Roger Merritt's Home Page

Berlin: Christmas 1993

Linda at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Linda at the Brandenburg Gate, January 1994. This was her second trip to Berlin, and my first. Her eldest sister, Veronica, has lived in Berlin since the mid 1970's. I did my best to explore as much of Berlin as I could, and made several excursions into East Berlin. This was a very special Christmas and New Year's for us.


Linda at Wittenberg church,
where Martin Luther is buried Linda at Wittenberg Cathedral. On this day we borrowed my sister-in-law Veronica's car, and drove to the home of Martin Luther, and the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. This historic town had been neglected by the East German State, but has in recent years seen a modest re-birth. I was thrilled to visit the Luther House Museum, and the cathedral where Luther is buried. However, the local people on the street still seemed nervous at the sight of foreign visitors. Wittenberg is located about 45 miles SW of Berlin.

Click here for a map of Germany

All my previous trips to Germany were wonderful. It's a thoroughly interesting, and beautiful country, but I always had a yearning to go to Berlin. I was finally going to get a chance, and I wanted to be ready. I read a couple of guidebooks, and made a long list of places that I wanted to see. To many people Berlin may not appear to be an especially warm or inviting place compared to a lot of other European capitals, and it certainly is not as cosmopolitan as London, but a lot of building and development has been taking place since unification and a lot of new things are happening there. Besides that, I was eager to check out Berlin's impressive spread of museums that are among the best in the world. So, with great anticipation we flew from London to Tegel Airport on a wintry night in December 1993, and took a taxi to Veronica's.

Linda's sister Veronica lives in Lichtenrade, in South Berlin, and she has three kids: Susanne, Gerald and Cathi, who are very bright and are bilingual. I had a great time getting to know them, because I had not met them before, and we hit it off playing card games, talking, eating, and doing things together. Linda and I had a very good two-week visit with them covering Christmas and New Years, at a time when it was rather cold and snowy. Linda enjoyed being reunited with her relatives, and I enjoyed exploring Berlin on foot, via public transport, or car, usually all-day, everyday, until after dark for most of the duration of our trip, and then spent time with the folks at home at night. The nearest S-Bahn station, Buckower Chaussee, was only a ten-minute walk from Veronica's house, so I rode it extensively. I could go about eight stops north to Unter den Linden without even changing trains! Berlin's public transport was very reliable and clean throughout, on either the S-Bahn, or U-Bahn, in my experience. It's a first-rate system in my opinion, and not as crowded as a lot of other cities I've been to.

As I planned my itinerary, I was primarily interested in East Berlin. After growing up as a child of the Cold War, I just naturally wanted to see it, feel it, and indulge in a little shameless "Ostalgie." Berlin was the coldest place in the Cold War, and I knew this visit was going to be fascinating.

In 1989, I read a book called, Zoo Station: Adventures in East and West Berlin, by the British writer, Ian Walker. The book vividly described the social conditions of a limited section of the Berlin population who frequently crossed back and forth from East to West. The station the title of the book referred to was not the S-Bahn station at the Zoo in West Berlin, but rather, the Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn checkpoint in East Berlin where most people crossed the border legally. From this location the book spins off into many unusual and bohemian experiences of the author as he contrasts the two Berlins and the relationships that he cultivated with its people. They were mostly young, transient, dissident, dispossessed, and international, but they hoped for freedom from the oppressive system, and planted seeds of resistance that brought about change in the following years...

My first glimpse of the Brandenburg Gate was coming up out of the Unter den Linden underground station, and it was unforgettable. I was alone at the time, the sky was covered in dark cloud, and the weather was very cold with snow flurries whirling about, but that did not dampen my spirits one bit. Modeled after the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens, the gate was completed in 1791, and stands as an enduring symbol of Berlin. I then walked around the outside of the Reichstag, which is situated just slightly to the West of where the Berlin Wall used to be. Pausing at the memorial crosses to the people who died trying to escape to the West, I then advanced eastward along Unter den Linden Strasse to see some of the main sights, such as the large Berliner Dom Cathedral (which I spent quite a while wondering around in); Marx-Engels Forum, with the lumpen bronze statue of Karl and Fred looking like chums among the relics of the socialist experiment that was East Germany; and the former GDR Palast der Republik, which was amusingly draped in an ocher colored canvas facade which was supposed to make it look like the old Kaiser's Palace. I was pleasantly surprised by the numerous bridges that were scattered about the dual-arteried River Spree that meanders through the area, and I decided to check out Nikolaiviertel, a completely restored remnant of the old prewar heart of Berlin, which was all-too-quiet to make much of an impression on this day. I regret that I didn't go up to the top of the East Berlin TV Tower, but then, over several more visits, I really felt like I knew East Berlin.

High on my "must see" list were the East Berlin neighborhoods of Pankow, Prenzlauer Berg, and Friedrichshain. These were the old working class tenement dwellings of the industrial revolution which escaped heavy damage during the War and have been left almost unchanged for decades, though pockmarks are visible, and some of the tenements have been replaced with drab Soviet-Style apartment buildings. I was undeniably drawn to the charm of Prenzlauer Berg, because of its reputation as a haven for "alternative" lifestyles leading up to the Wende and was a focal point of reformist activities. Walking these streets, and riding the S-Bahn through Friedrichstrasse Station, and many other areas of East Berlin revealed many interesting sights, too numerous to mention, but I particularly liked the Museum of "Working Class Life in 1900," on Husemannstrasse, which had been restored to its former glory. Since I visited so many museums in East & West Berlin, it would take too much time and space to describe all of them, so I will only mention most places by name.

Alexander Platz, East Berlin

A little known fact to most Americans is that the first East Berliner's to cross the Berlin Wall, on November 9, 1989, were not at the Brandenburg Gate, but at a bridge in Pankow! I made a point of visiting this bridge--the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing. Also, several other places that have made historical headlines like, Alexander Platz, Checkpoint Charlie, Karl-Marx-Allee, and the Synagogue most famous for being burned on Kristallnacht, in November 1938 on Oranienburg Strasse, and many other places. Like I said before, I was interested in seeing East Berlin, but one middle-aged Berliner I met, who, as I understand it used to work in East Berlin, was enthusiastic about taking me on a tour of the city, but was absolutely skittish about going into East Berlin. He (rather emphatically) would not go there, but this only increased my determination to go. One day I took my nephew Gerald who grew up in SW Berlin, on a walking tour of East Berlin, and he was actually a little nervous about being there. But everything went fine, and we had a good time.

On another day, Linda and I drove by ourselves through Prenzlauer Berg, Karl-Marx-Allee, Unter den Linden, even through the Brandenburg Gate, in my sister-in-law's Mazda. We took our time and explored each place a little more on foot, such as Kollwitzplatz, the Gethsemene Church, Prenzlauer Allee, and the Soviet War Memorial, among others. As if Kollwitzplatz wasn't macabre enough with its haunting tributes to Kathe Kollwitz, we walked a block to the west in search of the Wasserturm (water tower), a large red-brick tower built in 1875, which is an architectural oddity. Inside are flats with room plans that follow the circular shape of the tower itself. The structure itself is very rare indeed, but in addition, the basement was used as a torture chamber by the Nazis when they came to power. Later, the bodies of 28 of their victims were found in the underground pipe network. Outside, a memorial stone commemorates them: "On this spot in 1933, decent German resistance fighters became the victims of fascist murderers. Honour the dead by striving for a peaceful world." Without a doubt, memories of this unusual place coupled with the bleak sky will stick with me for a long time. All in all, our foray into East Berlin was an unforgettable experience and nothing life-threatening happened to us.

Not intending to ignore West Berlin by any means, I walked through a big chunk of Tiergarten Park, with the giant Prussian Victory Column (Siegessaule), and from there I walked over to the outside of the Zoo, and through the famous Kurfurstendamm shopping district. I'll never forget walking through the Europa Center (a shopping mall) and noticing the East German folks walking around in amazement and starry-eyed wonder at the variety and the overall abundance of the Europa Center. The bright lights and material abundance were still fairly new to Ossi's at this point, and many of them cherished the freedom to shop in West Berlin. Half the fun was watching their subtle expressions, but I'm sure that this was not totally indicative of the East German population. For many of them, the whole adjustment to reunification has been a very difficult and trying experience. Just outside the Europa is the stark ruin of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, whose massive neo-Gothic tower creates an unusual contrast to the hexagonal buildings around it. It sort of throws one back into history before all the modern trappings of capitalism. The Wilhelm Church is only as old as the late 19th century, but it really stands out as a bombed-out relic in this commercial area. A silent witness to the horrifying days of WWII. Being a visitor in Berlin was quite a lesson in contrast and contradiction; I couldn't help being aware of the bizarre contrasts that most people who live there take for granted.

Venturing down to Shoneberg (in SW Berlin), I found the cemetery where Jacob and William Grimm (of the Grimm fairy tales) are buried, along with the conspirator's of the July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I photographed their tombstones and took comfort in the peaceful surroundings. I also located the old Palace of Justice, or "Peoples Court," where thousands of Berliner's were tried for treasonable offenses during WWII and sentenced to death. How strange it is that this building managed to escape being destroyed during the War! Nearby was an odd sight; a WWII flak tower that is not only still standing, but a modern apartment building was deliberately designed to be built over it without touching it. It's a strange thing, but apparently it was meant to be used if war ever broke out against the East.

Another landmark that I passed by several times was the Tempelhof Airport, scene of the Berlin Blockade in 1948-49. Linda and I went into a "Bolle" grocery store right across the street from the airport one day and bought some food to cook for dinner. And, I spent the better part of a day in Dahlem-Dorf, to admire one of the best Art Museums in Europe (the Gemaldegalerie). The Dahlem collection was very strong in Renaissance art, with some fine Dutch, German and Italian paintings. The collection was housed in a stately-looking set of older buildings at the time, but I understand that all of the paintings have been moved to Central Berlin and are being housed in the Kulturforum museum near Potsdamer Platz (as of 2000).

Also, closer to Mitte (Central Berlin), I visited the Topography of Terror Museum (housed in the old Gestapo Headquarters), Checkpoint Charlie Museum (a museum all about the archetypal border crossing, with escape stories and engrossing props and displays), the Transport Museum, Pergamon Museum, the Old National Art Gallery, a used book sale at Humboldt University (where Albert Einstein used to teach), Berlin History Museum, German History Museum at the Reichstag, Berlin Town Hall, and a few others. Not forgetting Potsdamer Platz, I investigated as much as I could the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall that were on display (where I picked up my own small piece of the wall), and went to the New National Gallery, just across what was left of the platz. (I understand that a lot of new construction has occurred around that area since then.) A little bit west of there, I went to the Museum of Resistance to National Socialism, on Bendlerstrasse, located in the old Army Headquarters building where a group of conspirators in the plot to assassinate Hitler were shot by firing squad. A morbid sight. Believe it or not I went to all of these museums, and I have to say I learned a lot, but the physical energy I exerted to get to all of them was strenuous. My desire to see and learn about everything was unquenchable, but it wore me out!

Considering the freezing temperatures each day, being around the time of Christmas and New Years, I think I saw as much as I could, and I have still left out some of the places I went to! Unfortunately, I caught a virus and felt pretty out-of-it on New Years Eve and New Years Day, but I recovered well enough to drive to Wittenberg a day or so later. The trip to Wittenberg was a real bonus! Veronica very generously let us borrow the car again, and I drove Linda and myself to Martin Luther's hometown, located about halfway between Berlin and Leipzig. It was a very interesting drive as we departed Berlin from the south and proceeded southwesterly through a few small towns to Wittenberg on a smooth two-lane highway. It was still possible to tell where the "Wall" (or fence) once divided West Berlin from the rest of the country. It felt odd to be driving through countryside that used to be part of the GDR, and I was very curious to see everything along the way, but we did not make any special stops, except at a gas station to buy gas. The few small towns that we drove through looked desolate, dull, and in desperate need of sprucing up, but strangely beckoning and alluring. I wanted nothing more than to stop, but I pressed on to Wittenberg, because I knew the day would be too short as it was.

We parked the car in Wittenberg, and walked through the town center to the Luther House, and then to Castle Church, where Luther is buried; the same church where he nailed the "Ninety-five Theses" in 1517. The doors are not original because they burned in 1760, but the bronze replacements now have the 95 Theses enscribed on them. We popped into a few shops, as well as a grocery store, to buy drinks and snack food for lunch. It was a cold day and there were not many people out, and maybe just a few Wessi's here and there. By the way people on the street glanced at Linda and I, I got an uneasy impression that they were startled by our presence. They were not exactly rude, but this was one of the most palpable experiences in my life where I felt the effects of an unwelcome gaze. Fortunately, nothing unpleasant happened. The lady at the front desk of the Luther House was friendly however. The Luther House was a museum about the life and times of Martin Luther, with many personal objects and manuscripts that belonged to the great reformer himself. This was an enormously rewarding experience, especially after learning so much about Luther during my formative education. The drive back to Berlin was interesting, but uneventful, even though we timed it just right to hit the evening drive-home traffic. We arrived back at Veronica's house after dark, feeling filled with accomplishment and relief that the day went so well.

Berlin was every bit as interesting as I thought it would be from a cultural and historical standpoint, but since Linda and I have family there it was all-the-more interesting. I know it looks like I did little other than sightsee the whole time I was there, but it was all very educational. Berlin was my textbook. I also experienced real-life situations such as grocery shopping, eating out, meeting friends of the family, watching TV, and plenty of maneuvering through public transport, driving, and even riding in a taxi on one occasion! When the time came for us to return to London, I was filled to the brim with Berlin, metaphorically speaking, but I was not the least bit tired of it. Veronica and Cathi accompanied us to Tegel on a gray afternoon for our flight, and the crowd at the airport was surprisingly small. Our check-in and wait was less stressful than usual--which was indicative of our whole trip. Berlin was not as stressful as I had expected, and was in some ways not what I expected it to be like. Perhaps being there at this time of the year exposed me to a less-crowded and slower-paced Berlin than is typical of the rest of the year, but I definitely feel as though I have a special relationship with Berlin now--which words alone are insufficient to describe.

"England is an empire, Germany is a nation, a race, France is a person."--Jules Michelet, 1798-1874, Histoire de France, 1867

"All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And Therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'"--John F. Kennedy, address at City Hall, West Berlin, June 26, 1963

[Berlin] "A luminous centre of intelligence...a wonderful city."--Mark Twain, 1892

Berlin: The City As Body, The City As Metaphor - A historical perspective about Berlin
Berlin Stadtplan - City maps
Berlin tourism
Berlin Travelogue by Phil Greenspun
Berlin Travelogue by Tony S.
German Bundestag
Martin Luther House
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - A guide to many of Berlin's museums
Wittenberg's Famous Sites
Click herer for a map of Germany