germany. By 1945, only 8,000 Jews were left in Berlin.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe honors all six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. With over 2,700 concrete blocks extending over four acres, it resembles a cemetery. But Jewish-American architect Peter Eisenman says he wanted to evoke an orderly system out of touch with humanity.
For me, watching visitors disappear and reappear between the stones, the Holocaust Memorial will always be about the tragic loss and bold reemergence of Berlin’s—and Europe’s—Jewish community. Today, more than 50,000 Jews call Berlin home, and that number is growing as Jews relocate here from around the world.
The arts have been a chief initiative during Reunification. Over 20,000 international artists have flooded Berlin in recent years, and the number of galleries has doubled to over 440…and counting. Spurring this artistic fervor, the German government has poured millions of euros into building communal studios and low-cost artists’ lodgings. Berlin might well be the “Renaissance City,” evoking comparisons to Italy’s Florence and its cultural flowering.
On a GoArt! Berlin tour, I visit the Contemporary Fine Art Galerie. Yet I am drawn, once more, into the past. Across from the CFA is Museum Island. A UNESCO World Heritage Site afloat in the River Spree, its five 19th-century buildings showcase centuries of masterpieces.
A major draw is the 3,300-year-old Bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum, stylishly reconstructed in 2009 by British architect Sir David Chipperfield, who also has offices in London, Milan, and Shanghai. Chipperfield also has designed the island’s new visitor’s center, the James Simon Galerie, named for the 19th-century Jewish textile-company owner, one of Museum Island’s greatest benefactors.
In the nearby Barn District, contemporary-art galleries stand chock-a-block with boutiques of hip fashion designers like Isabel Vollrath, who creates eye-popping garments from oddities like plastic tarps. Here, too, are design shops like Amodo Objects & Stories with handmade gifts by artisans from Berlin and the owner’s native Italy.
As elsewhere in Berlin, the past is always present. The Barn District was once the Scheunenviertel, a Jewish ghetto where hay was stored for the Alexanderplatz cattle market. Rising above all is the 1866 Neue Synagoge with its three gold-ribbed domes, built in Moorish-Revival style after Spain’s Alhambra palace.
Site of a 1930 violin concert by Albert Einstein, the Neue Synagogue once boasted Berlin’s largest Jewish congregation. Miraculously, the synagogue survived Kristallnacht when a German policeman drew his pistol and refused to let crowds destroy the city’s treasured landmark.
Walking along Tucholskystrasse, I stop to read little brass memorial plaques atop cobblestones. Stolpersteine, they’re engraved with the names of former Jewish residents, their birth years and dates of deportation to the concentration camps. The world’s largest “decentralized” memorial, there are over 60,000 stolpersteine in 21 European countries to date.
Several blocks away, at the entrance to the small, leafy park called the Koppenplatz is “Der verlassene Raum,” or “The Deserted Room.” A bronze table with two chairs, one fallen, Karl Biedermann’s 1996 sculpture symbolizes the hurried deportation of Berlin Jews to concentration camps.
Ringing the sculpture’s base are mournful verses by Nelly Sachs, the Berlin-born Jewish poet who won the 1966 Nobel Prize. “Oh, the Houses of Death,” wrote Sachs in her native German. “And the body of Israel going up in smoke!”
The Former Jewish Girls School is on nearby Auguststrasse. Built in 1928, the red-brick building, with stunning geometric mosaics, was designed by German-Jewish architect Alexander Beer, who would later perish in Theresienstadt concentration camp.
The school now houses two restaurants: Michelin-starred Pauly Saal & Bar for elegant “New German” cuisine, and Mogg for New York-deli standbys like pastrami sandwiches and international fare like spicy Mediterranean-style shakshuka.
Upstairs are contemporary-art galleries, notably the Michael Fuchs Galerie whose owner spearheaded the building’s restoration. At Museum The Kennedys, the Boston family’s perennially youthful photos are on view along with the film of JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
Seeing that clip sends me searching for another leitmotiv: the long association of Berlin with the United States, Germany’s “truest ally through the decades,” to quote Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In Potsdamer Platz, I catch “The Botticelli Renaissance” at the Gemäldegalerie. It’s one of a dozen museums, concert halls and libraries in Berlin’s Kulturforum, built in the 1950s and ’60s when American schoolchildren were hiding under desks from Cold War bombs that never came.
Beneath 1990s skyscrapers, designed by star architects like Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, is the entrance to the Potsdamer Platz U-Bahn station. Alongside it are graffiti-covered chunks of the Berlin Wall. Undeniably ugly, they exert a profound magnetism.
Most visitors pose for photos with the grim monoliths. Others just stand and stare, wrinkling their foreheads while conjuring up images of bygone days when this was a divided city, and Communist guards shot anyone attempting to escape over the 12-foot-high barrier that snaked 87 miles around the city and right through the heart of Berlin.
From Potsdamer Platz, the Kreuzberg neighborhood is a short jog southeast. At The Jewish Museum Berlin is the famous 1999 zinc-clad zigzag building designed by Jewish-American architect Daniel Libeskind. Inside, thousands of artifacts trace the fascinating, thousand-year history of Berlin’s Jewish citizens.
World-famous Checkpoint Charlie isn’t far away. After World War II, victorious Allies divided Berlin into four sectors. But soon there were really only two Berlins: the Democratic West, presided over by the Americans, British and French, and the Communist East, controlled by the Soviet Union.
This rather touristy spot, with a replacement checkpoint booth manned by a friendly German in U.S. Army garb, is home to one of Berlin’s great repositories of history: the Mauermuseum, or Wall Museum.
There are exhibits about the Berlin Airlift, between June 1948 and September 1949, when American, Australian and English pilots dropped millions of tons of food to Berlin’s starving citizens. There are exhibits about the “Candy Bombers,” those Allied pilots who dropped chocolate bars and other sweets to the city’s war-weary children.
There are exhibits about the Berlin Wall’s 1961 construction, and the cars, gliders and other contraptions that East Berliners used for daring escapes during the barrier’s 28-year existence.
Alongside exhibits about American leaders like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who helped reunite Berlin and Germany, are exhibits about Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other professors of peace.
As I pore over hundreds of displays, childhood memories come flooding back. Old enough to remember watching the Berlin Wall escapes on our black-and-white TV set, I realize that Berlin, the city I stayed away from for far too long, has been with me throughout my life.
But now there’s far more triumph than tragedy. Experiencing the new Berlin, with its bold, youthful population, its contemporary-art galleries and hip designer shops, and its enthusiastic can-do spirit, I can only hope to return again and again.
Joining tens of thousands of visitors who have flocked here from around the world over the past three decades, I echo the heartfelt words: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
IF YOU GO
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.