Berlin’s unflinching memorials of the terrible events in its history can make for an emotional but rewarding experience. By Diane Armstrong.

Berlin, a city of atonement

The open-air Topography of Terror museum, against an extant segment of the Berlin Wall and one of the few Nazi government buildings left standing.
Credit: Guillén Pérez/Flickr

“Once you’re inside, they don’t let you out,” I say, as we push open the heavy iron door of the forbidding cement building. I can’t resist the black humour. Perhaps the building unnerves me. My partner, Bert, and I are about to enter Sammlung Boros, an intriguing gallery of ultra-modern art located in a World War II bunker. This is the first day of our visit and as I’m about to discover, Berlin is like that: a disconcerting juxtaposition of the worst of history with the best of modern art.

It is my first visit to Berlin, a city I’ve avoided for a long time. I’m a child Holocaust survivor and although I don’t hold today’s Germans responsible for the genocide in which 63 members of my Jewish family in Poland were murdered, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, I have never felt an urge to walk Berlin’s streets or breathe its air. Until now.

To my surprise, this trip turns out to be a pilgrimage. Instead of concealing the atrocities of the past, or making excuses for them, Germany has flaunted them in a way I find disarming. It’s impossible to go very far in Berlin without encountering some reminder of the horrors that took place here. I’m impressed by the fact that instead of trying to distance themselves from the perpetrators by describing them as Nazis, they refer to them as Germans.

As I walk around the city, I pass a staggering number of sculptures and statues commemorating the Holocaust. There’s one in memory of the 10,000 Jewish children whose parents managed to send them out of Berlin by train in 1938, even though they themselves were doomed; another honouring the Christian women who risked their lives demonstrating against their Jewish husbands’ imprisonment.

In the Lustgarten, where Hitler once addressed adoring masses, an exhibition called Diversity Destroyed is being staged, which consists of photographs of prominent German-Jewish artists, writers and scientists whose voices were silenced forever. Whenever I look down, I see small brass plaques set into the pavement reminding passers-by of Jewish Berliners who once lived in these buildings and were taken away and killed.

I’m stunned by the originality and emotional impact of Berlin’s memorials. Like the one that commemorates the public burning of books. In the square where the conflagration took place – the Bebelplatz – through a glass panel set into the cobblestones beneath my feet, I see a large space with empty shelves.

This is the “Empty Library”. It’s impossible to go inside – just as you cannot go back in time. At night it is lit, a reminder of the human spirit that can’t be extinguished.

Strolling around the city, I come to a large square covered with stone slabs, 2711 of them, all different heights and set at different angles. This must be the only memorial that is designed for visitors to walk through, and as I walk among this crooked maze of tombstones I feel disoriented and unsettled, as if I’ve wandered into an eerie cemetery of nameless dead. Which is what this really is: a memorial to the Jews murdered during the Holocaust. And to reinforce the significance of this memorial, it has been situated in one of the most valuable spaces in central Berlin. An open wound on the city’s landscape.

I’m bowled over by the innovative design of the Jewish Museum, which is an architectural metaphor for 2000 years of Jewish history in Germany. Inside there’s a tower of silence. Another heavy iron door clangs behind me and I am plunged into darkness. It’s an uncomfortable sensation but after a while I can make out shadowy shapes: people are sitting on the floor in silent contemplation. The only source of light in this tall tower is a narrow slit at the very top. A small ray of hope piercing the darkness.

But the memorial that makes the greatest impact on me has not been designed by architects or sculptors. Gleis 17 at Grunewald station has been left exactly as it was in the war years. Along both sides of the platform, small brass plaques state the numbers of Jewish men, women and children who were brought here from October 1941 to February 1945, loaded into cattle trucks, and taken to death camps.

As I walk along the platform and read these statistics I feel numb. All around are lovely maples, ash and birch trees glowing in the autumn sunshine, and I’m trying to grasp the enormity of this site, all the more chilling for being so starkly matter-of-fact. There are houses all around the station, just as there were then, where residents must have witnessed what was happening.

The end of the war brought a new kind of repression to Berlin, and as I mingle with the crowd around Checkpoint Charlie and the site of the Berlin Wall, I think about how yesterday’s tragedies become today’s tourist attractions. I’ve read the books and seen the movies, and I know the methods used during the Communist era that forced people to spy and report on their friends, lovers and relatives, but it’s not until I visit the grim Stasi prison, with its dimly lit corridors and hideous punishment cells, that the inhumanity of the East German regime really hits me.

One of the most evocative buildings in Berlin is the Reichstag, and as I follow the ingenious spiral walkway inside the gigantic glass dome and gaze at the spectacular view over the city from the top, it’s hard to grasp that I’m walking inside the building that played such a dramatic part in Hitler’s rise. This historic building has been burnt down, bombed and reduced to rubble, but it has been rebuilt with great flair.

Art and history: that’s what makes Berlin so fascinating.

But there’s so much more. Berlin has more green space than any other European capital, and after visiting the Holocaust memorials and monuments to the Communist era, it’s relaxing to stroll around the vast Tiergarten with its delightful garden beds and former royal hunting lodges, or to stop at Berlin’s outdoor cafes, bars and restaurants. In the lively Hackescher Markt, I enjoy coffee at one of the outdoor tables and listening to buskers strumming guitars. One of them is playing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and, as many of us join in,
I feel the kind of camaraderie that singing together creates.

On the way back to our hotel, I can’t resist the fragrant strawberries, blackberries and raspberries heaped on the market stalls, or the mouth-watering aroma of bratwurst being grilled, and we return to our room laden with food.

Each time we cross the Spree, we promise ourselves that we’ll take one of the boats that ply the river, but there’s never enough time because there are so many unmissable sights. Like the Museumsinsel, a group of world-class museums whose collections span 6000 years and include the exquisite head of Nefertiti. Inside the Pergamon Museum, I stand speechless in front of the magnificent Babylonian Ishtar Gate, built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. That evening we go to the opera, and by a strange irony, they are performing Verdi’s Nabucco, the story of the Hebrew slaves who triumph over the cruel tyrant who tried to annihilate them.

It’s Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and although I’m not religious, the idea of going to a synagogue in Berlin on that particular day is compelling. The Rykestrasse Synagogue has been beautifully restored, and within I reflect on the surprises that life has in store. I came to Berlin not expecting that I would find it so captivating. Today’s Germans have confronted their past and tried to atone for the crimes of their predecessors. Sitting in a restored synagogue in Berlin on the day people are supposed to forgive each other offers me an unexpected sense of closure.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 14, 2015 as "City of atonement". Subscribe here.

Diane Armstrong
is an award-winning author and journalist.