A year ago this week, I set off on one of the most incredible journeys ever. I did a ten-day solo trip to Europe. It was life-changing and honestly one of the proudest things I’ve ever done. Eventually, I want to travel even more and hopefully get to write about all my adventures. But today, I want to share with you some stories about my time in Berlin.
Now, I’m German. My grandmother was so proud of our heritage. In middle school when I chose to take German as my language, my grandmother promised me she’d give me $50 if I got an A during the semester just in that class. We grew up saying “danke schön” and “bitte” in grandma’s house.
I studied abroad in the Munich area the summer after my freshman year of college, and I loved it. I’ve just always felt very connected to German culture. So when I was planning my big Europe trip, I knew I wanted to see the capital. I knew I needed to go to Berlin.
Now, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Germany now is an amazing country full of art and beer and good company. In the 1930s and 40s, Germany was a fascist nation run by a dictator that committed heinous crimes of mass murder against a huge population of people. The Holocaust is easily one of the worst crimes that has ever happened in the history of the world. This is simply fact, everyone recognizes this act for the abomination it was.
I was prepared, going to Berlin, for the history I would get to encounter there. I knew I’d be able to see sections of the Berlin Wall that were still standing and visit Checkpoint Charlie and experience a whole lot of the history I’d only read about. Berlin has been through a lot, and a lot of it has been less than pleasant.
Perhaps the most moving experience I had was my visit to the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. And that is primarily what I want to talk about today.
So the geography of Berlin is spread out with memorials everywhere. The Berlin Wall memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, the East Side Gallery, Bebelplatz (a memorial to book burning), Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, these are all located in different areas of the city. But what really struck me is how the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was one city block away from the Brandenburg Gate. The iconic symbol of freedom in Berlin is located a block away from this memorial to the worst period in German history.
I got on my GPS and made my way to go see it and pay my respects, and I expected maybe a statue... or a fountain? I honestly didn’t even know what to expect. I wondered if I’d know it when I saw it or if I’d have to search.
Let me tell you, I didn’t have to search.
I rounded the corner to see an entire city block dedicated to what looked like an ocean of stone. I’m going to attach a picture with this article, but even that doesn’t portray the weight and emotion you feel seeing it in person. It was honestly breathtaking.
Under the memorial, there is a museum. Free to get into, I paid two Euro for the audio guide. The hours I spent there were some of the most sobering, humbling moments of my life.
The tragedy of the Holocaust becomes more real when you get to read the letters that were thrown out of trains in a desperate attempt to let loved ones know what was happening. It becomes more real when you look at a picture of a family of 15 people and learn that only one person survived. It becomes more real when you sit in a room where an audio recording plays the names of Jews who were murdered. The recording lasts for days and only gets through a small fraction of names.
And the whole time I just remember being stunned that this kind of a memorial, this kind of a museum was right in the heart of a city that perpetrated this kind of violence. A few months earlier I had gone to Hawaii with my family and we went to Pearl Harbor. Also a moving place, but a different kind of moving. When you visit Pearl Harbor or Ground Zero in NYC, those are places where you mourn a tragedy that happened to us. America was attacked in those situations. But at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin? Nazis were responsible. The German government did that.
There was no one else to blame or point the finger at. And they didn’t back down from that history. They didn’t try to cover it up. It was like the whole museum, on the behalf of Germany was saying “this was an atrocity. We are to blame. We know sorry doesn’t even begin to cover it. But we want to honor these individuals who tragically lost their lives on our soil.”
And then I thought back to the quote you’re greeted with when you enter the doors: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”
It was a kind of ownership I’ve never seen demonstrated before, especially in my home country. I can't imagine us in America ever having a museum honoring murdered and displaced indigenous people or apologizing for Japanese internment camps or a government sanctioned memorial to victims of police brutality. Honestly until now, I don’t think I’ve ever been taught anything bad about America.
We’ve never examined the rough parts of our own history. Even when history class talks about slavery, it’s brushed over as “not one of our best moments,” but "we’re still one of the greatest countries in the world." For Americans, apologizing means backing down which shows weakness. And we refuse to ever be seen as weak. So we never own up to the bad stuff.
I live in a country where we celebrate Columbus Day and only learn about slavery for a few chapters in junior year American history. People here wave Confederate flags and pretend they aren’t symbols of oppression. Unmarked police are grabbing people off the street, yet those in power claim it’s in the name of justice. It’s hard to deny the warning signs here that were present in Germany years before the Nazis took over.
“It happened, therefore it can happen again.”
The direction our country is going in scares me. And I’m sorry I’m getting political, but I have to write about what I see, and what I see now is scaring me. But there is a level of “it happened, therefore it can happen again” that we just aren’t processing.
We don’t know how to learn from our mistakes when we refuse to acknowledge we made any. I’m all for patriotism, but when did it get to such an extreme level where even a minor criticism of policy means I’m a liberal threat and should leave the country? If you love something, shouldn’t you want to make it better? Why are we being shut down for trying to do just that?
I’m no political expert and I don’t know much about truly fighting fascism. But here’s the connection I really want to make. When I was in Berlin, I walked through a city that went through a period of truly terrible leadership. A city that was the base for so much hatred and division and ugliness. I wandered and took in all the loss and pain that happened there, and could see how they now work to make their country something to be proud of again. I experienced a city full of remorse. A city that acknowledged its hurtful past. A city that recognized owning their past mistakes was the only way to move forward.
And it’s now a thriving city. Full of life, love, excitement, and joy. But getting there took work and it took acceptance of a past they aren’t proud of. And the country as a whole had to work together to get to where they are now.
So, America, maybe it's time to start that work.
We’ve got a messy history, to say the least. The more I learn, the more stuff I realize we need to own up to and repent for. And really I don’t see a way forward to the idealized America, the true land of opportunity and freedom for all people until we reflect on the hate and hurt from our past. It’s going to feel uncomfortable at first. But the first step in learning and growing from the past is acknowledging all of it, the good and the bad.
It’s a big ask, I know. But let me leave you with one last quote from my time in Berlin, and this one is from the East Side Gallery.
“Viele kleine leute die in vielen kleinen orten viele kleine dinge tun. Können das gesicht der welt verändern.”
Translation: “Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world.”
It starts with you. It starts with me. Now let’s go own our history and start creating a world we’re truly proud of.