It is the eyes that haunt me.
A young boy stares straight ahead at a camera for his “official” Gestapo photo before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where he will die within the year.
In another faded picture, a mother and father walk down a Berlin street holding the hands of a little girl. The daughter is smiling, as though off on some happy adventure. Wearing the Star of David on their chests, as Jews were required, the sad-eyed parents seem to know what their tragic future holds.
Sitting before a desk watching old newsreels and black and white photos of the Nazi regime at the indoor/outdoor Topography of Terror museum, a young girl puts her hands over her head and closes her eyes. The atrocities are too much. I know how she feels.
It is one thing to read about history in a book. It is another to visit the actual sites and learn about the real names, faces and lives of those who suffered and died during history’s most horrible times.
On a visit to Berlin, I saw many sides to this diverse city. The vibrant cosmopolitan capital of Germany, Berlin is alive with beautiful contemporary architecture, well-tended nature parks, modern hotels, world-class culture and cuisine, enviable public transportation and friendly folks.
But it is the history that I remember most. There is evidence of Berlin’s turbulent past everywhere. Berlin doesn’t try to hide what happened or pretend it never did. It seems to remember the past, live in the present and try to create a better future.
The most famous landmark in Berlin is the Brandenburg Gate. Built in 1788, the Gate has been eyewitness to mind-boggling events. Once Germany’s dangerous “no-man’s land,” this magnificent edifice immediately next to the Berlin Wall was where anyone caught could be killed.
When President John F. Kennedy visited the Brandenburg Gate in 1963, the Soviets hung large red banners across the gate to prevent him looking into East Berlin. On June 26, 1963, JFK delivered a speech to show support for the divided city just 22 months after East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall.
“Ich bin ein Berliner” he announced to a cheering crowd.
Seems hard to believe it was 50 years ago that happened. Looking at a vintage picture of the historic event, Kennedy seems so young. He would be assassinated that November.
On June 12, 1987, another American president visited Brandenburg Gate demanding the razing of the Berlin Wall. A plaque embedded in the sidewalk marks the spot where President Ronald Reagan declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
It would be another two years – on Nov. 9, 1989 – before the wall would fall.
Why was the wall built in the first place? And what demonic minds decided that anyone who tried to cross over the wall would be killed?
“Construction of the Berlin Wall began on Aug. 13, 1961,” said tour guide Gabriele Reynolds. “The government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) built the wall to seal off East Berlin and keep East Germans from fleeing to the West.”
There had been rumors that something might happen to shut down the border between East and West Berlin. “But no one expected what happened or how quickly it happened,” Reynolds said.
Just past midnight on Aug. 13, trucks with soldiers and construction workers rolled through East Berlin. Crews quickly tore up streets, erected concrete posts, cut telephone wires and strung barbed wire between East and West Berlin.
When Berliners awoke the next morning, they were shocked. No longer could East Berliners head to West Berlin for work or recreation or vice versa. Families and friends were cut off from each other. Whatever side of the border you went to sleep on the night of Aug. 12, you were stuck on that side for decades.
“We were divided by the wall for 28 years,” Reynolds said.
THE BERLIN WALL
At 103 miles long and 12 foot high, the Berlin Wall was formidable. An estimated 100 to 200 people died trying to cross it. Over the years, the wall was reinforced to a massive concrete barrier topped by barbed wire and guarded by armed sentinels with orders to shoot without warning.
Of course, people still tried to escape. Some of the creative ways they used are showcased in the Wall Museum near Checkpoint Charlie. Some people dug tunnels, others rammed trucks or buses into the wall, a group salvaged bits of fabric to build a hot air balloon and fly over the wall. Some succeeded.
One of the most infamous cases of a failed attempt occurred on Aug. 17, 1962. Two 18-year-old men ran toward the wall, determined to scale it. Surprisingly, the first teen made it. The second one, Peter Fechter, was not so lucky.
As Fechter was about to scale the wall to freedom, a border guard opened fire, hitting the teen in the pelvis. As horrified onlookers watched, Fechter somehow made it to the top of the wall before tumbling back onto the East German side. What happened next shocked the world and made Fechter’s name a rallying call for freedom.
The teen screamed in agony as he writhed on the ground for over an hour. East German guards did not shoot him again nor did they come to his aid. Once his painful death was done, East German guards carried off his body.
On Nov. 9, 1989, Berliners were shocked to find the borders open, the wall beginning to crumble. Quickly, celebrating people converged on the wall, chipping away at it with hammers and chisels. Pieces of the Berlin Wall became collectibles and are now museum pieces. After the Berlin Wall came down, East and West Germany reunified into a single German state on Oct. 3, 1990.
Today, the remains of the Berlin Wall – along with the nearby free admission Topography of Terror - are one of the most visited sites in Germany. The area was once the headquarters of the feared Gestapo with its own “house prison” and the seat of Nazi leadership.
One block south of the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Museum is a stark aboveground and belowground memorial to the millions of European Jews killed during Hitler’s “Final Solution.” The 4.7-acre field is covered with 2,711 concrete slabs. Uncomfortable to see, the whole sculpture of slabs aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.
A short walk away is a much-less visited site. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have known it was there if someone hadn’t told me. A sign points out that this is said to be the underground bunker where Hitler committed suicide. Today, it is a parking lot.
At every memorial I visited, I saw people grieving with tear-filled eyes. Except one site. No one shed a tear where Hitler died.
For more information: Contact Visit Berlin at www.visitBerlin.de.
Getting there: Traveling to Germany is now much easier with direct flights from Chicago. Air Berlin flies to Berlin, American Airlines to Düsseldorf. I flew over on Air Berlin, www.airberlin.com, and back on American Airlines, www.aa.com.