Berlin, known for it’s complicated history and vibrant streets. I would describe it as eccentric, always interesting, and educationally enriching. We landed in Berlin in the morning and hit the ground running, per usual, starting our day at Alexanderplatz, the largest square in Berlin. There we saw the famous TV Tower and World Clock.
We walked past Rotes Rathaus and St. Nicholas Church on our way to Berlin Cathedral. The tour was well worth it as we climbed to the top for a scenic view. The stairs may have been tiring but the overlook of the city was incredible. After we worked up an appetite, we headed to Gendarmenmarkt for lunch, but were disappointed to find the food stalls closed. Luckily, we found a little restaurant nearby for our first German meal. As Ben delighted himself with bratwurst and sauerkraut I enjoyed flammkuchen, which is essentially German pizza. It was delicious!
Then we were off to Museum Island. We had it set on our list to visit Pergamonmuseum, Neues Museum, and Altes Museum but with little time and closed exhibitions, we decided to head to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe instead and spend more time there. It was a sobering experience as we listened to the stories and looked at the portraits of families that were torn apart and murdered during World War II. As a child I had an odd fascination with the Holocaust. I wanted to know all about it, often reading books and watching movies to learn more. I thought I knew what there was to know, yet everywhere we went I learned a little bit more about the history, the stories, the heartache. It is unfathomable the amount of destruction and evil that occured.
The educational center of the memorial was underground, and above was covered with 2,711 concrete slabs forming rows upon rows of seemingly abstract gravestones. The artist of the installation, architect Peter Eisenman, stated that they are “designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” Standing between the towering concrete gave just that effect.
After leaving the memorial site, we walked past Brandenburg Gate towards the Reichstag Building, a building with a long history. We headed up to the dome to look over the city at sunset and the beauty of it all made you forget that it was a city torn apart by war and politics, with the Berlin Wall just falling in 1991. It may seem like forever ago, but in reality, it hasn’t been that long. As the sun set beneath the capital city, we headed off to a late dinner at Ständige Vertretung.
The next morning, we headed to Charlottenburg Palace, the Versailles of Berlin. The endless gardens and ornate decorations in large rooms almost mimic the famous palace in Paris. However, with Berlin attracting fewer people than Paris, the palace was nearly empty. We were able to roam from room to room, immersed in rococo decor. After the dedicant decorations, we headed to Rausch Schokoladenhaus, home to the world’s longest chocolate bar. We couldn’t resist some handmade german chocolates and coffee. On our walk back, we passed Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, a protestant church that was damaged during a bombing raid in 1943. The damaged spire and broken windows of the old church have been left untouched, but it’s ground floor has been transformed into a memorial hall. It was a surreal experience to be inside the church, damaged by the war. And tucked away in a park near the water, we ended our evening at a Biergarten.
Our last day in Berlin focused solely on the history of the city. We started at Checkpoint Charlie and the museum nearby. The museum displayed photos, documents, and artifacts related to successful escape attempts from East Germany. To be honest, beforehand I knew very little about the wall and learning about it’s impact and history was fascinating and saddening. The site sparked my inspiration to create a rephotograph. In college, I studied rephotography and created an entire series of rephotography in different cities contrasting the past with the present time. I found a photograph from 1961, taken of Checkpoint Charlie. I took a few moments to analyze the perspective and vantage point and as we crossed the street, I took a few photographs in hopes that they would algin. To my amazement, the photographs meshed to form a perfect combination of the old with the new. Afterwards we headed a nearby museum, The Topography of Terror, the most profound museum of the entire trip. During the Nazi regime, the Gestapo and SS headquarters were located there, but destroyed during early 1945. The ruins were transformed into a museum. We read about the history of the war and Hitler’s rise to power. An intelligent man who manipulated an entire population. It was frightening to read about his rise to power from the beginning. We read in silence for hours as we walked around the exhibition. At the end I stood before a wall of file cards which identified some of the people involved in the Nazi party and I realized that I exist because of the war. Many of us are a result of the war. My mother’s grandmother married a soldier she met as a result of WWII. It was selfish to think of myself in that moment, but I thought about how many of us would not exist if the war never happened. And then, pulled from my own head, I thought about how many would exist if it had not happened. I am by no means stating that I am happy that the war happened, the opposite in fact. It was just a simple and sad realisation.
Checkpoint Charlie, 2019, Nicole Leanne Photography // Checkpoint Charlie, 1961, Alamy Stock Photo
Following our extensive history lesson, we headed to see a bit of what was left of the wall. Near the center of Berlin, a piece of the wall remains and was transformed into an art gallery, known as East Side Gallery. The artwork transformed the wall into something beautiful, as art usually does. Again, I wanted to create a rephotograph of the scene. This time I cannot guarantee that the segments of the berlin wall are the same, and while the perspective is clearly skewed, the dichotomy of the two are stunning. Two men off in the distant against the now graffiti covered wall contrast with the two men in the old photograph from 1962. The tired young boy leans against a wall, paired with the inner wall of the East Side Gallery. The wall may be gone, but not forgotten. And so, our last evening ended at Prater Gaststätte, a traditional german restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg. While Berlin was filled with moments of sorrow, remembrance, and absolute awe of what happened in it’s past, it was also overflowing with culture, contemporary art, and stunning architecture.
As the first half of our trip concluded, we boarded a plane to Budapest. But that is a story for later.
Berlin Wall, 2019, Nicole Leanne Photography // Berlin Wall, 1962, Imagno / Getty