I recently returned from a first-time trip to Berlin. I had heard all the buzz about Berlin, about its hipness, about its cutting edge art scene, about how cheap and accessible it is. But I’d had no real interest in visiting.
I’d been to Germany several times before. Once as a baby, which I don’t recall, and after that with my mother and younger sister on our way back from Israel, to visit my father’s sister in Augsburg. My last visit was during a bicycle trip with a friend through Austria and Germany, back in the early 1980s. None of the trips had turned me into a fan of Germany, or of anything German.
This time, the motivation to go to Berlin was purely personal. My husband’s cousin Michel, a Frenchman who moved to Israel in 1998, got married in Israel in July and moved with his new bride to Berlin, where they are both pursuing advanced degrees in art. We didn’t make it to the wedding, so we decided to visit Michel and Maayan in their new home. Truth be told, the real motivation was that they had a new baby, Ariel, and we were so eager to meet him, and to introduce him to our Ariel, his 16-year old female cousin.
Unfortunately, our daughter couldn’t make the trip in the end, so off my husband and I went, over Easter weekend. I was more focused on the fact that we would be arriving on March 25, on what would have been my father’s 91st birthday, z’l. I’m a big believer in signs and symbols, a direct inheritance from my father, who believed in dream symbolism, good luck days and other talismans. My father had a post-war history with Berlin, where he was arrested and put on trial for smuggling Jews and Polish army officers out of Poland to escape the descending Iron Curtain. I wondered, honestly, if I would be able, somehow, to find pieces of my father, echoes of his presence in the city.
I had wanted to go to a Friday night service in Berlin, something I assumed would be fraught with symbolism. My father’s birthday. A Jewish religious service. In Berlin. With this recently relocated offshoot of our scattered family. I imagined feeling some deep connection. But lousy weather and jet lag colluded to dissuade us from getting to the service.
I realized something strange was afoot when, having to cancel on Friday-night dinner and services with Michel and his family, I felt … nothing. I am one to second guess and feel guilty on a routine basis, and I had invested a great deal of psychic energy in the symbolism of being in Berlin on March 25. And yet, I felt nothing.
That vacant sense dogged me throughout our visit. I thought I might be deeply moved, touched, anguished by being in the city that was the epicenter of Nazism. And yet…
Entering the gauntlet of security at the Neue Synagoge just left me with that familiar feeling of being, as a Jew in Europe, the prey of the haters. At the Shoah memorial, I felt nothing walking through the maze of steles, perhaps because others were using it to play hide and go seek, making it difficult for me to have a contemplative experience. In the underground museum space, I read familiar words and saw familiar photos, so familiar, in fact, that they didn’t penetrate too deeply. Which is not what I expected.
There is something entirely antiseptic about Berlin, about its orderliness and cleanliness. When I saw graffiti, I silently cheered; someone had deigned to push back at German obedience by literally coloring outside the lines. Thank goodness! But I felt nothing. I made a point of photographing each of the small bronze plaques I saw embedded in sidewalks, plaques noting the name, birthdate, deportation date and murder site of German Jewish residents of Berlin. It seemed important to try to honor them in that small way, by stopping to acknowledge where they had lived, by reading their names, by noting their ages.
But Berlin is too sanitized, too clean, too comfortably affluent to spark any feeling, at least in me. It seemed almost like a stage set, so manicured, so organized, so perfect. It felt somehow soulless, just a backdrop for on-time trains and groomed streets, mostly devoid of people. Berlin, it seemed to me, had deported its heart to the east, and killed it.
Nina Mogilnik is a writer in New York. She reports for The Jewish Week’s disability blog, The New Normal.