{40} The Pamphlet that Shook the World

Earlier this month, a tattered copy of the first edition of the Communist Manifesto was sold by Sotheby’s auction house for $39,600. The price was about double what Sotheby's had expected for the 8-by-5 1/2-inch work by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Manifesto’s first edition, written in German, was published in London in 1848, 170 years ago. The first American translation was published in Chicago forty years later, in 1888. Copies sold for a mere 5 cents, so the Sotheby sale marks an impressive value increase. 

unnamed-1.jpg

Of course, the Communist Manifesto is not about the price it fetches but about the influence it has wielded. According to Sotheby's, it has been published in every European, Asian and African language, through 736 editions. In terms of publication numbers, the Manifesto is exceeded only by the Holy Bible. As we know, the Manifesto inspired action; political movements, revolution, reaction. It also incited repression and violence on the Left and the Right.

Many people are surprised to find out that the Communist Manifesto is actually a pamphlet. Its first edition numbered only twenty-some pages and half of those are devoted to descriptions of in-fighting among the various European Socialist Parties in Marx and Engels’ times. Page for page, this slim volume has packed more punch than any other political writing. The Manifesto has built courage in some people and it has struck fear into the heart of others.

Marx and Engels’ scathing description of capitalism’s essential nature is one reason why the word capitalism is rarely used to describe our current economic system. Invisible hand, laissez faire, free market sound more cheery; simply saying the economy claims an inevitability that the Manifesto challenges. In this country, using the term capitalism to describe the economy is in itself a radical act.

Back in 1848, the Communist Manifesto predicted that the structures and values of capitalism would spread across the globe. Consider these quotes (In their writing, Marx and Engels use the terms bourgeoisie and capitalism interchangeably).

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed… In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. 

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all…nations into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls…it compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production… In a word, it creates a world after its own image.

This prescient description of globalization was written in the era of steam engine travel.

Marx and Engels argued that capital – or property -is not only a personal matter; it is a social power. To break up this power that is by definition the root of inequality, all private property, including rights of inheritance, must be abolished. Anticipating the outcry of property holders, they write:

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths.

Their radical proposals struck fear into the hearts of the powers that be. Back in 1848, German state censors seized and destroyed many of the copies of the Manifesto that were imported from London.

Yet the Manifesto promises that all people will be better off in a world without private property.

 In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

It also envisions warfare becoming obsolete once private property is abolished:

In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.

Marx and Engels’ vision of free association and a world without war didn’t alleviate the fears of capitalists. But the Manifesto’s call to action has resonated with millions around the world:

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite.

As a product of the Age of Reason, The Communist Manifesto is based on the belief that intellectual knowledge guides human actions. It doesn’t mention the emotions that move us - not fear, not love. It doesn’t anticipate feminism, racism, sexual orientation, gender, identity politics or intersectionality. Obviously, the complexity of human affairs and individual motivation could not be addressed adequately in twenty-some pages. Still, the pamphlet stands as a reminder that bold vision has great power.

Marx and Engels would probably be disheartened to know that their political tract has been purchased by a private collection for thousands of dollars. No doubt they’d rather see their Manifesto in the hands of ordinary people and their ideas shaping political discourse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

{39} No Wall Lasts Forever

Fifty-six years ago, on August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall was built. In the middle of the night, East German soldiers and Soviet soldiers worked together to close the border between East and West Berlin with rolls of barbed wire. Only a few days later, East German masons, guarded by those same soldiers, started laying the bricks that became the Wall. Eventually, 27 miles of Mauer separated East and West Berlin (69 more miles of it surrounded West Berlin, cutting the city off from East Germany).

 Source: David Burns

Source: David Burns

I was a child in Berlin when the Cold War that divided the world was on the verge of combusting into a nuclear confrontation. I remember the day when the Wall was built and even though I was a child, I felt a shock reverberating through the city. West Berliners feared they would be cut off from West Germany. As it turned out, East Germans were impacted most deeply - they could no longer go west. Eventually, Germans on both sides learned to live with the fortified border, the control booths and the guards. No one liked the Wall, but Germans accepted it as a fact of Realpolitik. For 28 years, the Berlin Wall was the quintessential symbol of the Cold War - the military, economic and political contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The arms race was in full swing, spies were dispatched, captured and exchanged; Radio Free Europe broadcast the Western message of freedom far into Eastern Europe; minor confrontations had the potential for combusting into nuclear war. The conflict was played out all over the world but its bull’s eye was Berlin, the microcosm of the Superpower confrontation. Divided Berlin was the hot center of the Cold War.

In 1963, two years after East Germans built the Wall with Soviet support, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev succinctly described the city’s special status: “Berlin is the testicle of the West. When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Wall wasn’t the beginning of the Cold War, but a consequence of the East-West confrontation. After Germany’s defeat in World War Two in 1945, the Allies partitioned Germany and Berlin into four zones. In 1948, these zones consolidated into East and West Germany and the former capital, located deep inside East Germany, became two cities, each administered by one of the opposing Superpowers. West Berlin was an “autonomous political unit under the control of the Western Allies, located inside of East Germany. East Berlin was the capital of East Germany.

In 1961, the East Germans built the Wall to stop its people from fleeing to West Berlin and from there, to West Germany. Because it surrounded West Berlin, the Wall turned the city into a landlocked island and West Berliners had to pass through checkpoints every time they wanted to leave the city.

The Wall actually calmed things down at the Cold War fault line. President Kennedy remarked that it was “not a very nice solution, but…a hell of a lot better than a war.”

For twenty-eight years, the Wall meandered through the city like a river, separating neighborhoods that used to blend into each other, like Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, Tiergarten and Mitte. Die Mauer ran down the middle of streets, dead-ended thoroughfares, severed tramline and railroad, ran through lakes and rivers. No matter which direction you went, West Berlin always ended at the fortified border. Underground, the division continued, severing sewers, phone lines and electrical cables. Each Berlin had its own administration, currency, infrastructure, and public transportation system. Each had its own assortment of consumer goods, from combs to cars, from pickles to beer and cigarettes. East and West Berlin were two different worlds.

After the Wall opened in 1989, the divided city began morphing into the multicultural and hip capital city that has become a favorite tourist destination (more than twenty-five million visitors stayed overnight in 2015 and that number has continued to increase).

Here and there, sections of the Wall can still be found in Berlin. Colorfully painted slabs of concrete rise up on Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz, at the East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain, and by the former border crossing point Checkpoint Charlie. None of these convey the dread and the high stakes of the Cold War era: they are art installations and tourist attractions rather than bulwarks of power politics. 

The Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse, which includes one and a half kilometers of the original Wall, is more realistic because it shows that the Wall was a terrain of fortification and surveillance, not just a divider. On the Eastern side of the grey concrete, there’s a stretch of no-man’s land and a sentry tower. On the Western side is a viewing platform, which visitors could climb to get a view of the East German capital beyond the Wall. Of course, the cracks and openings in the Bernauer Strasse Wall were made after November 9, 1989, by people who chiseled off a piece for themselves. The Bernauer Memorial recalls East Germans who were killed by East German border troops as they attempted to escape.

For me, the stretch of Wall near the Holocaust Memorial and the Topography of Terror in Berlin’s city center comes closest to capturing the surreal reality of the divided city. It isn’t an elaborate commemoration site, just a stretch of twelve foot high grey concrete that runs down the middle of the street and separates the buildings. Especially in the evening, when the museums close and parliamentarians have left near-by House of Representatives, this unadorned site emanates the quietly foreboding spirit of the real Wall.

In some places, the former East-West border is marked with a double row of cobblestones. Such a line of stones makes erratic path from the Brandenburg Gate to the Potsdamer Platz, reminding you where the Wall once ran.

In spite of these reminders, it’s hard to believe that Berlin was ever divided and that the Berlin Wall stood solid, tall, heavily guarded and insurmountable for 28 years.

Its absence has become a different symbol: no Wall can last forever.

{38} The Paris Dis-Agreement

Germany is committed to the Paris Agreements and Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

Most Germans are outraged that the American President has decided to withdraw the United States from an Agreement that has been signed by over 190 nations. Until they were recently surpassed by China, the US- which makes up a mere 4% of the world’s population – were the world’s largest CO2 producer/polluter. Germans wonder how they can abandon a strategic international plan to reduce the pace of global warming which threatens all of us?

It’s not just moral outrage, though – Germans wonder how the President can be so blind to the economic opportunities in renewable energy. 

My husband, Armin Wulf, became an authority in renewable energy when he, together with Frank Groneberg, started a solar energy company in Northern Germany in 2003. I asked Armin what Germany’s commitment to renewable energy has meant for the country’s economy. He was so enthusiastic about answering my questions that his oatmeal got cold.

What follows is an excerpt of our conversation. I’m going to Germany in July and will be posting more on the subject of renewable energy when I’m over there.

 

Tell us a little about Germany’s renewable energy history.

Armin: The Green Party was the main initiator of the German Renewable Energy Source Act (EEG in German) that was passed in 2003. This act financially secured the investments in renewable energy sources like wind and solar. It stipulated guaranteed minimum payments for twenty years for all electricity sourced by renewable means.

 

The government paid for this?

Armin: No. All electricity users in Germany paid a little bit more per Kilowatt hour and the small price hike went towards funding the guaranteed price for electricity generated by the renewable energy projects.

 

Who pioneered actual wind and solar energy production?

Armin: Because of this federally guaranteed price for electricity, private citizens, farmers citizens’ initiatives and small companies were able to get bank loans to build wind parks and solar farms. Large corporations – utility companies – were not foresighted and nimble enough to take advantage of this opportunity. They got involved much later, once they saw how successful and profitable the small scale projects were.

 

So the first projects were mostly local and regional?

Armin: Yes. We saw an enormous hike in installation of wind and solar projects. Take Nordfriesland, one of the poorest regions in Germany. This windy area prospered. Farmers who were going under were able to expand into ‘energy farming.’

Another thing - the money created by the renewable energy projects stays in the communities and in the region. Research shows that every Euro invested in renewable energy brings at least one hundred Euros into circulation, mostly into the local economies. Nordfriesland is doing very well right now.

 

What’s happening now?

Armin: the first innovation created by the Renewable Energy Act - the wind parks and solar farms – led to the second. Project installations progressed so fast that the existing electrical grid wasn’t able to keep up. So then came the next stage: Germany has been building an extended up-to-date country-wide electrical grid so that renewably generated electricity will be available at any point where it’s needed. That means jobs, jobs, jobs.

 

What’s the future of renewable energy in Germany?

Armin: The future is already happening. Germany enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in its history. And there’s a beehive of activity related to renewable energy, in all regions, at all levels: loading stations for electrical cars, storage of electricity, intelligent grid management, and more.

There’s been a shift in consciousness, too. Germans – and Europeans in general – have always been more energy aware than Americans. Now, the demand for energy efficient housing and electric cars is soaring. That means more jobs and more innovation.

 

How do you see Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Agreement?

Armin: Short-sighted, to say the least. He can’t stop progress. Even the Saudis are already operating some oil pumps with solar energy. There’s no question about it - renewable energy is the most competitive energy source of today and will become even more so in the future. Leaving the Paris Agreement is a strong signal to US companies – the automobile industry, energy production - to stick with outdated technologies and to continue to burn scarce resources. High cost, high risk, high pollution fracking instead of harvesting the sun that shines for free and the wind that always blows. This only makes sense for the old guard – those wanting to protect their investments in oil and coal.

I can’t believe Trump is allowing – even pushing - the United States to go backward and lose their competitive edge.

{37} Germans are Bad? Very Bad?

The first thing you have to know is that Germans love America. They love the country and they call it Amerika in conversation even though they know one is supposed to say Vereinigte Staaten, United States. During my Berlin childhood, the word Amerika cast a powerful force field; it rang with possibility and promise.

 AP Photo/dpa,Soeren Stache

AP Photo/dpa,Soeren Stache

Germans have felt the tug of the American Dream, for a long time. Since the eighteenth century, seven million Germans have immigrated to North America. They left their homeland looking for economic opportunities and religious and political freedom.

But the love for Amerika got its strongest boost at the least likely moment: after the Americans (with British, French and Russian allies) defeated Germany in World War Two.

I learned as a child that Germans were grateful to the Americans because of the role they played in liberating Germany from the nightmare of National Socialism. My relatives admired the GIs who occupied the country after 1945 - the young men embodied what Germans then lacked: Lässigkeit - a mix of cool, easy, casual. American music soothed wounded hearts and Hollywood movies sprouted fantasies of peacetime prosperity in Deutschland.

But it was more than that. Amerika was the mightiest country in the world and instead of punishing Germany, the US government rebuilt and protected the country they’d just defeated.

The American Marshal Plan jump-started West German reconstruction. American troops saved the city of West Berlin when the Soviets imposed a blockade, by airlifting basic supplies to the besieged population for an entire year. Most West Germans were grateful for NATO, with the US at its helm. Perhaps most importantly – and lastingly - the values of the US Constitution shaped the West German Verfassung which is one of the most democratic constitutions in the world.

Of course, Germans know that it wasn’t altruism – it was political strategy. The Cold War was very hot back then and it played out most immediately in Germany when the country was divided by the infamous Wall. West Germany’s economy would be capitalist, its growth would create a reliable market for American goods. Its geographic location made West Germany a perfect base for the US military, allowing for quick retaliation against the Soviet enemy.  

Germans have always known they played an important role for the United States and for the most part, they didn’t mind. They were Amerika’s loyal and steadfast partner. But since they have strong opinions and believe in open political discourse, Germans spoke out against the Atom bomb, against McCarthyism, against the Vietnam War. Today, they speak out against racism and mass incarceration. They do not support US military involvement in Iraq and other countries. They wonder about homelessness and mass shootings and America’s anti immigration policies.

Most of all, they wonder about the President.

“What’s going on over there?” my friends in Germany ask me. “How can this be happening?”

Young Germans are dismayed and angry at being called ‘bad, very bad’ by the US head of state. Older Germans are disappointed. Weren’t they the favorite friend, the Musterschüler - star pupil- of the country they admired?

Bad? Just because they are really good at making and selling cars? That’s what they were taught to do.

Bad? Because they take in hundreds of thousands of refugees and try to work out the ensuing challenges? That’s what they were taught to do.

Bad? Inevitably that adjective conjures up a time when Germans were known throughout the world as evil, trampling on rights and democratic values, unleashing a world war that devastated Europe, and organizing a Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews and forever transformed our thinking about civilization.

That, however, is not contemporary Germany. Today, Deutschland is a democratic, prosperous, conscientious country. Its politicians are aware that they have global responsibilities.

Germans know this is a different Amerika from the one they grew to love in the fifties. They understand that their love was always based partially on a fantasy, a myth. The current reality has not eclipsed the ideas of liberty and equality, not yet.

Even if every German knows today that the real United States are no longer the promised land, the word Amerika still vibrates with the possibility of there being a promised land – if not now, perhaps in the future?

It is possible to love someone and still hate what they do and the choices they make - I have experienced this with my parents, my spouse, even my children. When this happens, you have to make boundaries, limit contact, go your separate way for a while - maybe a long while.

It looks like that’s what Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is proposing to do with Amerika.

{36} The Berlinale Film Festival - Now and Then

Right now, the Berlinale film festival is taking place in Berlin. Half a million tickets have been sold and more than 400 films from many countries will be shown, some of them for the first time. As always, Hollywood stars will be walking the red carpet; Tilda Swinton, Meryl Streep and George Clooney among them.


When the first Berlinale was held in Berlin fifty-five years ago, in 1951, only six years had passed since Germany’s defeat in World War Two. The city was divided into four sectors and the fault line of the Cold War ran through the center of the former capital. Although reconstruction was under way, large sections of Berlin were still in ruins. Oscar Martay, a film officer in the US military who was stationed in West Berlin, had the idea for the festival just a couple of years after the Cannes Film Festival was inaugurated. Martay wanted to revive Berlin’s cultural tradition and bring a bit of international glamour to the city. In 1951, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca was the opening film and its star, Joan Fontaine, appeared in person and brought a whiff of Hollywood to the recovering city.

I attended the Berlinale in 1987, when the Wall still divided Berlin into East and West. Back then, the festival wasn’t the extravaganza it is today, but it was West Berlin’s toniest winter event: 

I had procured my press pass weeks in advance. That year, the Berlinale was paying tribute to Gorbachev’s politics of transparency and reform by highlighting Soviet films. A ten day bash, the Filmfest required stamina, endurance and, above all, style. I would be mingling with celebrities and stars at screenings, press conferences and parties.

On opening night, I pulled soft boots over my skinny slacks, threw the requisite leather jacket over a snug sweater; a red ribbon in my hair the only pop in all black. That was the fashion color of the West Berlin Szene; and it always amazed me how infinitely it could be ruffled, pleated or cut away into breathtaking outfits. A fashionable crowd was gathered at the Zoo Palast cinema: impeccably made-up starlets displayed flawless shoulders, assistant directors sported rakish hats, famous stars disappeared in dense clusters of admirers. I wasn’t a player, of course, but I moved in the wake of players, air-kissing cheeks and joining sharp repartees in German and English. Champagne flowed, cigarette smoke curled, flashing cameras heated up the tumult. Everyone was making an enormous effort to be seen: talking loudly, gesturing grandly, always scanning the room for someone more important.

My friend Thomas, who was a screenwriter on the other side of the Wall, would have given his eyeteeth to be there, but with the wall standing as fortified as ever, he would have to rely on me to give him a blow-by-blow description of people and events. I had promised him I would recount everything. So, after three days of schmoozing and rushing, I crossed the border and stepped into the grainy black and white film that was East Berlin. My friend Thomas was waiting for me at his apartment. I handed him programs and brochures and his face lit up.

“Clandestine?” he asked, spreading them out on the table.

“Tucked under my sweater.”

For Thomas’ sake, I embellished the details of the Festival: the clothes, the frantic networking, the frenzied entourage trailing Oliver Stone and Werner Herzog. I reported that glasnost and perestroika were the most bandied about words. When I mentioned the evening’s special screening, a highly acclaimed Soviet documentary about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Thomas sighed.

“I read about it. Sergeyenko is a great director. Go see it, for me too.”

Thomas knew everything about film. He should have been there in my place.

Later that afternoon, I hugged my friend good bye at the exit building, nicknamed by Berliners the  Palace of Tears. Inside the checkpoint, I opened my purse for the customs agent, squeezed through one of the narrow passageways to show my passport and visa at the control booth, rushed to the subway. When I exited the station in West Berlin, I took a deep breath. The cold air was invigorating.

I arrived at the Delphi Filmpalast just in time. When the lights went out and Kolokol Chernobylya started, I wondered what Thomas was doing – maybe reading those glossy pamphlets and press releases? 

{35} Life in the Attic

The house in the northwestern most corner of Germany is almost 200 years old. Its thatched roof sits on thick stone walls like a great pelt; the fireplace room used to be a stable. The hallways and rooms are filled with things that have passed: births and deaths and everything that happens in between – the wakefulness and the sleeping, the loving and the crying, the eating and the cleaning. The kitchen is the center of the home. In this laboratory of daily alchemy, women transform greens and grains, butter and eggs, spices and oils into the meals that nourish those who live here and those who visit.

  Photo: Christine Schoefer

Photo: Christine Schoefer

During the week of Christmas, the house sheltered three generations of my family, including my parents and my daughters. Eleven people in all, not counting the in-utero newcomer that was hiccuping and stretching in my niece’s belly. Every morning, my sister and I made an opulent German breakfast and in the evening, a small group gathered in the kitchen to prepare multi-course dinners. Those who didn’t cook cleaned up. We ate sitting around a large table in the fireplace room where horses and cows once munched hay. The Christmas tree stood nearby, adorned with glass birds and orbs, chocolate stars and red wax candles,

Before the visitors arrived, I retrieved the holiday decorations from the attic. I don’t go up there often because it’s cumbersome: I have to find the long steel rod that opens the small hatch in the hallway ceiling. Then I have to pull down a folded ladder and climb up a dozen skinny steps into the space that’s shaped like an oversized pup tent. I’m sure the ghosts of the house live up there and I don’t like disturbing them. But I had to get the box of Christmas ornaments.

When I pulled the hatch, cold air dropped onto my upturned face. I climbed the steps, poked my head through the opening and reached up to switch on the light. There was the almost imperceptible scratch of critters scurrying out of sight: spiders and earwigs and, of course, the house spirits. They are notoriously shy.

I saw an elaborate landscape of silvery threads suspended from the sloping underside of the roof thatch. Entwined filaments hung from the old wooden beams, covering the bare light bulb like a veil. Spider webs dangled next to these matted strands as marvels of geometry. The warm air rising through the open hatch created a draft and this breath of air initiated an ephemeral motion in the fibrous tangles, a collective quiver. I was more intrigued than repulsed by this evidence of life lived in the recesses of the house and I crawled low towards the box so I wouldn’t disturb the attic installation. It wasn’t the right time for cleaning things up, I would do that in the long days of summer.

Later, when I took the fragile ornaments from the box and unwrapped them one by one, I wondered if my mind is like the attic – a space filled with a delicate and tenacious mass of fiber, spun and woven over many years. Surely, it contains the fine threads of my experiences, the strands of my thoughts and the wispy webs of my ideas. Without wind and movement, without an occasional sorting and broom-sweep, the strands will felt themselves into sticky cob webs that make it impossible to see the aliveness of the world, the opportunities inside the challenges.  My mind, like the attic, requires light and air.

I enjoy tending and nurturing the delicate weavings of my thoughts and memories. And I am also determined to keep clearing the cobwebs.

 

Happy New Year!

{34} The Fall of the Berlin Wall - Part 3

The day after the wall opened, my mother watched my young daughters so I could go back and witness the events at the former border. I hurried off towards the city center near the Brandenburg Gate. People were sitting astride the pipe that topped the Wall, locking arms to hold their balance. East Germans? West Germans? It was impossible to tell. Below them, men and women chipped away at the concrete with hammers and chisels. One man’s strong swings seemed powered by years of pent- up frustration and his wife laughed as she pocketed the concrete chips he handed to her. John Lennon’s voice was turned up loud on somebody’s speakers: Imagine all the people, sharing all the world…”

 My passport from my travels to East Germany.

My passport from my travels to East Germany.

Overnight, Berlin had transformed itself from Cold War icon to global symbol of liberation. West Berlin lived up to its reputation as the beacon of the free world. Banks stayed open around the clock to hand out “welcoming money” of one hundred Deutschmark to every East German. Supermarket chains distributed soft drinks and bananas from trucks. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was performed at the Philharmonic free of charge. There were free rock concerts and theatre performances. All public transportation was gratis.

A few days later, the observation platform I had climbed with my mother had already been dismantled. Congo drums throbbed, tools battered against concrete, cameras whirred and flashed. A giant full autumn moon rose in the pink late afternoon sky. And then, a great flock of crows flew from East to West, across the former fortification. The crowd hushed at nature’s spectacular metaphor of westward migration. After a moment, the cacophony resumed. Green vans pulled up to the Wall, the policemen who jumped out were laughing, good-natured. Using megaphones, they told the happy revelers to get down from the Wall. When the Mauer was bare, huge cranes rolled close. Their giant metal fangs clamped around one of the concrete slabs and hoisted it high into the air. A thunder of voices and applause brought out goose bumps on my arms. The crane kept working.

The Wall wasn’t falling, it was lifted up and moved away. Not a bullet was fired, no blood was shed. No one imagined it would be like that.

 

My posts on the Fall of the Berlin Wall are excerpted from a memoir in progress that is set in divided Berlin. Read also: The Fall of the Berlin Wall - Part 1 and Part 2

 

{33} The Fall of the Berlin Wall - Part 2

Six days after I took what turned out to be my final walk along the Berlin Wall, my doorbell rang early in the morning. It was a Friday and I’d just finished dressing and feeding my baby and two year old toddler. This early, it had to be my mother, so I opened the door in my pyjamas, holding Ella in my arm.

  An East German woman embraces a West German woman at the Invalidenstrasse border checkpoint after the opening of the Berlin Wall was announced, Nov. 10th, 1989 .  Source: REUTERS

An East German woman embraces a West German woman at the Invalidenstrasse border checkpoint after the opening of the Berlin Wall was announced, Nov. 10th, 1989.  Source: REUTERS

It was my friend Mischa, who lived in East Berlin. This made no sense – how did he get across the Wall to be in West Berlin?

“The Wall is open!” Mischa was beaming.

His words didn’t register.

“What?”

Mischa shouted the news: “The Wall is open.”

I saw the keys hanging right next to the door, each one with its own label. I saw Maxie’s little jacket on the hook, the sisal mat on the wooden floor.  It must be true or he wouldn’t be standing here. I squeezed his arm. He hugged us so tight that Ella grumbled, then he twirled us around. Die Mauer ist offen. I repeated the phrase. Maxie bounced into the hallway and I said it to her and she clapped her little hands because she felt the excitement.

I pulled Mischa into the kitchen, put on the kettle to make tea. “Tell me about it.”

There’d been a press conference in East Berlin at 7pm  the night before, Novemeber 9th. The speaker of the Communist Party Central Committee, Günther Schabowski, declared that East Germans were free to travel, starting immediately. On West German radio and television, Schabowski’s statement was immediately amplified into the sensational announcement: the Wall is open. By 9 pm, several hundred East Berliners had gathered at the border checkpoint Bornholmer Strasse with their passports in hand, demanding to cross the border. Border guards took their time inspecting and stamping documents and then allowed the East Germans to pass, one by one. A couple of hours later, thousands of people had arrived at the checkpoint. Completely overwhelmed, the guards gave up on procedure. They simply opened the gates. Jubilant individuals streamed across, kept coming all night long. (See my first blog post: Give the Man A Medal for a more detailed description of what happened on November 9, 1989.)

“I can’t believe I slept through that.” I slapped my forehead. “Why didn’t they toll every church bell in the city to wake us up?”

Exhausted from Ella’s nighttime feedings, I’d gone to bed early, in the morning I was too sleepy to turn on the radio. I found out later that I wasn’t the only one who missed those first moments of liberation – another East Berlin friend told me she’d woken up in the middle of the night and turned on the radio .The Wall open? People crossing from East to West? She was certain that this was a fantasy feature, like War of the Worlds, and went back to bed.

“I’ve been dancing on the streets of West Berlin since midnight,” Mischa told me. “Some Easterners went back across early in the morning to get to work on time – can you imagine that?” He laughed, just thinking about it. “Then I thought of you stuck here with the kids and decided to come and get you. Forget the tea, just get dressed and pack up the girls. You have to see this.”

Outside, Mischa’s Lada was wedged in between Audis and VW’s, the only Eastern made car in sight. We tucked the stroller into the trunk, belted Maxie in without a baby seat; I held Ella on my lap. Traffic got thick when we neared the Wall so we parked far away from the Heinrich Heine checkpoint.

On foot, we became part of a human flood: people rushing to witness the historic event. At the checkpoint, East Berliners streamed across the border that had been forbidden to them for three decades, their expressions a mix of joy and wild surprise. Some were wiping away tears. One woman knelt down to kiss the cold asphalt of the street just because it was West Berlin. Strangers embraced like long-lost best friends, people danced and sang together. A bearded man bent low towards Maxie, who was sitting in her stroller. “This is better than every birthday and Christmas put together.” The air vibrated with laughing, shouting, popping champagne corks. West Berliners handed out flowers and chocolate, cigarettes and Deutschmark, they poured champagne into plastic cups and passed them around, toasting their “brothers and sisters from the East.” Staccato chants vibrated: We are the People!

The most fortified of all national boundaries had collapsed under the weight of popular protests and an ecstatic rush of liberation uplifted us all. It felt like all walls were crashing, including those in our minds. 

My posts on the Fall of the Berlin Wall are excerpted from a memoir in progress that is set in divided Berlin. Read also: The Fall of the Berlin Wall - Part 1.

{32} The Fall of the Berlin Wall - Part 1

In the autumn of 1989, I was visiting my birthplace, West Berlin. I went for a leisurely stroll on the Western side of the infamous Berlin Wall. The bustling city dead-ended at the ten foot high fortification and there was a time-out quality to this stretch of concrete, forgotten by all but the graffiti sprayers who’d used the grey surface as a canvas.

 East German Insignia   Photo: Christine Schoefer

East German Insignia  Photo: Christine Schoefer

I carried my baby in a snuggly and pushed my toddler in her buggy, telling her stories of my friends who lived on the other side. “Do you want to look across?” I asked her when we reached a spectator platform at Potsdamer Platz. “Yes” she cried and clambered out of her seat. We climbed the steps and I lifted her up so she could see. And then I wondered if this was a good idea: right behind the Wall, there was a desolate “death strip” of sand and gravel and an asphalt path for border patrol vehicles. A second wall sealed this no man’s land off from East Berlin. I could see apartment buildings beyond and hear the faint din of city life. The spherical glass top of the East Berlin television tower gleamed silver in the slanted November sunlight. My daughter saw something else. “Häschen!” she shouted and pointed at a rabbit scurrying between sentry towers manned by sharpshooters.

When we were back on the street, I looked along the wall snaking into the distance, so solid and insurmountable. I recalled the warm summer morning of August 13th, 1961, when Berliners woke up to East German soldiers guarding the barbed wire fence they’d put up during the night. A young girl at the time, I had felt the adults’ fear acutely: A barricade in the city? Impossible! But soon the fence became a Wall. For East Germans, the Wall was a deadly barrier, a giant “No Exit” sign; for all Germans, it was a painful reminder of World War Two and the decision made by the victorious Allies to divide defeated Germany. For the rest of the world, The Wall was the unquestioned dividing line of the Cold War. East and West were not longer geographic orientations, but opposing worldviews, competing governments and economic systems, hostile armies. An unfortunate fact of Realpolitik.

The Wall held everyone captive in a mindset of division; even though people abhorred this most fortified of all national borders, they could not imagine its collapse. On my autumn walk with my daughters, I had no idea I was looking at The Wall for the last time. Yes, Gorbachev’s Perestroika had changed politics in the Eastern Bloc and on November 3rd, one million East Berliners had gathered in front of their city hall to demand democratic reforms and the freedom to travel. So, everyone in Berlin could feel the energy of change. But the Wall opening? 

No one saw that coming. 

{31} The Alleys of East Side St. Paul

In Berlin, we’d lived in an apartment, like most people, with only one entry. A fairly busy street passed in front of our building. In back, there was a courtyard surrounded by more apartment buildings, with a small patch of grass. Children were not allowed to play on it. 

 Source: www.werf.org

Source: www.werf.org

In our new St. Paul neighborhood, people lived in modest homes and I quickly learned that there was a difference between the front of houses and the back. Strangers or infrequent guests used the front door, which was always closed and sometimes locked. They rang the bell and waited for someone to open. Family, friends and neighbors used the backdoor. During the summer, only the screen door was closed and it slammed whenever someone came or left. Approaching my friends’ backdoor from the alleyway, I saw broken down cars in open garages; garbage cans and bicycles were lined up by the fence. Skateboards, hulahoops, bats and balls were scattered in the back yard; there was always a picnic table with a couple of ashtrays. When I walked up to the same house from the street, everything was so neat and quiet it almost seemed like no one lived there at all.

The alleys between the houses were the most interesting places in the neighborhood because here, other people’s family life bounced all around me: kids playing and fighting, moms chatting with neighbors while pinning shirts and sheets to the clothesline, dads cussing as they repaired lawn mowers, a baseball game blaring from a transistor radio, dogs yelping, parents yelling or laughing, sprinklers swishing, and the occasional thock of a croquet mallet striking the ball. Sometimes after dark, I saw teenagers kissing in parked cars and once, a ghostly looking animal with a rat’s tail froze in the beam of my flashlight.

After three years, we moved to a suburb in Minneapolis. Here, every house had a flat front lawn and the backyards were mostly hidden from view. No one had clotheslines or junky cars. The summer barbecues of neighborhood families were invisible. 

I missed the alleyways.

 

When we arrived in the United States in 1964, I was almost twelve years old. Everything was different: the coins and bills, the shape and consistency of bread, the size of refrigerators and cars - they were huge! In my last few posts, I've been writing about some things that I remember from my first summer in St Paul.  This is the last in the series. Read other anecdotes here and here.

{30} The Company Summer Picnic

My stepfather, the one who had brought my mother my sister and me from Berlin to St. Paul Minnesota in 1964, was an engineer at 3M. One hot August weekend, he announced that we were going to the company summer picnic. I wasn’t sure what to expect - a couple of blankets, a basket with rolls and cheese, badminton?  Far from it – this annual event was an extravaganza of food and games. Blankets, chairs and picnic tables sprawled across a wide lawn; dozens of men, women and children were playing volleyball and horseshoes, tossing softballs and water balloons, swimming in the lake and diving off the dock. I was delighted. And amazed at the abundance.

 Source: spotonlist.com

Source: spotonlist.com

Tables were lined up in rows, heaped with bowls and platters full of food. There were many dishes I’d never seen before: jiggly jello in rainbow colors, cole slaw, fruit cocktail with marshmallows, corn on the cob dripping with butter, potato chips. Beyond the tables, men in aprons worked the barbecues authoritatively: burger or hot dog? Ribs or chicken? People lined up with paper plates and plastic cutlery and selected whatever they wanted. Amazingly, everyone put salty and sweet food on the same plate: jello next to the baked potato next to the steak. In Germany, that would have been unthinkable – people ate food items sequentially and sweet always followed savory. I noticed at the picnic that most people didn’t finish the food they’d served themselves; they tossed half-full plates into giant trash bins and scampered off.

In one area, adults led kids’ activities. I’d played sack hopping and cat and mouse in Germany, but there were many games I didn’t know so I watched. Through a megaphone, a man announced what would be played next. “Egg toss,” he shouted, and people lined up in two rows facing each other. Each pair got an egg, one person flung it, the other caught it, back and forth, increasing the distance. When someone missed a catch, the egg fell to the ground. Splat. That’s when I realized the eggs were raw! Just like that, the kids were throwing eggs away, one after another. In Berlin, we’d bought eggs individually at the corner store. A boiled egg was a Sunday breakfast treat. One per person and I looked forward to mine all week. In our new neighborhood Red Owl supermarket, we’d started buying eggs in twelve packs and my mother often served egg dishes. But playing with them? I had conflicting feelings: was it careless and wasteful? Or was it a kind of freedom?  

 

When we arrived in the United States in 1964, I was almost twelve years old. Everything was different: the coins and bills, the shape and consistency of bread, the size of refrigerators and cars - they were huge! In my next few posts, I am writing about some things that I remember from my first summer in St Paul.  This is the fifth in the series. Read other anecdotes here and here.

{29} Chewing Gum

Before we left Berlin for the United States, one of my mother’s friends told me that Americans always chew gum. “Everyone does it,” he insisted, “even the adults. And when the gum loses its flavor, they just stick it under their chair or spit it out on the street.” My mother told the story about an American soldier who had given her a piece of foil-wrapped gum after the war. She thought it was peppermint candy and swallowed it.

 Source: biqor.com

Source: biqor.com

I loved gum. In fact, I often spent my allowance of ten Pfennig into the gum ball machine near our apartment building. I loved everything about that red dispenser – turning the little handle, hearing the ball roll down the metal chute, seeing what color I’d gotten.  Then, there was the art of blowing bubbles. Unfortunately, Germans considered chewing gum an abomination, the nasty habit of people without manners. It was strictly forbidden to chew it in school and when I snapped my gum on the street, complete strangers sometimes reproached me. That’s why I didn’t believe my mother’s friend who said that in America, even adults chewed gum.

When we got to St. Paul, Minnesota, I discovered that gum came in dozens of shapes, flavors and colors. For a dime, I could get a paper sack full of sour grape balls perfect for blowing giant bubbles. Women carried gum in their purses, men pulled sticks of it from glove compartments as they drove. It seemed that when they weren’t smoking cigarettes, adults were chewing gum, in a low-key kind of way.

I remember buying a frosted donut in a bakery. Outside, I looked for a trash bin so I could get rid of my gum. “Just spit it out,” my friend coached me. I did. Looking down to see where it landed, I noticed that the sidewalk in front of the shop was mottled with small grayish splotches - old gum. Another time, in a community center, I gripped the seat of my chair and felt little bumps. I leaned down to investigate and saw that the entire underside was blotched with wads of chewed gum. I wondered who’d stuck them there and also if anyone ever scraped those bumps away. 

When school started, I learned that not all Americans liked gum. My English teacher Mr Arnold was lenient the first time he saw me chomping it in class. “You just came from Germany so you don’t know any better. Maybe people over there chew gum all the time but here we don’t. Certainly not in school. If I ever catch doing it again, I will stick the gum on the tip of your nose.”

Looking back, I think he was joking. But at the time, I believed he would do it. Needless to say, I saved my gum balls until after school.

 

When we arrived in the United States in 1964, I was almost twelve years old. Everything was different: the coins and bills, the shape and consistency of bread, the size of refrigerators and cars - they were huge! In my next few posts, I am writing about some things that I remember from my first summer in St Paul.  This is the fourth in the series. Read other anecdotes here and here.

{28} "I'm German, too."

On the weekends, we often took excursions to one of the many lakes in the Twin Cities. I remember White Bear Lake: it was hot and crowded and I had to wait in line to slither down the aluminum waterslide.

 Source: unknown

Source: unknown

I inched my way up the stairs, feeling their grating on my bare feet. Just before I reached the top, the boy behind me got impatient, poked my shoulder and yelled something at me. He must have seen that I didn’t understand him because he repeated the same words over and over. Gripping the rail tightly, I finally yelled back “I’m German.” I thought this sentence would explain everything. The boy stopped shouting and a big grin widened his sunburned face.

“I’m German too!”

Relieved, I talked to him in German, explaining why I couldn’t go up those steps any faster. Still smiling, he shook his head so hard that drops flew from his wet hair. "What?"

That confused me. I pushed off, slid down into the water and ran back to my family. I told my stepdad Detlev what had happened. He’d lived in the US for eight years before he married my mother, so he often had an explanation for things I didn’t understand.

“The boy said he was German but he didn’t understand me when I spoke German.”

Detlev chuckled. “He meant that he has German heritage. Maybe his grandparents came from a German town or his great-grandparents. He’s never been there, I’m sure. He might have heard someone in his family speak German but that doesn’t mean he understands it.”

“But why does he say he’s German when he’s American?” I wanted to know.

"That’s just how it is here. Everyone is American. And they’re also something else."

 

When we arrived in the United States in 1964, I was almost twelve years old. Everything was different: the coins and bills, the shape and consistency of bread, the size of refrigerators and cars - they were huge! In my next few posts, I am writing about some things that I remember from my first summer in St Paul.  This is the third in the series. Read the first here and second here.

{27} Buying Beer

Walking past a liquor store, I spotted a piggy bank made of a beer can in the window. The can was silver and blue, with a bit of red, it said Hamm’s beer and had a slit at the top. I wanted it. It was more exciting to me that a traditional piggy bank. I knew enough English to understand the sign: if I bought a six pack of beer, I could have that bank-can for free.

 Source:  taverntrove.com

Source:  taverntrove.com

At home, I talked to my mother about it. My stepfather liked to drink beer and I thought I’d seen him drink Hamms, so I suggested that she give me the money to buy the six pack so I could get that bank. My mother thought nothing of it; in Berlin, she’d sometimes sent me to buy a bottle of beer.

The next day, I set out with a couple of dollars in my pocket. I met my friends on the way and told them I was going to get beer for my dad. They hooted and hollered and tagged along. When we got to the store, they peeked through the screen door while I went inside.  I laid my money on the counter and I told the clerk as smoothly as I could that I wanted Hamm’s beer and the ‘piggy’ bank. He must have heard the German accent in my bumbling words because he smiled wide, showing beautiful white teeth. “You have to be 21 years old to buy beer,” he said. That was the moment my friends had been waiting for – they exploded in laughter. It wasn’t mean; I heard a  note of admiration.

Later that evening, my stepdad went back to the store with me and bought the six-back. He gave me the bank. And in the next months, I filled it with the unfamiliar coins: pennies, nickels, dimes, even quarters. And sometimes there was what everyone called an “Indian head” nickel. 

 

When we arrived in the United States in 1964, I was almost twelve years old. Everything was different: the coins and bills, the shape and consistency of bread, the size of refrigerators and cars - they were huge! In my next few posts, I am writing about some things that I remember from my first summer in St Paul.  This is the second in the series. Read the first here.

{26} Cowboys and Indians

When we arrived in the United States in 1964, I was almost twelve years old. Everything was different: the coins and bills, the shape and consistency of bread, the size of refrigerators and cars - they were huge! There were doorknobs instead of handles, red wagons instead of rubber-tired scooters, softballs instead of soccer balls. Women wore curlers to go shopping; men had crew cuts instead of flat parted hair; kids carried their schoolbooks in the crook of their arm, not in satchels. 

 My stepfather Detlev taught me how to fish in Minnesota. 

My stepfather Detlev taught me how to fish in Minnesota. 

In my next few posts, I will write about some things that I remember from my first summer in St Paul.  Here is the first in the series:

 

Cowboys and Indians

When we got to Minnesota, my sister and I were still young enough to play kids' games. I was thrilled when our new American friends (who were a couple of years younger) wanted to play Cowboys and Indians (no one used the term Native American back then). Like many German youngsters, I had devoured the novels written by Karl May about the Wild West and Winnetou, the heroic fictional chief of the Apaches. In Karl May’s stories, the Indians were noble, brave, skillful and beautiful. Even though they lost the war they won the battles. When we moved to Minnesota, I half expected to find them on their horses, roaming open prairie land alongside the buffalo herds.

For our game, I eagerly volunteered to be the Indian. Every one else clamored to be a cowboy.

“You wanna be the Indian? one of the boys asked. “You wanna die?”

I didn’t understand his questions. The game hadn’t even started so how could he know the outcome? The role of Indian was assigned to me and the youngest in the group. I quickly realized why: we never had a chance. As Indians, we didn’t having speaking roles. We were moving targets, that was all.

{26} Memorials That Move Me: Yiddish Book Center

The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts is one of my favorite memorials having to do with German history even though it is not a commemorative site, and it doesn’t focus on Germany. The Book Center is a vibrant institution devoted to Yiddish culture, literature, language and history. Its mission is to share Yiddish culture with the rest of the world.

  Main library area, Yiddish Book Center   Photographer: Justin Shatwell in  Yankee Magazine

Main library area, Yiddish Book Center  Photographer: Justin Shatwell in Yankee Magazine

I learned about it from my aunt Sabine. She sent me a text: “forget whatever you’re reading and get the book Outwitting History. A guy named Aaron Lansky wrote it. You won’t be able to put it down.” Sabine’s recommendations are always good so I got the book right away. I read it in one sweep and passed it on to my husband who also was riveted by the story of the man who saved Yiddish books.

Aaron Lansky began collecting Yiddish books when he was studying Yiddish literature with Ruth Wisse as a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal. The assigned class readings were out of print and only a few copies of the books were available at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal so Lansky put up notices in delis and Laundromats and community centers in Jewish neighborhoods asking if anyone had Yiddish books. It was a serendipitous historic moment because just at that time a generation of older Jews was wondering what to do with their personal Yiddish libraries. Their children and grandchildren didn’t read Yiddish so they had no interest in the books that had been collected over a lifetime by their elders. The thought of just leaving the treasured volumes behind or, worse, discarding them was heartbreaking, so the young enthusiastic student Lansky was heaven sent. “I was 23 years old and somehow it’s fallen on me to pick the fragments of this world and save them for the future,” Lansky remembers in the documentary Bridge of Books. His friends joined him and soon his college apartment was overflowing with books. Eventually, the boxes and boxes of books collected by Lansky and his nationwide network of zamlers (collectors) became the Yiddish Book Center, which found a home in 1997 in the cultural village adjacent to the campus of Hampshire College. Turns out, Lansky was doing more than saving books: those thousands of volumes led him, step by step, to the larger mission of saving and revitalizing Yiddish culture.

Fast forward to 2013 (read Lansky’s book to learn the captivating details of the story). That summer, my husband Armin and I visited the center because we wanted to know more about the project that had recovered more than a million Yiddish books - literature, philosophy, history, science as well as newspapers, periodicals and Yizkor books (memorial volumes commemorating Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust).

Armin and I arrived at the lush green campus on a warm day and made our way past nondescript university buildings towards what looked like small wooden houses with peaked roofs. We learned later that architect Allen Moore had designed the buildings to echo the rooflines of an East European shtetl  (Jewish town). Inside the Book Center it was airy and quiet, woodwork glowed in the soft light. Armin and I stood transfixed when we saw the library just a few steps below: rows and rows of shelves packed with Yiddish books. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I noticed Armin wiping his eyes. Our tears were complicated, more than sadness. We’ve been to concentration camp commemoration sites and Holocaust memorials; we’ve seen exhibitions in Berlin portraying the individuals and the structures that perpetrated systematic Nazi terror. These sites provide vivid testimony to brutality and destruction. Each one is a chilling reminder of the gaping absence left by the Holocaust.

In the Book Center in Amherst, far away from Germany, we felt something different and new: the presence of Yiddish culture.

Walking through the aisles and the adjoining exhibits, I explored this presence. I’d never known, for example, that the Yiddish alphabet is based on Hebrew script. Since I’d been singularly focused on the destruction wrought by the Holocaust, I hadn’t paid attention to other factors that contributed to the gradual disappearance of Yiddish culture, including the pressures of assimilation in American Jewish communities. I watched videos from the Center’s Oral History Project that captured Yiddish culture in everyday lives. I studied the information about the ongoing work of the Center: cultural events, summer classes, language courses, a translation initiative funded in part by Steven Spielberg, who also supported the digitization of thousands of books for world-wide circulation and historic preservation. The Yiddish Book Center situated me simultaneously in the past, the present and the future, it alternately touched in me layers of sadness, curiosity; outrage and appreciation.

Before we left, Armin and I bought a DVD of “Laughing in the Darkness”, the story of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem who is considered by many to be the founding father of Yiddish literature. Watching it, we learned about Jewish identity in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 19th century and about the dissolution of that identity. We learned that Yiddish functioned as a “portable homeland” for the Jews who were forced to leave Eastern Europe. We were amazed to find out that when SholemAleichem died in 1916, more than 100,000 people lined the streets of New York for his funeral. How could we not have known about this man? The Book Center is accomplishing its mission, I thought, it has opened our eyes to Yiddish culture and history.

As Germans, Armin and I felt grateful that we were welcomed at the Center. We only wish that every German could visit this thriving site.

Learn more about the Yiddish Book Center here

{25} Memorials That Move Me: The Empty Library Site

Some years ago, a friend brought me to the Bebel Platz in Berlin’s city center to show me a new memorial site. “You care about German history and you love books so you’ll appreciate this Denkmal,” he told me as we walked along the wide Unter Den Linden Boulevard. “It commemorates the book burning Nazis carried out here on May 10, 1933.”

  Nazi Book Burning Memorial in Berlin (reflecting nearby construction crane)   Photo: Christine Schoefer

Nazi Book Burning Memorial in Berlin (reflecting nearby construction crane) Photo: Christine Schoefer

We’d been walking all morning and I was in the mood for a cold drink and the shade of trees in the Tiergarten. “I don’t see anything,” I grumbled, gazing across the expanse of paving stones. The large square, flanked by the Opera House and the Humboldt Library, was named after August Bebel, the socialist politician who helped found Germany’s Social Democratic Party in 1869.

“I told you, this memorial is different, not a big statue or anything.” My friend pointed. “It’s right over there.”

After a few more steps, I saw a window in the ground. Through the glass pane, I could make out an underground room lined with bookshelves. All the shelves were empty. Every shelf was white.

“Eerie,” I said after staring at the emptiness for a while. Then I saw the quote by Heinrich Heine, the well-known 19th century German Jewish poet, inscribed on a bronze plaque set in the paving stones.

Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort
wo man Bücher verbrennt,
verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.

This was only a prelude, where

People burn books

They will, in the end, also burn human beings.
 

Heine wrote this verse in 1820. I felt a chill.    

Heinrich Heine’s books were among those burned by Hitler’s fervent followers: students, professors, uniformed SA men, and ordinary Germans. Thousands witnessed the fiery spectacle and listened to Goebbels incendiary speech. Altogether, more than 20,000 volumes from the Humboldt University library were burned in Berlin that night. Similar Bücherverbrennungen occurred in other German cities on the same evening. The book burning was a carefully planned propaganda event designed to consolidate Hitler’s power. It was supposed to destroy and eradicate all un-German Gedankengut (body of thought). Un-German was the shorthand for everything Jewish or politically contrary to National Socialism, including liberal or pacifist sentiments, ideas of humanism and enlightenment, even psychoanalytic theory. The list put together by Nazis included published works by poets and novelists, scientists, philosophers, historians, and artists. Ironically, most of the “un-German” authors were German citizens: Marx and Engels, Bertolt Brecht, Karl Liebknecht, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Anna Seghers, Erich Maria Remarque, Erich Kaestner (who actually witnessed the books going up in flames in Berlin  and had to flee from the frenzied crowd).

In retrospect, of course, it is an honor to be among those whose books were burned by Hitler’s followers, a testament to progressive opinions and humanist ideals.

The Isreali artist Micha Ullman designed the “Empty Library” Memorial in Berlin without an entry to the subterranean room. All we can do is look through that window. That’s how history is, I thought, we can look back but we can’t undo any of it. We can’t retrieve the books that were burned, can’t put them back on the library shelves.

I returned to the memorial this summer, seventeen years after I first saw it. The Bebelplatz was empty and for a moment, I thought the Denkmal had been removed. There were no signs indicating its location. Then I saw it: the glass was dull and the room below was as if in a fog. No one else was standing there with me, even though the city was teeming with tourists.

This time I felt another layer of sadness. The bare shelves raised a new set of questions: do books even matter anymore? Who will be reading them in twenty years? I know kids who only use laptops in school, no books at all. For centuries, books had the power to be subversive because many people read them.  Would a twenty-first century totalitarian government even bother with pulling books from libraries to burn them?    

Looking down at those empty shelves under the glass, I wondered if books are a species on the verge of extinction.

 

{24} Memorials That Move Me: Stolpersteine

I remember the first time I saw a gleaming Stolperstein just outside the front door of a stately five story apartment building in Berlin. I bent down to read the inscription on the stumbling stone: a woman’s name, her birthdate, the date of her deportation and the date of her murder.

  Stolpersteine in Köln     Photo: Christine Schoefer

Stolpersteine in Köln Photo: Christine Schoefer

Stumbling stones are 3x3 inch square brass plates fused onto cube-shaped paving stones . They are set among the other grey pavers or directly into the concrete in front of a building door. Literally, Stolpersteine means stones that make you trip. Imagine yourself exploring a German city on foot and noticing one of these small golden squares. What’s that? Perhaps you walk up close and then see the inscription. Maybe you read the name, the date of deportation. A minute ago, you were walking briskly to your destination, and now you’re thinking about a stranger who was killed by Nazis. Once you’ve read one Stolperstein, every other stumbling stone you see will trip you up and pull you - if only for a moment - out of your routine. Even if you don’t stop to read the  small engraved words, your mind will stumble and halt. You can’t help but think about what happened in this country, in this city, in this exact spot.

When I saw my first stumbling stone that day in Berlin, I peered through the window of the locked apartment building door. In the foyer, large mirrors multiplied the light of the chandelier; a wide carpeted stairway with carved wooden banisters led to the upper stories. Uniformed men dragged the woman down these stairs, I thought. Or maybe she walked on her own, holding her back straight and her head high. The neighbors must have heard the pounding on the door, the loud voices. Did they watch through the spyholes? Did they run the water in the kitchen, turn on the radio to drown out the sounds in the stairwell?

I took a few steps back and looked at the building. It was part of a row of distinguished old Wohnhäuser with ornate façades, and flowers spilling from balcony boxes.. How did it actually happen, the rounding up of Jews by Hitler’s Gestapo?  There must have been a truck waiting to whisk the woman away. Probably, people were yanked from different buildings and marshaled into a group before they were ordered to march down the ­sidewalk. What about the people in the street who saw their neighbors walking in rows, bearing the obligatory yellow star on their coats, perhaps carrying a duffel bag or a small suitcase. That’s how I imagined it, a group of men, women and children making their way between the buildings and the large chestnut trees, guarded by uniformed tormentors whose nailed boots pounded like hailstones on the sidewalk.

I thought not-knowing was impossible.

That’s exactly the idea behind the Stolpersteine. Cologne artist Günter Demnig created them to remind people that deportations happened on a mass scale in the midst of regular daily life. Demnig wanted to offer an alternative to centralized memorials because these can easily be avoided and circumvented by people who don’t want to think about the past. Stolpersteine can’t be avoided, they just appear in your path and you stumble. Demnig, who came of age during the sixties, was always interested in making history visible right where it had happened: in everyday life.. In 1990,  he marked, with paint, the route taken by the Gestapo and the SS when they were driving Sinti and Roma through Cologne like cattle towards the death camps. An older woman told him that no “gypsies” had ever lived in the area. The woman’s ignorance sparked Demnig’s  idea for the Stolpersteine.

Demnig placed the first Stolperstein without official permission twenty years ago, in January 1995, in his home town Köln. Since then, he has placed more than 50,000 Stolpersteine in 1,200 cities and towns. Most of them are in Germany, some are in other European countries. Each stone commemorates an individual who was murdered during the National Socialist terror; there are stones for Jews, political opponents of the Hitler Regime, homosexuals, Jehovas Witnesses, Roma and Sinti, and victims of euthanasia. Taken together, the small Stolpersteine constitute the largest of all Holocaust memorials. They present an opportunity to pay tribute: I have seen flowers placed on a Stolperstein. My father polishes the small brass plate in front of his building. He’s 84 years old, and it takes him a while to negotiate the five flights of stairs to the street. Still, he remembers to bring along the brass polish and stoops down to make the Stolperstein shine.

Stolpersteine individualize the statistics that are so difficult to comprehend. Every time I read an inscription, I wonder about this person’s life, about her work or his family. Stolpersteine are everywhere and their ubiquity reminds me that flourishing Jewish communities were once part of German life. Contrary to memorials that mark sites of torture and murder, these brass plates mark the homes of individuals and families. They proclaim: Jewish children once clambered up these stairs! Jewish doctors once examined their patients in these rooms! Jewish families ate together and celebrated holidays here! Feeling the glaring absence in contemporary Germany becomes unavoidable.

Stumbling stones also make me think about what the deportees left behind: all their possessions, everything they couldn’t carry in their bags. How long did it take for the Nazis to carry off the paintings, the porcelain, the carved mahogany table and chairs? Maybe the neighbors snuck in later and looted the linens from the chest and the pots from the cupboards? And then, who moved into these empty apartments, perhaps furnishing them with the stolen carpets and sofas? Maybe SS officers or Party officials who were in line for a kickback? Every Stolperstein reminds me of an important and often overlooked aspect of the Holocaust: among other things, it was a giant redistribution of wealth. Those who benefited from it have never had to answer to anyone.

This summer, I saw fourteen stumbling stones in front of one apartment building in the Südstadt neighborhood of Cologne. Fourteen! I took a photo. And then I decided to follow my father’s example: I bought a little bottle of brass polisher. When I saw the next Stolperstein I bent down to shine it. Two people walked past me and I wondered what they were thinking.

{23} Memorials That Move Me: Graffiti in the German Reichstag?

The Reichstag building in Berlin is a favorite tourist destination. Blighted by the darkest chapters of German history, it was spectacularly reconstructed before it became the seat of the German parliament in 1999. Light floods through the building from a huge glass cupola that offers breathtaking panoramic views of Berlin. The cupola symbolizes the transparency of democracy. Walking up the spiral path to the top, visitors can observe parliamentary debates in the plenary hall below and elected officials can look up and see the Germans they represent.

Inside this pantheon of German democracy, Russian graffiti has been painstakingly preserved on some of the walls. In May of 1945, Soviet soldiers scrawled their signatures, the names of their hometowns, denunciations of Hitler and ecstatic proclamations of victory in the corridors of the war damaged building: A dream has come true and You will reap what you sow. Most of the names written in Cyrillic letters are Russian, some are Jewish and German.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 10.59.10 AM.png

When the Reichstag was renovated in the 1990’s, a public debate ensued regarding this graffiti:  should the writing - some of which was coarse and nasty - be preserved or forever destroyed? There were those who argued that the hallowed halls of German parliamentary politics were not an appropriate place to commemorate Soviet victory. Others insisted that this was the perfect site to remember the Soviet troops that liberated Berlin in the final days of World War Two.

The Battle of Berlin, fought sixty years ago between April 18 and May 2, 1945, was bitter and brutal. 1,6 million Russian soldiers marched towards the German capital from the East. In two weeks, the fighting claimed the lives of more than 170 thousand soldiers and tens of thousands civilians. It left half a million injured and destroyed large sections of the city. While the battle raged, Hitler hid in his Führerbunker with his closest associates. On April 30, he committed suicide, leaving the deutsche Volk to live with the consequences of defeat. Soviet soldiers were fighting only a few blocks away and finally conquered the badly damaged Reichstag building on May 2. An iconic WWII photo shows young soldiers hoisting the Soviet flag from one of the buildings’ towers high above the demolished streets of Berlin. The Allies proclaimed victory on May 8, 1945.

The Soviet Union was a crucial part of the Allied Alliance that defeated Hitler, but the Cold War has pretty much blocked this out of US memory. Not only this, but we have forgotten that the Soviet Union paid by far the highest price in the war. Germans troops were on a mission to destroy the Russian population as well as their land. More than nine million Russian soldiers and more than eighteen million civilians were killed - compared to the five million German soldiers, six and a half million German civilians and 407,000 US troops who lost their lives (see details here). It is hard to fathom what might have happened if the Soviet Army had not been victorious on the Eastern front. Would the Western Allies have lost the war? Would the US have dropped the atom bomb on Berlin to stop Hitler?

When I looked at the Cyrillic letters on the white walls of the Reichstag corridors, I got goose bumps. I tried to imagine the young men, ragged and hungry, who had seen such carnage and experienced unimaginable losses. I wondered what happened to these Soviet soldiers who defeated Germany and liberated Berlin? What lives did they go on to lead? What nightmares haunted them? I wondered if any of them were still alive.

Silently, I thanked them.

 

In the coming weeks I will be exploring several other Memorials (related to National Socialism, the Holocaust and WWII) that move me.

{22} Memorials That Move Me

Every city and town in Germany has memorials. Some are hundreds of years old; others are new. There are statues of the poet-philosopher Goethe and the Iron Chancellor Bismark; eagle-topped stone columns that proclaim German victories in Imperial wars. Near cemeteries or town halls, tall moss-covered stones are engraved with the names of soldiers who died in Wars. The horrors of National Socialism and World War Two are memorialized more than any other events of German history. In many German towns and cities the victims are remembered – I’ve seen memorials to Jews, to Social Democrats and Communists, to Roma and Sinti, and to homosexuals who were persecuted and murdered.

 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

These memorials are supposed to keep Germans from forgetting the atrocities their parents and grandparents allowed and committed. Imagine if victims of state-orchestrated and condoned violence were widely commemorated in the United States –throughout the country, we would need memorials to Native Americans, African Americans and Chinese laborers. In Germany, I’ve seen memorials to Soviet and Americans soldiers and I wonder if Deutschland is the only country that honors those who defeated them: the victorious Allies who won WWII.

The German language has more than one way of saying memorial. Denkmal is the generic word. Literally translated, it means “thinking mark” – an image or symbol that makes the viewer stop and think. When you separate the word into its components, the meaning changes slightly: denk – think, mal - once is a suggestion to take a moment to contemplate. There is also the word Mahnmal. Mahnen is an exhortation to people not to forget something and it carries a sense of urgency and a note of reprimand.

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is a Mahnmal, urging visitors to remember the European Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Every year, thousands of tourists visit this five acre sloping site covered with a grid of almost three thousand concrete slabs. Public figures gather here to pay their respects. Some Germans refer to centralized memorials like this one as Kranzabwurfstellen – drop-off sites for commemorative wreaths – implying that official commemoration has become a routine, an obligatory gesture for politicians with packed appointment calendars.

When I’m in Germany, I pay special attention to the memorials I pass. I stop to read the inscription and I consider the historical events that are marked.  I wonder if  passersby actually see any of that. Does the Denkmal seem abandoned and ignored or is it tended? In other words, is it dead or is it alive? If people stop and engage with a memorial, it’s alive. The woman who places a bouquet at the bronze statue of a man with bounds hands is paying her respects to the German Resistance fighters who opposed Hitler. What about the children who break away from their parents to play hide and seek among the slabs of the Holocaust Memorial– are they disgracing the site or filling it with life?

    Sometimes I see a Denkmal that moves me deeply. It pulls me into a web of facts and experiences that cannot be easily summarized or put into order. It opens up layers of feelings, reminding me that life is complex and people’s actions can be disturbing as well as uplifting. A moving memorial drops me into history and makes me want to know more about the past. At the same time, it makes me very aware of the present. I pause to think about the events going on now, all over the world. How will these shape the future? And how will they be remembered?


In the coming weeks I will be exploring several Memorials (related to National Socialism, the Holocaust and WWII) that move me.