Berlin. The East-side gallery, AKA the “Berlin Wall.” Rainy and overcast, I have three coats on and my hood is up. Here before me stands the most physical remnant of a city with a serious history, with a bloody and confused story. This wall is a living symbol of all that happened in the Holocaust, the Cold War, the stark division of a society that has thrived for hundreds of years. It is monumental in the eyes of the world, in the history lessons taught throughout schools in Europe and the U.S.
I’m posing for a picture. The art behind me is large, big enough to block out the sky if I’m close, the other side of the city if I’m far away. It depicts a man in red and orange and black, he’s leaning and falling, shoved by the sky. Gravity is depicted by red swirling points of light—some burning night. His foot rests on a red globe, one hand covers his eyes in pain the other he holds out to the world, to say stop, to put an end to the madness.
It is beautiful. The fact that art lives here. Berlin is beautiful. The expansive green fields and lush gardens. The wall itself is beautiful; it has color and life and humor, it glows like humanity even in the overcast creep of winter.
I would say, having walked the steps from end to end, having seen people from around the world take pictures and make jokes, look serious and have a moment, that the wall still paints Berlin’s identity, now its past and its future.
My experience, brief though it was, found a city in which internationality was praised, diversity exemplified and celebrated. On the soil of the rebuilt metropolis lives a kind and warm-hearted group: they speak many languages and slow for pedestrians, they drink beer in the streets without fear and without violence. They recycle. These might be simple things, but it implies a lot about a local culture, where it came from and where it’s going.
In my experience national sites of historical importance, specifically those created by war in the 20th century, are very hard to stomach. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Tuol Seng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, the Auschwitz concentration camp. They always take me through the experience itself, the pain and hardship and loss, which has a value of its own, but the Wall was different. Berlin has had its dark moments—and it pays respect to those trying times in a variety of ways—but I felt relieved and uplifted to see a monument hold such promise for the future.
“Guten tag” was the first thing a Berliner said to me. It was midday and we were heading down a flight of stairs to take in the day. She was older and turning the key to get into her apartment. She smiled and made eye contact, made me feel like her building was my own, her space my space. Her Berlin is modern, it has been rebuilt, from the streets to the ideology. As a hub of commerce, youth and technology it will hopefully grow outward, a standard of light for other cities and nations.