Pleasures and pain

Nanjing Night Net

undestag glass dome in Reichstag. Hackescher Markt in the Mitte district.

The bonhomie of present-day Berlin casts into sharp relief its sinister past, writes Diane Armstrong.

It’s a warm autumn evening on a lively Berlin street, and my partner and I are sitting at an outdoor table of the Monsieur Vuong restaurant, eating red duck curry and chatting to a friendly German couple at the next table.

All around me there is an atmosphere of bonhomie and it’s unsettling to realise that just across the road, where the shoe boutique is having its end-of-season sale, the Ledzetler family – Itzak, Deborah and their two young daughters, Susanne and Amelie – were dragged out of their apartment and deported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1943.

I know this because while walking towards the restaurant, I looked down at the small brass plaque set into the pavement that commemorates their fate. Five thousand of these “skipping stones” have been placed all over the city, poignant reminders of the fate of the Jewish Berliners whose lives ended so brutally.

So as I enjoy the Vietnamese meal, German friendliness, and the cosmopolitan buzz of today’s Berlin, I’m forced to confront the city’s dark past while enjoying its contemporary pleasures.

This is my first visit to Berlin and, as I find in the days to come, this city has courageously confronted its past.

I discover this while staying at the Adina Apartment Hotel in the very heart of historic Berlin, in the Mitte district. Once a down-at-heel working district, Mitte has become the cultural and historical centre of Berlin and contains many of its remarkable historical sites, memorials, and museums.

Walking is the best way to get the feel of a city and being able to walk from the Adina to most of Berlin’s highlights is an ideal way to get my bearings.

It’s thrilling to come face-to-face with iconic structures such as the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, and as I walk towards them I struggle to recall what I have read about their long history and their historical significance.

But once inside the huge glass dome of the Reichstag, I surrender to the aesthetic experience of climbing the steep spiral walkway of this astonishing structure, and gain a new perspective of the city while gazing at the panorama below. Berlin offers an exciting mixture of ancient and modern history. One morning we set out on foot, and by late afternoon we have covered more than 3000 years of history, from Nebuchadnezzar to Hitler, from ancient Assyria to communist East Berlin.

Just around the corner from the Adina, in a shady little park, we pass a memorial to 300 gutsy Christian women who staged a protest to release their Jewish husbands in 1943. Then we cross a bridge on the River Spree, with its sightseeing boats, and reach Museumsinsel, an island that contains five world-class museums. The marvels at the Pergamon Museum include the extraordinary Ishtar Gate with its glazed bricks of a startling lapis lazuli blue, and the 17-metre-high Market Gate of Miletus, is the largest monument assembled in a museum.

In the adjoining Neues Museum, the exquisite sculpted head of Nefertiti is 3300 years old.

Situated on a huge block of land in prime Berlin real estate, also within walking distance of the Adina Hotel, we come to the controversial Holocaust memorial, the location alone of which makes a powerful statement. Walking among its 2711 tomb-like slabs, all of different sizes and set at different angles, puts me off balance and creates an unsettling feeling, as it’s intended to do.

The excellent information centre underneath the memorial traces the milestones of the Holocaust. Among the exhibits are heartbreaking personal letters.

Even now, recalling the letter written by a 12-year-old called Judith chokes me up. “I am saying goodbye to you before I die,” she wrote to her father. “We would so love to live but we will die. I am so scared of this death because small children are thrown alive into the pit. Goodbye forever.”

Walking on, I come to a less obvious but equally evocative memorial. Situated in a square, the Empty Library marks the place where thousands of books were burnt in 1933.

Peering through a glass panel set into the ground, I look down at a large room with empty shelves.

I’ve read that not one of the bystanders spoke up to protest while books were being hurled into the flames and as I catch sight of my own reflection in the glass I wonder, what would I have done?

At night, the memorial is lit up and glows in the dark.

After a day packed with so much walking and contemplating, it’s a relief to stop at Hackescher Markt and join the locals soaking up the sunshine, drinking beer and listening to buskers. This lively plaza of outdoor cafes, restaurants, bars and boutiques is the perfect antidote to a day immersed in the traumatic past.

The stalls are heaped with freshly picked berries, their perfume mingling with the aroma of grilled bratwurst.

Around the corner from the marketplace, the Adina is actually a corner of Australia in Berlin.

There are Aboriginal prints, images of kangaroos and emus in our apartment and Vegemite on the sumptuous breakfast buffet.

It’s unthinkable to leave Berlin without an evening at a cabaret, and we have been recommended the Chamaeleon Club, barely five minutes’ walk away from the Adina, so with Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and the music from Cabaret running through my mind, we set off, expecting an evening of raunchy dancing and satirical humour.

The entertainers that night are vibrant, talented and exciting but they aren’t Berliners. They aren’t even Germans. They are Australians who are part of a circus troupe called Circa.

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