I learned a lot during my recent trip to Berlin, starting with it’s best to know (and follow!) the rules.
I guess maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise given Germany’s history, but alas, there I was at the check-in counter at Paris Orly with a piece of luggage that was 3 kilos overweight. I tried to flash my baby blues and convince the super cute man with my sweet broken French to let me carry it on, but to no avail. I was €30 in the hole before I even took off.
Two days later, I was riding the U-Bahn, part of Berlin’s seemingly flippant public transport system in which you pay for a ticket, validate it, and go on your merry way without so much as a turnstile to pass through. While riding amongst a car-full of oddball characters including one who was crying hysterically (and loudly) and another who was repeating the same gibberish sentence over and over again, I wondered to myself: Did all these people actually pay for tickets? Does anyone check? Up until that point I had been purchasing basic tickets for €2.70, which allows you unlimited transport for two hours, but I had just passed the two-hour mark and was only going three stops so I figured I’d chance it.
Well, that did not work in my favor. Lo and behold, a bunch of officers in plain clothes and tattoos—just your average Berlin transit workers—came around checking to see that we’d all paid our way. I fumbled through my bag despite knowing I hadn’t. He made me exit the train—just two stops away from where I was going!—and proceeded to ask for my passport so that he could write me up a ticket for €40.
Such. An. Epic. Fail.
Thankfully, the rest of what I learned in Berlin made me feel smart and proud. Smart to be a traveler that wants to “see for herself”; proud to be a Jew in a city that wants to do right by them.
During my three full days in Berlin, I discovered a city trying to recover, repair and repent by any means possible: big or small, obvious or hidden. From the slabs of slate arranged outside the Reichstag (parliament) honoring the 96 members who were killed because their politics didn’t agree with Hitler’s, to the stolperstein or “stumbling stones” embedded in the concrete streets wherever a Jewish victim of the Holocaust had lived—reminders are everywhere. Seek—or even just stumble—and ye shall find.
In doing so, I also realized Berlin has a knack for turning the otherwise ugly into something beautiful, and the boring into something completely fascinating. Former bunkers are now housing contemporary art, and banks have foyers with what appears to be a giant whale spouting a glass river. (That Frank Gehry! He’s so clever.)
Here, in no particular order, are the places I visited that showed me light in the darkness, beauty in the desolate and marvel in the mundane.
The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe
Located just behind the Brandenburg gate—the last surviving gate of Berlin’s old city—Germany’s first formal memorial to the Holocaust was inaugurated in 2005, some 60 years after the end of the war. A Jewish American architect is responsible for its concept and design, and it’s mesmerizing in its entirety. The always-open outside exhibition, where over 2,000 pillars of “stelae” seem to look like gravestones and change shape and size as you wander through them, is chilling. Yet, when I dipped in and out, I lost all else around me—people, sounds, etc.—so that when I looked up and saw the blue sky, I felt peace. Underground, there’s a free museum that shares incredible facts and figures about the Jewish lives lost in the war in the most humanizing, yet gut-wrenching way. Bring tissues and get the audio guide.
The Jewish Museum
This stunning building designed by architect Daniel Libeskind of Freedom Tower fame opened in 2001. While you enter through what looks like a very old Baroque building, most of the exhibit is in the newly designed contemporary space next door. You begin by visiting three memorial spaces underground—the Axis of Exile, the Axis of Holocaust and the Axis of Continuity. This is worth seeing. Then, on the way to the massive, multi-floor exhibit detailing the history of Judaism and all its practices—and I mean ALL of them—there’s an option to detour into what’s called the Memory Void. This is a beautiful, if not creepy open space where thousands of heavy metal faces have been strewn about the floor to be stepped on. It feels wrong and uncomfortable, which is clearly the point.
Back in the permanent exhibit, I picked up the pace since I’d already done about 21,000 steps and it was only 4p.m.. Plus, I kinda know why a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah and we light eight candles at Hanukkah. But just as I was about to leave I saw signs for something called “Obedience,” a temporary exhibit in “15 rooms.”
15 rooms?? I thought. I don’t know if I can handle much more stimulation today…
Well, I’m glad I pushed on. It was a wild, contemporary telling of Abraham’s intent to sacrifice Isaac as interpreted by various religions, from Islam to Christianity and, of course, Judaism. Each room featured something different—video clips of choreographed dancers playing the biblical characters, sheep’s wool covering the floor representing the slaughtered lamb, blood red walls to signify hell—it was out of this world. By room 7 I couldn’t wait to see what was next, yet I didn’t want it to end!
Berlin Wall Memorial + East Side Gallery
It’d been quite some time since I learned about the Berlin Wall (read: 8th grade), so the facts were a bit fuzzy. To get it all straight, I took my boy Rick Steves’ advice and headed to the official Berlin Wall Memorial where a large section of the wall still stands, and an information center provides a 10-minute English video on the Who, What, Why and How. It all became clear pretty quickly: The end of the second World War, the allies (American, England, France and the Soviet Union) then splitting hairs, the Cold War, the East v. the West. After watching the video, I walked along parts of the wall left to preserve history. There are also several memorials to those who lost their lives trying to cross it over its 20-plus year barrier. In fact, all throughout the city, there remains a cobblestoned imprint in the street where the wall once stood. It’s pretty fascinating—and horrifying—to stand there straddling what was once two sides of the same city, which for far too many years its own residents couldn’t cross.
Over at what’s been dubbed the East Side Gallery, a group of graffiti and mural artists from all over the world have created works of art on the largest remaining stretch of the Wall, which runs nearly a mile long. This is where I met my English yogi friend Daniel, whose trip to Berlin pushed me to book my own in the first place. We walked along the stretch, ogling at all the messages, taking Instagrammable photos at every step.
The Boros Collection
This wasn’t in any of the guidebooks or even any of the articles I’d read online, rather a friend told me that it was a “must see” if possible. Key words being “if possible.” Located in a former World War II bunker, this contemporary art museum only allows 12 people in at timed intervals throughout the day—and the 90-minute tours book up weeks in advance. Luckily, I managed to get a place on my final day in Berlin, which also happened to be THE HOTTEST DAY EVER making going into an otherwise icky, windowless shelter truly cool. I don’t have many photos other than the outside and entryway because you’re not permitted to take any within the exhibit, but all I can say is that they used the space well and I was pretty much slack-jawed the entire time. They tore down walls and broke through ceilings, yet still managed to maintain the essence of what it once was: first, a place to hide from bombings, then in the 80s, a nightclub where DJs spun techno music for the growing rave scene. Wild installations of sculpture, photography and more now breathe new life into what could be considered a sterile environment.
Mogg & Melzer + Ehemalige Jüdische Mädchenschule
In my (continued) search for good food wherever I go, on my last day in Berlin I ate lunch at a spot called Mogg & Melzer, known for its Jewish deli sandwiches like pastrami on rye. Appropriately so, the trendy little restaurant with subway tiles and art deco lamps (that you’d miss if you weren’t looking for it), is located in a former Jewish girls school—Berlin’s first!—in the Mitte neighborhood. I had no knowledge of this until after I finished my massive Reuben sandwich and started to roam the preserved hallways and read about its history. When the Jews were deported, it became a military hospital until the end of the war, and later a secondary school in what was then East Berlin. It closed in 1996 and sat in decay for nearly 10 years until the 4th Berlin Biennale and then two years later when it was returned to the Jewish Community via an organization that aims to return wealth and property to victims of the Holocaust.
Today, in addition to a trendy deli serving gut-busting sandwiches, the building is home to a museum about the Kennedy’s, two other art galleries and a Michelin-starred restaurant. On the one hand, it seemed serendipitous of me to happen upon this spot unknowingly. But on the other, after three full days in Berlin it just seemed par for the course. The melding of art and food and culture and history as a form of both preservation and innovation is just how Berlin does it. I dug it, big time.
It was a whirlwind few days, during which I only scratched the gritty surface of this evolving city. Thankful for the education, I left impressed, exhausted and intent on putting what I’d learned to use. I started by going straight to the gate with my luggage—wearing my heaviest shoes and a few extra layers. I whizzed right through like a pro.