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Layers of a City

So often I walk the streets of this city without really seeing. Everything is familiar, always the same. Until suddenly it is not.

I had enjoyed a wander around one of my favourite craft stores. It’s a cool place, so many fun things to get those creative juices flowing.

As I was leaving, I turned around to take a look back at the façade (which incidentally is pretty funky). That’s when I spotted it. A memorial plaque telling me that on this very spot, there used to stand a synagogue. The building was destroyed during the Reichskristallnacht of November 1938. At my feet, an indication of what likely happened to the people who would have attended the synagogue. Stolpersteine commemorating (what appear to be) three members of the same family, all deported and killed.


A sudden glimpse of the many layers that make up this city. There’s the obvious – the many tourists, the expensive department store, the fun craft shop. Then there is what has gone before. The things we normally don’t see, made visible and brought into the present.

So much else I’m not seeing as I walk through my days. Stories happening in the lives of individuals I encounter. Hidden people, hidden groups, hidden dynamics. Layers upon layers.

I wonder what those layers look like in my apartment, on my street, in my neighbourhood? What’s gone before – what joy, what sadness, what tragedy, what ordinariness? All of it has shaped the place, has shaped who and what we are now.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Signs

In Berlin, it is often worth looking down for interesting signs.

SL372432You find Stolpersteine all across the city, remembering people who had lived in those buildings and who died in concentration camps.

Around Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, you find plaques reminding us of people who managed to escape from East to West Berlin in that particular place:

10514634_10152724454791445_8103663638190056866_nOr of escape tunnels that emerged in a certain place:

1958007_10152724455911445_8321764129676245997_nWeekly Photo Challenge: Signs

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The Berlin In All Of Us


…a wonderful, terrible city that wears its scars on its sleeve…

…a city like a great organic stenograph, constantly writing the past into the present…

Looking at your city through someone else’s eyes.  Seeing things from a completely different angle.  A South African historian’s take on Berlin, interpreting her own country and its history in light of what she sees here.  Fascinating!

History.  There is so much ugliness, certainly here, and in South Africa as well.  What do you do with that?  This is what the author notices in Berlin:

The city carries its past crimes and defeats in plain sight. Walking from the Brandenburg Gate down the elegant stretch of the Strasse Des 17 Juni towards the Berlin Victory Column, you come upon the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten. An imposing structure with Russian lettering on its facade, this memorial to the Red Army soldiers who fell in the final days of the battle for Berlin in 1945 is arresting. The apex is an enormous statue of a Red Army soldier, his hand raised in haughty domination above the city he has conquered. The monument, built in the months after the end of World War II, is kept up by the City of Berlin. So there it is: the defeated Germans tending the monument of their conquerors, out of respect for what was defeated by those conquerors, which was Nazism.

In Berlin, history is everywhere.  There is no hiding it, ignoring it.  The Holocaust memorial, the double row of cobbled stones marking the path of the wall through the city, war memorials, Stolpersteine – it’s all there, people pass it every day.  It’s woven into the fabric of modern day Berlin.  Apparently (and I can only rely on the article for this), that is not the case in South Africa.  Her explanation:

In Germany, the perpetrators of Nazism were the German people, and they remained the majority who themselves had to carry forward the burden of accounting, acknowledging, healing and seeking redemption.

In South Africa, the white minority that perpetrated apartheid is now just a white minority, full stop. The mentality of the minority is often the laager, and old enmities can simmer and burn inside it. Now the national narrative is being retold from the perspective of the victims as victors. Is this why, I thought, standing before the Soviet monument in the Tiergarten, we care so little for this kind of tangible symbol of atonement in South Africa?

“…had to carry forward the burden…”  That’s probably it – had to.  There was no choice.  The evil that had happened was so stark, so in your face.  And everyone was a part of it.  Ignoring it, simply leaving it behind, would have felt like a very attractive option, I’m sure.  But it was not an option that was available.  Moving forward, yes.  But in that, weaving the past into the future.  We had no choice.  Maybe that was a blessing in disguise.  Some of it is sincere, some more a facade.  There are constant arguments and struggles over what it should look like.  But it is there.  However imperfectly.

How have you seen this played out in different places?

Do read Lauren van Vuuren’s full article here

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Walking on History

Last night, I was watching the movie “Valkyrie” about one of the failed attempts to assassinate Hitler.  In the final scene, most of the plotters are executed by firing squad.  This scene was filmed where it actually happened – at Bendlerblock here in Berlin (see picture above).  At the end, you were almost looking down into the courtyard.  Which is when it hit me: I have stood in the exact same spot where these brave men died.  Of course I knew that when I was there at the memorial but the scene in the movie brought it home in a much more powerful way.

Walking on history

In Berlin, you often do that quite literally.

You find these Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) outside a good number of buildings in Berlin (and elsewhere in Germany and beyond.  Read more here).  These particular ones I often pass on my way to the station.  What a powerful reminder of people who used to walk these same streets.

Admittedly Berlin has had more than its fair share of history but aside from the big stuff, I do often wonder about the lives that were lived in my little apartment in the 100 or so years before I moved in…