Sunday, May 6, 2007 Berlin
We were met by our travel hosts, Jeff and Marie Lawson, and directed to the bus, our new home for 2 weeks. One of our group lost luggage, so we were delayed an hour and a half while they checked and registered the loss. Their luggage finally caught up with us in Vienna, a week later.
In Berlin we had not adjusted to our new routine, nor had we been to our hotel yet, but we set out to see the city. Our agenda included a number of items, but it was fairly vague regarding times or details. We were all taking a lot of pictures, but I hit on the idea of keeping notes to remember what we had seen after several hours of viewing castles and buildings in this remarkable city. As I am interpreting my notes, I hope to reconstruct our experiences with at least some thread of accuracy. The airport was the famed West Berlin Tegel airport used for the Berlin Airlift when the Russians blockaded West Berlin for 9 months in 1949 A new larger airport is being constructed south of the city, to be completed in 2 years.
It’s hard to believe that it has only been 16 years since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. It divided the city since 1961 when the East German communist government in desperation built it to keep citizens from escaping to the West. The daunting task of rebuilding the entire city and particularly East Berlin has been underway for 16 years and the results are already spectacular. The Germans seem to be up to the task, and a large percentage of their national budget is set aside to rebuilding not only Berlin, but the entire former East German area. Since the move of the German Capital from Bonn to Berlin, other countries are also involved heavily in building embassies and support structures. .
The US embassy is a large new structure still under construction just down the street from the Brandenburg Gate and will be completed next year. The British embassy is in an older hotel structure being completely remodeled to handle their staff
The Brandenburg Gate was just inside the wall of the Eastern Zone, and served as a symbol for the East of their success in controlling the city. It served also as a symbol of hope and determination for the West to one day rid the city of its communist oppressors.
Evidences of the Wall are still prevalent all across the former border. Actual sections of the Wall have been preserved for memorials We had to park a few blocks away from the gate and walk back to see and feel the memorials and new buildings.
On the way we passed the Jewish Memorial It is like a cemetery with thousands of large blocks of various heights imitating burial crypts. The number of graves represented by these blocks was indicative of the number of Jews and others lost in the holocaust. We ate lunch at the impressive Sony center, a huge mall like structure with a special glass rotunda constructed in such a way to capture sunlight and amplify it like a kaleidoscope of massive dimensions.
We made our way to the vicinity of Checkpoint Charlie,
one of 5 former places of passage between the two zones. Of checkpoints A through E, C was manned by the Americans and was the scene of numerous escape attempts and ingenious disguise episodes, and of course war movies. The Point is now on an open street, and is manned by volunteers dressed in official US uniforms, with flags and all as it used to be. We even got our passports stamped officially as we passed through.
Our tour guide is an architectural buff and pointed out many of the numerous buildings constructed in the post war period in both the East and West. Only on eastern streets visible to the West had the Russians restored or built impressive facades to show their strength and power. In other areas of the East, the cheapest, Stalinist style was prevalent everywhere. These are being upgraded or completely rebuilt to western standards. The new Reichstag and Parliament buildings have been built in modern style. We stopped at the Charlottenburg Castle,
a beautiful baroque palace, built as a summer residence by Friedrich Wilhelm I, King of Prussia in 1695 for his beloved wife Queen Sophie Charlotte. She was very intelligent and encouraged education and enlightenment among her subjects and her own family. The buildings and gardens are beautiful.
We went into the ballroom but not the gardens as our time was short.
We proceeded east to the old center section of town. We stopped at Humboldt University, the greatest university in the world,
according to our guide, Ari Wöstenfeld (more about him later). The University was founded in 1810, based on the concept of academic and statesman, Wilhelm von Humboldt. The Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, donated the first building to the university - the former Palace of Prince Heinrich of Prussia on the splendid boulevard Unter den Linden.
Other institutions that already existed in the city were integrated, including the famous medical establishment Charité hospital.
The University is famous for many scientists such as the chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann, the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, the mathematicians Ernst Kummer, Leopold Kronecker, Karl Theodor Weierstrass (the "triple star of Mathematics"), and the medical researchers Johannes Müller and Rudolf Virchow became known far beyond Berlin and Germany. A total of 29 Nobel Prize winners did some of their scientific work at the University, including Albert Einstein, Emil Fischer, Max Planck and Fritz Haber. And many famous people such as Heinrich Heine, the Brothers Grimm, Adelbert von Chamisso, Ludwig Feuerbach, Otto von Bismarck, Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring, Alice Salomon, Karl Marx and Kurt Tucholsky were also enrolled at the "Alma mater" of Berlin. Today, Humboldt University of Berlin is one of the leading universities in Germany, with about 40 thousand students from over 100 different countries.
Next to the Library at Humboldt University is the famous fabled Bebelplatz.
This was the site of Hitler’s infamous book burning fireside. On May 10, 1933, the Nazi minister for propaganda and public enlightenment, Joseph Goebbels, organized a nationwide book burning, with more than 20,000 books by Jews, Communists, and Pacifists burned on a pyre in the middle of the square. Today, visitors can peer through a glass plate in the ground and view rows of empty bookshelves, a modern monument to freedom of thought, compromised on that awful day.
On the other side is the State Opera House constructed in 1743 by Frederick II (the Great) of King of Prussia, grandson of Charlotte. The Library itself was the former Royal Library of the Kings of Prussia. Also St. Hedwig’s Cathedral is to the back of the square.
We stopped at the Jewish Museum Berlin; Daniel Libeskind’s award-winning building that has become one of the new German capital’s chief tourist magnets. The lightning bolt shape of the entire structure visualizes the crooked path that the Jewish people have traveled throughout their history in order to survive. The slot windows provide little light in some sections, indicative that their path was often dimly light. Although we didn’t have time to go inside we were told that the displays are not intended to provide a guilt trip in any way, but to be positive in displaying the spirit shown by survivors. There is one room however, that is completely bare, dark, and empty - dedicated to the achievements of those who did not survive the holocaust.
We drove down Kurfurstendam past the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche, one of the most haunting symbols of Berlin, the ruins of the memorial church in the heart of the city. The Neo-Romanesque church was given the name in 1895, to honor Wilhelm I. Following damage by severe bombing raids in 1943, the ruins of the tower were left standing as a memorial. Next to it, Egon Eiermann erected a new church in 1957-63. Religious services are now conducted here. We also passed by Alexander Square, the train station where we saw the numbers of thousands etched in markers, who were sent to eastern concentration camps. They saw their last views of Berlin and freedom from this square.
We passed numerous other museums and castles on our way to our hotel at Cöpenick. Before Köpenick (the former spelling) became part of Greater Berlin in 1920, it had a long history as an independent town. Its first known mention is in a document dating back to 1209. In 1906, a shoemaker called Wilhelm Voigt masqueraded as a Prussian Army officer and took over the city hall. He became famous as depicted in the "Captain of Köpenick" (Hauptmann von Köpenick), and the borough is still most well known for this incident.
At our elegant hotel in Cöpenick on the banks of the River Spree we had a gorgeous buffet dinner including white asparagus, fish, pastries, various cheeses, etc. etc.
After dinner we walked down the river to peruse the yacht club boats, ducks and the river and castles across on the other side. We walked over the bridge to a local arts festival that was just closing down.
Newly built in the old style, the Reichstag (Parliament Building), and the new style Bahnhof (Train Station) show the diversity of history and modern contemporary coming together in this great city.