I was seventeen, the first year I came to Berlin. It was February, the month a halting comma in the death sentence of an unending German winter. It was bitterly cold, too, and I didn’t recognise the memorial when I happened across it. Rushing through the web of grey pillars I stood – dizzied – at its centre, wondering where I was.
The Holocaust memorial, I later discovered – the vast network of concrete stelae, 2711 hulking lumps of stone. Germany is no stranger to remembrance, and this was Berlin’s answer to its history: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
The further one ventures into the vast network of concrete stelae which make up the monument, the fewer the reminders of life outside: the external sounds of the city dwindle, then vanish. Birdsong, traffic, the laughter of children turn to silence, just as life can turn to death can turn to stone.
2711 slabs of stone. These stelae sit in central Berlin, a place where past paints present. The memorial bleeds into the landscape, reminding us that the Holocaust happened not only in Auschwitz, Birkenau, Belsen, Majdanek. It happened also on these streets, in this city, in that house, just next-door. The lines between city and concrete blur like breath on a window on a winter’s morning, the ground undulates – the place is a reminder of guilt’s ambiguity, of the blurred moral boundaries that led ordinary Germans to turn a blind eye.
I was almost twenty-one, the second time I visited the memorial. It was warm and October, I was visiting Berlin for a whirlwind weekend of friends and dancing. The rucksack on my shoulders held a lace dress and vintage shoes. I almost walked past. I could have turned a blind eye, too. But in the three years that had passed, I had thought often of the memorial. Perhaps that was the point, really – better a memorial that remains a whisper in the mind than any ‘final solution’ to the complexities of a violent history.
This time around, the sun shone confidently on the forest of stone. I was struck by the life radiating from every corner: couples sat lazily, kissing, atop the hunks of stone, hip young Berliners sunbathed, children leapt from stela to stela. Locals cut through on their way to work. So did tourists en route to Unter den Linden, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Memory had given way to life.
Berlin has been through the wringer. Battered, bombed, flattened, fallen. Yet, against all the odds, as it always has done, Berlin has risen from the ashes – today it is a city marked by the future as much as it is by the past. Streets away from the concrete jungle that commemorates, new high rises shoot like hollyhocks into the sky.
Time moves on, and Berlin does too.
* A little piece I wrote for a travel magazine.