“That was only a prelude, there
where they burn books,
they burn in the end people.”
Heinrich Heine 1820
6 years ago as a student of architecture visiting Berlin for the first time, I found the city overwhelming to say the least. It shattered my naïve, romantic ideas of Europe that had been planted and nurtured on earlier trips to Western Europe, offering instead a 3-D textbook of history, full of blatant confessions of its unpleasant past. I remember being sucked into the profundity of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, where recreated experiences from the holocaust can draw the most casual of museum visitors into moments of silence.
On a recent trip, as I strolled the length and breadth of the city that was witness to some of the most heinous crimes of the last century, it became lucid that the whole of Berlin is a memorial, integrating reminders of its past into its present fabric. Sitting next to the Brandenburg Gate, is Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial, built as a public plaza commemorating the Murdered Jews of Europe, where concrete blocks as high as 5 metres (reminiscent of a cemetery) laid out on an undulating terrain, giving a glimpse into the disorienting experiences of the holocaust. Across from this memorial, nestled in the Tiergarten is the recently opened Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, which uses the same visual language of a single concrete block, uniting the two groups in their tragedy. Through a small cutout in the concrete block, visitors can view a short film of two men kissing while an information board informs us that more than 50,000 homosexuals were murdered during the Nazi regime.
On May 1933, Bebelplatz, located in the south side of Unter der Linden became the site for the infamous Book Burning where important works of world literature were thrown into flames by the Nazis. Today, in the middle of the plaza stands a memorial – a hollowed out space in the ground covered by a glass top, housing empty book shelves, symbolic of the ideas and words lost in the event.
Berlin of today is one of the most open-minded, cosmopolitan and tolerant cities of Europe. It only takes one trip to its bohemian neighborhoods Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain to understand the current vibe of the city. Loved by street artists trying to make political commentary, prided by locals resisting gentrification with all their might, offering lip-smacking street foods – Berlin tops the lists of trendiest European cities.
Berlin won me over and left an indelible memory in my mind, for its sheer ability to be itself, for not shying away, or wiping clean the pages of its gory history, but keeping the wounds fresh as constant reminders to a city striving to become the best version of itself.