Hazel McHaffie

Berlin

On that date …

I’ve been mulling over a strange thought this week. The significance of dates.

It began when I started to read yet another book about the Nazis: this time The Day the Nazis Came by Stephen R Matthews. This one is set in Guernsey at the beginning of the Second World War, and it’s written by a man who was a small child there and got caught up in the horrors. He was just four years old when he was deported with his parents to a camp in Germany.

To begin with, and with due respect, I should say, the author is not a natural wordsmith, but he has a family story to tell which I found worth persisting with, because these times were relevant to my own history. My parents started their family in 1941; they too were eking out a meagre living because of the deprivations of war; they too were seeking shelter from air raids, observing blackouts, watching developments fearfully. It resonated.

I’ve visited the Channel Islands twice and can envisage the places and scenarios Matthews talks about.

At the end of the 90s a beautiful tapestry had finally been completed commemorating the events of occupation, and I was blown away by the vibrancy of its panels and the profound sense of history it captures. The bulk of the embroidering was done by skilled needle workers, but anyone could add a stitch under their guidance, to give them a personal connection. And it’s that personal identification with events and experiences that I’ve been preoccupied with this week.

Identifying with dates and details in this book, I’m reminded of the profound feeling I had in Berlin where there is so much to remind one of the horrors perpetrated in the 40s which must never be forgotten. I felt devastated by a sense of terrible loss when I stood on the edge of a railway line marking the number of Jews deported to the concentration camps on the day of my birth. I was bereft of words looking at the memorials to the Romany people, to the trains taking children to life or to death, to the six million Jews who died in the concentration camps – all of which happened in my early childhood.

And isn’t that what we try to do with novel writing? Take the reader into that place, that time, that emotion? Leave them feeling the connection. So even though The Day the Nazis Came isn’t going to win any literary prizes, it’s enabling us to hear what it was like to live innocently on these beautiful islands, and nevertheless be sucked into a darkness, an evil, beyond comprehension.

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Berlin: Imagine a City

The iconic Brandenburg gate

The iconic Brandenburg Gate

Berlin is a ‘haunted, ecstatic, volatile city’: so says Rory Maclean, in Berlin: Imagine a City. Its identity is based not on stability but on change. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low. No other capital has been so hated, so feared, so loved. No other place has been so twisted and torn across five centuries of conflict, from religious wars to Cold War, at the hub of Europe’s ideological struggle. Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being, and so lives more powerfully in the imagination.’

I’ve just this evening returned from a six day visit to this amazing city, having read Maclean’s book in preparation for my trip. It’s no ordinary tourists’ guide, no street map trekking across town and noting historic sites, principal attractions, beautiful buildings, interesting facts. Rather it reads more like a novel as it weaves together portraits of 21 of its former inhabitants who shaped its various incarnations over five centuries; artists, leaders, thinkers, activists. Harrowing tales from the inside of atrocities sit side by side with evocative imaginings of lives lived behind glittering facades and forbidding walls, stark facts about divided loyalties and brutality beyond belief merge with heart-warming touches of human compassion and love, invention cohabiting with reality.

It gave me a tantalising glimpse into the background behind the seen and the unseen, the beautiful and the ugly, the conflicts and the peace. A little chaotic at times maybe, embellished history, creative reporting, but it didn’t matter; it brought everything to life in a most engaging way. And for more present-day practicalities we had my son as personal guide – he loves the city which he has visited many times, he was living in Germany and travelled to Berlin within weeks of the Wall coming down, he studied there for his PhD, he revisited for the 25th anniversary of reunification of East and West, he writes about Berlin today.

So did real life 21st Century Berlin match up to the one conjured up through the lives and passions of those myth makers and historical figures? Indeed it did; more than. Yesterday really does echo along today’s alleyways and streets. There was a pervading sense that had I asked, ‘Where is the real Berlin?‘ the answer would have been, ‘Just walk down this street and turn right at 1933.

Films, exhibitions, museums, books, statues, monuments … the city abounds with vivid portrayals to give us an insight into Berlin’s dark history. Wandering its streets the imagination goes into overdrive.

‘So much of it has been lost or reinvented that the mind rushes to fill the vacuum, fleshing out the invisible, linking facts with fiction’ much as the book does. One can feel ‘its aching absences as much as its brazen presence: the sense of lives lived, dreams realised and evils executed with an intensity so shocking that they rent the air and shook its fabric.’

Naturally enough the most powerful messages relate to the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall. It was overwhelmingly sad to see the railway station where thousands of Jews were deported to the concentration camps with the numbers despatched each day (anything from 90 to 1780 plus) etched into the edge of the line, to stand beside a water sculpture dedicated to the huge numbers of Romani people similarly annihilated, or to see the individual names of the murdered set into monuments and Stumbling stones in the cobbles.

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorating the Jews from that house who were deported and murdered

Stumbling stones in the pavement commemorate Jews who were deported from that house to concentration camps

And the horrors around the East/West divide are indelibly captured by plaques and pavers, monuments and memorials, even remaining sections of the Wall.

The remains of the Berlin Wall

The remains of the Berlin Wall

Memorial to those who were killed trying to get over the Berlin Wall

Memorial to those who were killed trying to get over the Berlin Wall

But as Maclean says, ‘In a courageous, humane and moving manner modern Germany is subjecting itself to national psychoanalysis‘ to deal with the memory of historical suffering. So many reminders must surely be some measure of their determination to learn from the lessons of the past.

Monument to children who were taken to concentration camps or to places of safety

Monument to children who were selected for either concentration camps or Kindertransport: trains to death or a new life

However, a painter (of the fine art variety not Dulux) challenges the rest of us to take stock too: ‘I do not want to say that they – the SS officers, the camp guards, even the soldiers by the Wall – are like us. It is different, worse I guess. They are us – and we would have been them, in our respective times. It does not mean that I think we – the Germans – are likely to ever become Nazis or Communists again. Germany is a profoundly different land now, its identity reshaped for ever by cataclysmic events. But it is the potential for us, them, me, to have been part of such events that is the horror of today.

The Reichstag

The Reichstag (where the German Parliament meets)

For all its ghosts, though, today Berlin is vibrantly alive. And we, the living, are privileged to walk alongside the dead, remembering, but appreciating and imagining a better world. (Ironic that the very day I visited the Reichstag we picked up a copy of DasParlament – reporting the politicians’ activities – and what should be the headline article on the front page but the issue of assisted suicide!)

 

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