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Berlin Journal

In September 2014 we visited Berlin for two and a half days. We had expected to explore the neighborhoods popular with the artists that have flocked to this energized city and to see what's happening in its art and architecture. Instead, we spent much of our time looking at the remarkable, and for many years, tragic history of Berlin. The city and country has worked to come to terms with WWII atrocities and memorials and museums document those horrors, lest we all never forget. Berlin also suffered during the Cold War, with the construction of the Wall that separated families and citizens from one another. November 9, 2014, was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. During our visit, we came across daily reminders of that infamous structure, and in a newly built shopping mall close to our hotel we found a compelling exhibit of those difficult years. No photos can adequately show the pain and suffering of those decades, but for us, visiting a now modern city, it revealed more than we would have imagined just walking along Berlin's streets. While our visit was short, it was three days that I will never forget.

As we walked through Berlin, we saw many historical sites and exhibits of what it was like to be there 50 years ago during the Cold War. One of my friends also visited Berlin, but in 1966. Here are his recollections...

"Your Berlin trip brings back the memories of my visit to Berlin in 1966. I remember the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Church when I was there. It was referred to as "Lippenstift und Puderdose" (the lipstick and the powder box) by Berliners. I have vivid memories of riding the U-ban and going through the station under Pariser Platz. As the subway entered the station the Vopo on guard (one at each end, both lit by their own one bare light bulb) aimed his machine gun on the train as we went through. Once past the station the young Berliners on the subway forced open the doors so as to provide the opportunity for any East Berliner to jump on board in their quest for freedom.

As I have mentioned, I went through Check Point Charlie on my way into East Berlin. I remember looking up at the Reichstag building ... empty ... facade clearly showing bullet holes from the battle for Berlin ... and seeing a tree grown out of the roof. Very memorable. To my white-boy, west coast American privileged eyes, East Berlin was a vivid declaration of the war, of Soviet construction ... of another world. Lots of stark concrete-grey apartment buildings. Everywhere. Hung with banners with red letters. I remember thinking how very different these two parts of this city lived. Stark contrasts everywhere."

The Reichstag - There's a lot of history in a very small space here, and the new city mixes right in with the old. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is located between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate. As we walked toward the Gate, we came upon another exhibit of photographs showing what the now busy, commercial streets looked like during the the wall's existence. Also not far from the Gate is the Reichstag, now home of the German parliament, the Bundestag. Built in the mid 19th c. as a home to the German Diet, it was vacated in a 1933 fire and bombed during WWII. During the Cold War it sat empty as Bonn became the capital of West Germany and the East German government met elsewhere. In 1990, with the reunification of Germany, Berlin once again became the capital and the Reichstag was reconstructed. The glass dome is a new addition by architect Norman Foster.

The Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall - We arrived in Berlin about noon, and from our hotel near Potsdamer Platz we could see one of the city's cultural icons, the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall. The view was a preview of the modern architecture we were about to discover on our walk into (the former) West Berlin.

The Berlin Wall - November 9, 2015 was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. During our visit to Berlin, we came across daily reminders of that infamous structure. Most of the wall has been torn down, but this section near Potsdamer Platz has been preserved. It is located directly in front of the Topography of Terror museum, which documents the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Potsdamer Platz Today - We stayed near Potsdamer Platz, which during the Cold War was part of 'No Man's Land", as the Berlin Wall cut through this area, once the heart of Berlin. When the Wall came down, the massive reconstruction project was a signal that Berlin would once again be the center of German commerce. The buildings contain a Who's Who of international business giants, including Sony, and nearby tree lined streets house entertainment and restaurants for all to enjoy. In the square is a clock tower in the style of the Cold War's Berlin Wall guard towers, to serve as reminder of those terrible years.

The Bauhaus Archive - It was a short walk through tree lined streets to the Bauhaus Archive, which was built in the 1960's to present exhibits relating to the modernist school. The building was designed by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and on display were examples of the famous students' work during their studies at the renowned institution. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside, but it was wonderful to see their original drawings and models, and even the loom used by the weaving students, including Anni Albers and Gunta Stolzl.

Prenslauerburg - After visiting Museum Island we crossed the Spree river, walking further into the former East Berlin. We headed for Prenslauerburg, a neighborhood that had fallen into disrepair after the war but is now being renovated by young families. The broad streets and pocket parks are full of life and it seems an ideal place to live. The numerous cafes were comfortable and relaxed, and we had our final dinner at Cafe Anna Blume. Delicious food, great prices, and best of all, a look into the future of Berlin's eastern side, with its new generation of families moving in and enjoying life.

The Berlin Wall 25th Anniversary Exhibit - In September 2014 we made a short visit to Berlin. We had expected to explore the neighborhoods popular with the artists that have flocked to this energized city and to see what's happening in its art and architecture. Instead, we spent much of our time looking at the remarkable, and for many years, tragic history of Berlin. November 9, 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. During our visit, we came across daily reminders of that infamous structure, and in a newly built shopping mall very close to our hotel we found a compelling exhibit of those difficult years. No photos can adequately show the pain and suffering of those decades, but for us, visiting a now modern city, the exhibit revealed more than we would have imagined just walking along Berlin's streets. This is a photo taken November 10, 1989 of Berliners sitting on top of the wall. Behind them is the Reichstag.

The Berlin Cathedral on the River Spree - After visiting Museum Island we crossed the Spree river, walking further into the former East Berlin. The Berlin Cathedral has been restored, but during the Cold War, the river was also a bleak No Man's Land. Some neighborhoods survived WWII and the Cold War and still have the original historic buildings and plazas that provide pleasant eating and entertainment options.

Museum Island - We spent a day walking through the former East Berlin. In the middle of the Spree River is Museum Island,a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to five neoclassical buildings and the Berlin Cathedral, the world class collections include pieces from antiquities to more recent German paintings. Located just next to the busy Unter den Linden boulevard, the island is a refuge of calm, with pleasant green areas for relaxing. This is the Alte National Gallerie, a beautifully restored home to 19th century German paintings.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - Not far from the Topography of Terror is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by American Architect Peter Eisenman in 2005, it was the first formally commissioned Holocaust memorial by the German Government. Its title is also significant, as it was an acknowledgement of the crimes committed during Hitler's regime. At first it seems the 2,711 concrete blocks are of similar height, but as you wander through the space you feel the pillars engulf you. People appear and disappear among the stones.

Underneath the pillars is the Memorial Information Center. A timeline charts Hitler's relentless path to annihilate the Jews. In a darkened room one finds letters and final farewells written by the victims of his terror. In the Room of Families, photographs of 15 Jewish families are shown and each person's fate is documented. These families represent the millions more that perished. In the Room of Names a voice reads the names and a short statement of each of the Holocaust's victims. It will take more than 6 years to read all the names. This is a memorial one can never forget.

Alexanderplatz - After visiting Museum Island we crossed the Spree river, walking further into the former East Berlin. Some of the older neighborhoods survived WWII and the Cold War and still have the original historic buildings and plazas that provide pleasant eating and entertainment options. Alexanderplatz was the social and cultural center of East Berlin and the site of the largest demonstrations against the Wall in 1989. It is still a popular gathering place and has a decidedly non-updated, 60's urban flavor to it, quite unlike the super-renovated Potsdamer Platz. On the busy square you can find the hot dog sellers, young men carrying a grill hung from their waist selling sausages with all the fixings, and chalk artists decorating the concrete surfaces, hoping for a donation.

The Brandenburg Gate U-Bahn Ghost Station - Berlin has an efficient subway system that travels throughout the city. During the cold war, most of the underground routes were sealed off at the border. But a few lines looped though both the east and west side of the city. Only West Berliners could use those trains, and could not get off in the East Berlin stations. Those 'ghost stations' had an eerie greenish cast to them, and the only humans seen were the East German soldiers guarding the tunnels. The Brandenburg Gate station, though now open to all, has been left as it was during those difficult years.

As we walked through Berlin, we saw many historical sites and exhibits of what it was like to be there 50 years ago during the Cold War. One of my friends also visited Berlin, but in 1966. Here are his recollections...

"Your Berlin trip brings back the memories of my visit to Berlin in 1966. I remember the bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Church when I was there. It was referred to as "Lippenstift und Puderdose" (the lipstick and the powder box) by Berliners. I have vivid memories of riding the U-ban and going through the station under Pariser Platz. As the subway entered the station the Vopo on guard (one at each end, both lit by their own one bare light bulb) aimed his machine gun on the train as we went through. Once past the station the young Berliners on the subway forced open the doors so as to provide the opportunity for any East Berliner to jump on board in their quest for freedom."

The Neue Nationalgalerie - The Neue Nationalgalerie was designed by architect Mies van der Rohe in 1968. His last commission, it houses modern art in a spare, minimal space. Older buildings nearby are reflected in its glass facade.

Museum Island - We headed back to the east side to explore more of the former East Berlin. In the middle of the Spree River is Museum Island,a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to five neoclassical buildings and the Berlin Cathedral, the world class collections include pieces from antiquities to German impressionist paintings. The Pergamon Museum houses an impressive reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate and its surrounding mosaic panels, shown here, built by Assyrian rulers in 575 BC.

Brandenburg Gate - The Brandenburg Gate symbolizes the division of the city during the cold war, as well as its jubilant reunification. Constructed in the late 18th century, it is the only surviving gate out of 14 built into the walls that surrounded Prussian Berlin and it proudly connected Berlin's Tiergarten Park with the city's Unter den Linden Boulevard. But during the Cold War stood as a lonely outpost in the No Man's Land between East and West Berlin. No one can forget the November 9, 1989 scene of crowds of joyous Berliners walking though the Gate as the Wall was finally opened.

The Rebuilding of Berlin - After the Wall fell, huge reconstruction projects were started in the former 'No Man's Land'. Potsdamer Platz, in particular, was revitalized with a master plan to incorporate commercial businesses with an entertainment centers. This is a photo from the Berlin Wall commemorative exhibit we saw, showing the construction in progress.

The Route of the Berlin Wall - Very little of the original Berlin Wall remains. But a poignant reminder is the double row of cobblestones laid in its path, which cut through the heart of this great city.

Bikini Berlin - On our last day we took the U-Bahn back into West Berlin to visit Bikini Berlin, home to a new concept mall and hotel. We wanted to see the latest in Berlin's retail/hospitality architecture. Located next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Cathedral Memorial, newly built in a deconstructionist style and just beginning to fill up with stores, it looks to the future with an energy attractive to young Berliners. It also overlooks Berlin's world famous zoo, so a free look at the monkey exhibit awaits.

Into the Heart of East Berlin - We walked from the Brandenburg Gate along the Unter den Linden boulevard toward the heart of East Berlin. While there have been many reconstruction projects throughout the city, this broad avenue in the East felt like time had stood still. We walked along this road with its postwar architecture towards Prenslauerburg, an area now being revitalized by the next generation of families.

Cafe Anna Blume - After visiting Museum Island we crossed the Spree river, walking further into the former East Berlin. We headed for Prenslauerburg, a neighborhood that had fallen into disrepair after the war but is now being renovated by young families. The broad streets and pocket parks are full of life and it seems an ideal place to live. The numerous cafes were comfortable and relaxed, and we had our final dinner at Cafe Anna Blume. Delicious food, great prices, and best of all, a look into the future of Berlin's eastern side, with its new generation of families moving in and enjoying life.

Humboldt University - Humboldt University is located on Berlin's main boulevard, Unter den Linden. Albert Einstein taught here, and its students included Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, along with dozens of Nobel Prize winners. Used books are sold in front of the esteemed University.

The Bauhaus Archive - We took a walk through tree lined streets to the Bauhaus Archive, which was built in the 60's to present exhibits relating to the modernist school. The building was designed by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and on display were examples of the famous students' work during their studies at the renowned institution. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside, but it was wonderful to see the original drawings and models, and even the loom used by the weaving students, including Anni Albers and Gunta Stolzl.

No Man's Land - We visited Berlin in September, 2014, and the city was commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with exhibits thought the city. This photograph shows the 'No Man's Land' near Potsdamer Platz, which of course is now a thriving center of commerce. Each photo we saw was a searing reminder of the decades of pain the citizens experienced during the Cold War.

The Topography of Terror - One day we set out to visit some of the significant sights and memorials in the former East Berlin. We followed the path of the Wall a few blocks to Niederkirchnerstrasse and the former location of the Nazi headquarters, now fittingly the site of the Topography of Terror. The building and surrounding area's stark appearance said it all. This would be a painful exhibit to see. Inside, the permanent exhibit chronicled the pervasive and unrelenting horrors the Nazis committed during Hitler's rule. Along the Wall outside the museum was a series of panels describing in graphic detail Hitler's plans to annihilate Poland. In August 1939 Hitler made a non-agression treaty with Stalin, and included in it was a secret agreement on how they would divide Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. On Sept 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and set out to wipe Warsaw from the face of the earth. His plan was to have Germans settle in the newly acquired territory, and the more 'acceptable' conquered Poles would work as laborers (slaves) for the Germans. Jews, gypsies and other so-called 'undesirables' were sent to concentration camps and murdered.

At the Brandenburg Gate, November 10, 1989 - In September 1989, we visited Berlin for the first time. We had expected to explore the neighborhoods popular with the artists that have flocked to this energized city to see what's happening in its art and architecture. Instead, we spent much of our time looking at the remarkable, and for many years, tragic history of Berlin. November 9 was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. During our visit, we came across daily reminders of that infamous structure, and in a newly built shopping mall very close to our hotel we found a compelling exhibit of those difficult years. No photos can adequately show the pain and suffering of those decades, but for us, visiting a now modern city, it revealed more than we would have imagined just walking along Berlin's streets. Here, a photo shows the celebration that continued at the Brandenburg Gate the day after the Wall had been opened.

The New Berlin - After the fall of the Berlin Wall, an extensive rebuilding program began near the Potsdamer Platz. This is one of the new buildings, housing entertainment venues and offices.

Gendarmenmarkt - As we wandered through the city, we came across this beautiful, symmetrical square, complete with two churches, the German Church and the French Cathedral, They share the historic location with Berlin's Symphony Concert Hall.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - Not far from the Topography of Terror is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by American Architect Peter Eisenman in 2005, it was the first formally commissioned Holocaust memorial by the German Government. Its title is also significant, as it was an acknowledgement of the crimes committed during Hitler's regime. At first it seems the 2,711 concrete blocks are of similar height, but as you wander through the space you feel the pillars engulf you. People appear and disappear among the stones.

Underneath the pillars is the Memorial Information Center. A timeline charts Hitler's relentless path to annihilate the Jews. In a darkened room one finds letters and final farewells written by the victims of his terror. In the Room of Families, photographs of 15 Jewish families are shown and each person's fate is documented. These families represent the millions more that perished. In the Room of Names a voice reads the names and a short statement of each of the Holocaust's victims. It will take more than 6 years to read all the names. This is a memorial one can never forget.

Museum Island - We spent a day exploring the former East Berlin. In the middle of the Spree River is Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to five neoclassical buildings and the Berlin Cathedral, the world class collections include pieces from antiquities to German impressionist paintings. The bust of Nefertiti resides here, but while photos are allowed in all the museums, she is heavily guarded and no photos are allowed of the exquisite sculpture. Located just next to the busy Unter den Linden boulevard, the island is a refuge of calm, with pleasant green areas for relaxing.

In the Heart of West Berlin - After WWII, Berlin was divided among the victors: Great Britain, France and the U.S. controlled West Berlin and the Soviet Union occupied East Berlin. As the decades went by, there was a decided difference in the commercial growth of the West v. East. The heart of Berlin became centered along the west sides' grand boulevards and it resembled other modern European cities, while the east side had a more bleak appearance. Since the collapse of the Wall, the east side has been recharged and East Berlin's 'Mitte' neighborhood is now considered to be the heart of the capital city. Indeed, most of the major sights are located east of the Brandenburg Gate, which defined the border between East and West. We spent a day in the west side, before heading to the East for the next few days. In this busy commercial neighborhood we saw our first unforgettable memorial to the horrors of WWII. Standing only a block from Berlin's biggest department store, was this tribute to those murdered in the concentration camps. The sign's title says: "locations of the horrors we shall never forget".