Fushan kids back in bus

BerlinAugust, September 2011:
Having Doubts in Berlin



A few days later I decided to make a trip to Potsdamer Plaza. In preparation the night before, I looked it up along with its history. I viewed paintings of it from its early days in the 1800s. I viewed photographs of it in the 1920s with its grand hotels. I was charmed. I was not charmed, however, when I got there. I saw looming glass-and-steel geometric shapes that left me cold. Where was the human element? What did it express, other than the triumph of glass and steel over wood and stone—natural materials—and mathematically precise, geometric shapes over organic ones? I think of writer Guy de Maupassant and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which he did not like. Asked why he ate lunch there everyday, he said it was the only place in Paris where you couldn't see it. Unfortunately, in Potsdamer Plaza there is no such "inner space" where you can't see it.

Is there an "inner space" in Patsdamer Plaza where you can't see it?

There is a lawn on a wedge-shaped hill below Potsdamer Plaza where many young people hang out. It is an "attractor" of the young and part of the design, I suppose. It is a "cool" place to throw down one's backpack, even if one is not a backpacker, and sit propped on one arm surveying the scene. I walk over but see that no one looks particularly comfortable there. Why? Maybe because the hill looks like it would like to dump everyone off. The hill hates you; it doesn't like being there itself. It is unnatural, a "design element" contrived to meet a spec so that a contractor can get paid.

I walk back up Potsdamer Strasse, looking for the first cafe that has a plant. It takes awhile to find one but finally I do. I get a Riesling. I think about Centre George Pompidou in Paris. It has generated very mixed feelings. But it is only an artistic failure compensated somewhat by an art museum inside and entertainment outside; at least it give you something to think about. Potsdamer is a corporate failure, largely the product of Daimler-Benz and Sony. It is supposed to represent the rising Berlin of the future. Instead it represents the failure of money.

Berlin is rich in history. There are bits and pieces of it everywhere. But I began to wonder what it all meant. As a visitor I only encountered isolated bits and pieces that had no personal meaning. Maybe this was ignorance on my part but I did not sense a spirit of the city. And where was the city going? Was it really on the rise—vibrant and thriving—or was that just PR? Would it destroy itself again? Probably not but I don't think it will ever achieve the glory it had prior to the 20th century.

Things tend to go in cycles. Lybya's Kadafi was now falling. Some claimed the United States was on the decline and that China was rising. Germany was doing well economically, or at least better than others in the European Community. But how was it doing morally? How was China really doing? Wasn't the imprisonment of its artists and human-rights advocates a factor? Was a bully loaded with cash to be admired? What about Ahmadinejad, whose sole interest in "science" seemed to be the development of weapons of mass destruction? What about a country that outlaws the teaching of philosophy because it might conflict with its religion, a thousand-some years-old set of rules and regulations of questionable origin and applicability? What about those in the United States who were claiming that climate change was a hoax? Would they also claim that science was a hoax? They had already claimed that evolution was a hoax and that was part of science. Was the world going mad in just one other way? It seemed like it.

I bought the newspapers and read—Der Tagespiegel, Die Südwestliche Zeitung, Die Zeit. I read about the burning of cars in Berlin. Some 500 just this year. So far officials had not been able to catch anyone or figure out the motivation. Somebody or some people were unhappy, however. The world was full of unhappy people. I met plenty of disturbed people in the hostels. I will mention Marco shortly. I have already mentioned the woman who told the two German girls and me to shut up. There was also the guy who came into Singer 109 hostel one day, walked to the bathroom and started swearing: "God damn, shit, mother fucker ..." It was like the hissing of a snake and it did not stop. I went to the desk and got another room. There was the woman in San Francisco who came in and unpacked her three suitcases on the floor so that it was impossible for anyone to walk across the room. What was she thinking? Was she thinking? There was ... The list goes on. The social instinct was failing and with mind broken, "no one exists but me" was the prevailing attitude. "Shut the fuck up!" was the new mantra of youth.

Was "Shut the fuck up" really the new mantra of youth?

Philosophical questions were inevitable these days. How could one not ask: What is this all about? What does this mean? Only an idiot would not ask. For a writer to simply tell a story, and describe the weather and how he or she felt that day, was not enough.

One of the problems with Berlin is war damage—still. Walk past one historical building, probably a reconstruction but maybe the original, then walk by five or six steel-and glass-structures. It is like looking at a mouth full of broken teeth. And the new buildings don't have the design elements or the materials of the old buildings. For the most part they are cheap; they simply enclose space so that they can be rented.

The reflections in the glass blind my eyes, the big metal beams weigh me down.

I'm defeated by the end of the block. Daimler and Sony have won.

Do flowers and grass offend you? Is the fountain in the plaza noisy and a nuisance?

Stop, spit out the poison of these inhuman people.

And tear up that list. The tourist bureau hates your guts.

Back at Main Station Hostel I have a new roommate, Marco from Finland. He is totally drunk and says he loves me.

He is peeing with the bathroom door wide open. He tell me that later I will sleep in his bunk with him.

This is all I need. Has he been sitting in Potsdamer Plaza too long absorbing the vibes there?

I go to the desk.

"I need a new room."

I explain the problem. They half believe me.

Soon he is trouble to others.

"I told you so," I say at the desk.

Today is my birthday. I was born right at the end of World War II, and I still feel the presence of the war here in Berlin. I think it is hard to "move on" from something truly terrible.

"But I don't know anything about it," a young German woman tells me.

But isn't it curious: I never asked.

I go down to Birkenstrasse for lunch. I have a big plate of pasta, the "Kaiser," with salad and a glass of Riesling. I am trying to eat and drink as much German food here as I can. Even when I go to the market I try to buy all German products and brands. The pasta and the salad come on one plate and are very colorful.

The bees here are very aggressive. But if you ignore them, they seem to leave you alone. Still, I lose it at times and take a swing at them.

Later in the day I'm at Arema across the street having coffee. I turn the sugar pourer upside down, but nothing comes out of the spout. I tap the bottom and two bees come shooting out and into my coffee. The waitress smiles and gets me another coffee. It appears to be a common occurrence.

Afterwards I walk over to the park. The air is cool and fresh, as though I am in a different climate zone.

The next day I wake up to the sound of zippers. It seems like a thousand zippers sometimes. Zip, zip, zip, zip. That is life in a hostel. There is also the sound of the plastic bag. It is a crumpled up sound, equally unpleasant when trying to sleep. There is also the cell phone alarm that has been set by someone who gets up and leaves before the alarm goes off. What do you do about that? There is the bathroom hog and the snorer. The bathroom hog, usually a women, thinks that she is the only real person in the room; the rest of us are there simply to annoy her. She first takes a long shower, puts on her face, does her hair, moves her bowls ... The rest of us wait in pain. There is of course the snorer. A lot of people snore, but occasionally there is the wild-beast snorer who sounds like he is trying to inhale the whole room. The loudest I have ever heard was an Indian guy who warned us that he snored and that he had forgotten to bring his "device." There is also the guest who arrives during the middle of the day when others are out—perhaps he has had a long flight from somewhere, but then so have the rest of us—draws the curtains and turns out the lights. What are you supposed to do? I have been through this one enough that I simply turn the lights back on and open the blinds. There are of course the roommates who sleep till 4 PM everyday, then go out drinking till 5 or 6 AM. Not a quiet bunch.... Out of all the disturbances there is about 10 minutes of sleeping time. Why there have not been mass murders in hostels I don't know. It would be the logical place.

The day after my birthday I am still thinking that I must see at least a few of Berlin's "attractions." I go to the art museums in the middle of Spree River but find that they are too expensive to go in. I shoot photos of the grounds and some outdoor sculpture and leave it at that.

There are just a bunch of overweight American tourists there anyway. What do I want with the sweat, the fat female breasts like sacks of flour, the cinched-up male, overhanging bellies? It's grotesque enough seeing them waddling down the strasse.

But my mood is okay, really it is. Is it? I'm just tired. Or tired of it all.

The next day I have a dream. I'm in Puigcerda at a Denny's diner. I'm about to order a hamburger—or is it a steak?—and a Jim Beam with a beer chaser. But I can't quite make up my mind about the order. (In my dream it does not seem to matter that there are no Denny's in Puigcerda or the whole Cerdanya Valley.) Then it occurs to me that I could go see daughter Charista and granddaughter Bella, but not at their current apartment but at the old one that Charista lived in on Sans bisbi before she was married and before there was an Bella. I wake up feeling profoundly sad that I'm so out of touch. And why did I leave the little town in the Cerdanya valley to come to bombed-out Berlin? Paradise to Hell? So it seemed, at least in my dream.

With my "visit" to the museums, I was done with the tourist hit list. But there were a few things on it that I actually wanted to see. One thing was the Berlin Wall, or a section of it. Another was Check Point Charlie. As it turned out, I was able to see both on the same day as well as the Topographie des Terrors museum.

Check Point Charlie turned out to be a kind of joke. It was a silly photo opportunity for tourist to have themselves photographed with fake officers in front of the check-point shack. Thoughts of the Cold War and the standoff that occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union were far from their minds, I assumed, as they clowned in front of the well preserved white shack opposite a McDonald's. For them history was a joke.

Checkpoint Charlie is located on Friedrickstrasse and Zimmerstrasse. Only a few blocks to the west on Zimmerstrasse is a section of the Berlin Wall as well as the museum. The museum sits where the SS and Gestapo headquarters used to be. Some of the foundations are still visible. There is an outdoor exhibit along the walls of part of the foundation; there is an indoor museum above and some distance back from the street. At the the outdoor exhibit there is a sign reminding visitor about appropriate behavior, meaning no giggling, clowning ... Both exhibits have photographic documentation of the "reign of terror" that ensued under Hitler from 1933 to 1944. It ranges from the sad look of a dark-haired little girl whose death has been ordered because she has epilepsy—Hitler believed that only the fit should live—to men being shot in trenches by Hitler's death squad. It has photos of many collaborators, including Stella Kubler, who betrayed many of her fellow Jews to the Gestapo. The museum is a "heavy dose"; it shows mankind at its worst.

Does it really show mankind at its worst?

I also visited the Anne Frank museum. I had been interested in her story for some time. She is the young Jewish girl who hid out with her family in the "secret annex" for two years and wrote about the experience. Eventually the family was betrayed, probably by a worker in the warehouse below, and sent to a concentration camp. Only the father, Otto Frank, survived. Anne wanted to be a writer; her diary is now one of the most-read books in the world. She got her wish but, sadly, paid the ultimate price for it.

While you could see much of what is in the museum in a book, what is really interesting there is an old movie clip of her father talking about her. While they were best of friends—she called him "Pim"—and had many conversations, he said that until he read her diary after her death he had no idea how deep her feelings were. He concluded, teary eyed, that few parents really know their children.

It is hard to imagine the clever, impish young girl with head shaved, number tattooed on her arm, emaciated and sick with typhus dying in a concentration camp, but that is reality when madmen are given power and no one stands up to oppose them.

The Anne Frank museum in not big; it is located in a courtyard on Rosenthaler near Hackerscher Markt. It's on the tourist hit list but there are not a lot of tourists there; and most of them are of the teary, not the sweaty, type. Though Hackerscher is called a "Markt" (market), not a plaza, it is a plaza and a very nice one. There are many restaurants with outdoor seating and it does not appear to have been bombed during the war. The surrounding buildings, of another era, are elegant.

No one hyped Hackescher Markt to me. I simply ran into it. It's in a very public location next to a railroad station. But that does not seem to have ruined it. Neighborhood restaurants in Berlin are even better. The food is almost always good and the prices reasonable. Ditto bars. My general advice on restaurants and bars in Berlin is this: If someone recommends a restaurant or bar to you, don't go there. Just do a lot of walking. You will surely run into something good. Right now I'm thinking of a place on Birkenstrasse in Moabit where the chef, actually German, personally delivers your plate to the table with a smile. But I won't name it.

It is a bit strange to be talking about restaurants after a visit to the Anne Frank museum. Pursuing the darker side of Berlin leaves one baffled about human nature: How could people—people of culture and even sophistication—descend so low? How could a culture that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Goethe, and all those others, kill innocent children, gas people, shoot them in trenches, ...? How could someone like philosopher Martin Heidegger, who, according to Roger Scruton, "can fairly claim to be the most important thinker, and the darkest, of the existentialist school," have supported Hitler and the Nazi movement? I will leave this question unanswered, only pointing out that there must have been a gigantic disconnection between his academic work as a philosopher and his own personal thinking. For an "existential" philosopher, this seems even more extraordinary.

The final thing I really wanted to do in Berlin was visit Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Maybe I could enjoy Berlin after coming to grips with its worst. But I would probably have to come back another time to do that, because this time I was getting a heavy dose. It was affecting my mood, which plunged when I left Shangri-la.

Sachsenhausen is to the north of Berlin about a half hour by train. It is a district within the town of Oranienburg, and the concentration camp was once called Sachenhausen-Oranienburg. As I understand it, much of the Sachsenhausen personnel once lived there in Oranienburg. As I walked through the town after getting off the train—the camp is in walking distance of the town—I kept looking for old eyes peering out upper story windows, like something out of the Twilight Zone. "We didn't know, " I hear in old, croaking tones, "we just did our job, others ..."

The camp is a bit of a strange place now, in part because much of it has been rebuilt. Station A is the entrance gate and tower with the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei over the gate. It is the original. Station Z is the "exit" point, a kind of Nazi joke, as it contains a big trench in which prisoners were shot to death as well as the gas chamber and crematorium. The prison walls are original as well as the guard towers along them. Almost all else is a reconstruction. The bunk houses of the Jewish forced laborers, even though a reconstruction, provide a bleak image of life there. Crowed bunks, three levels high, a single lavatory with toilets abutting each other without privacy, and a dismal wash room paint a picture of misery. I could relate to this in a small way, having lived in dormitories for most of the last four years during the Great Recession. But I was lucky: I had not been forced into labor and so far had not found myself, on the pretext of a medical exam, locked in a small room with gas leaking through the ventilation system. At the worst I had faced the possibility of arrest and getting my head bashed for exercising First Amendment rights.

Station Z is the original and unforgettable. On one side is the massive execution trench where prisoners were shot. The death squad shooters were allowed to have a drinking break, as apparently the work was stressful to some. A few feet away are the gas chamber and crematorium. Only the brick foundations of the gas chamber and the crematorium remains. But they are sickeningly real. In close proximity to these awful places of killing, I felt no urge to play word games.

Did I really feel no urge to play word games?

Heinrich Himmler was the architect of all this. He was Reichfuhrer of the SS, the German police, the Gestapo ... and the one most responsible for the Holocaust. Sachsenhausen was the model for other concentration camps. The gas chamber was Himmler's idea of a more expedient way to kill people than by shooting them in a trench then downing a schnapps to relieve stres. It is said, also, that he did not like the sight of blood.

Did Himmler actually like the sight of blood?

Sachsenhausen was multipurpose: It was used for forced labor; it was used for executing Russian prisoners of war, some 30,000 of them; it was also used for "medical research." It had a prison within the prison for special political prisoners.

I had indeed found the dark side of Berlin and made myself sick on it. I was now as far away as I could get from Shangri-la and popcorn tea parties.

I think that is a true statement. I will not question it.


I feel like