March 2010


There was always something that struck me as odd about Prague that I couldn’t put my finger on until I visited Berlin: it’s how Prague deals with history.  The tourist attractions here all deal with Prague in its glory days.  The castle, the Astronomical Clock, St Nicholas.  All of these places are reminders of when Prague was the center of developed world.  But so much other history has taken place here.  Prague was deeply affected by both World War II and Communism, but those things are rarely discussed.  Aside from the kitschy Museum of Communism, there is little in the way of tourist attractions.  The attitude seems to be that it’s better to not talk about it than to relive it every day.

Not so in Berlin.  Berlin is a city that has continued to develop and rebuild, but still remains intimately tied to its past.  Because of Germany’s involvement in World War II and the rise of Nazism, the country has taken the position that the horrors of the past must be examined and kept in the public mind if we are to prevent them from happening again.  When my dad and I were there, we took two tours: a Third Reich tour and a Cold War tour.  It was hard to believe that a city as lively and beautiful as Berlin once played a part in the deaths of so many people.  I took a lot of pictures while I was there, and this is going to be a long post because I want to explain the significance of some of them.  Some of it is frightening and a little graphic, but I think it’s important to know.

Our tour began at the museum to commemorate the German resistance to Hitler.  The statue in the courtyard represents the men who were executed after attempting to kill Hitler with a suitcase bomb (as was surprisingly well-portrayed by Tom Cruise in Valkyrie).  The plot failed, of course, and within hours several of the men were taken out to this courtyard and shot.  The statue is placed approximately where the men stood, while the large wooden plank is where the executioners would have been.

Several thousand people were ultimately executed by Hitler in relation to this particular assassination attempt, not all of whom were actually involved.  For many of those officers who were involved, though, Hitler had a more horrific fate tham death by firing squad.  The statue is naked to represent those men who were hanged by piano wire; they were able to stand up on their toes, and as their legs cramped they let their weight down on the wire, strangling themselves.  He ordered that they all be naked from the waist down.

Of course, the largest targeted group during the Holocaust was the Jews.  The memorial in Berlin stretches out across a city block.  It’s made of huge stone tablets that grow taller and taller as you walk into the center, until you’re unable to see your way out.  It’s loosely based on the Jewish tradition of leaving pebbles at gravesites.

There are still reminders all over the city of the destruction caused during World War II; as the location of Hitler’s bunker and headquarters, it was targted by the Allies for bombing near the end of the war.  The city chose to leave the remains of this church standing as a reminder of what had happened.

There are subtler reminders as well, like this office building still riddled with bullet holes.

At the end of World War II, the Soviets claimed large portions of Germany as well as the eastern part of Berlin.  West Berlin, though controlled by the Americans, British and French, was still surrounded on all sides by the Soviets.  At first, citizens of Berlin could pass freely between the two sides of the city.  Then, one night, the order was given to run large spools of barbed wire down the dividing line between the two halves, as well as around the border between West Berlin and the rest of Soviet Germany.  Within a few hours, the first incarnation of the Berlin Wall was up.  Over the next few years, it was gradually solidified until it became the wall we’re familiar with.  Seeing it now, though, it still doesn’t look that intimidating.  You can’t imagine why people couldn’t just figure out a way of getting over it.

But there were guard towers armed with snipers who were under orders to shoot to kill; their weapons were regularly inspected for accuracy and anyone who didn’t have a “reasonable” explanation for why they hadn’t succeeded in killing an escapee was severely punished.  There were guard dogs and anti-tank precautions, as well as search lights and barrier fences.  Most importantly, though, there were informants.  Our guide told us about his friend who had grown up in East Germany.  He made plans to escape and told only two people: his sister and his best friend.  His best friend was an informant, and the boy spent several days being interrogated and tortured.  It was impossible to know who to trust.

It’s strange to walk through the city and pass over the dividing line between East and West, knowing that twenty-five years ago it would have been impossible.  In spite of it’s sad history, or maybe partly because of it, I loved the city.  It’s a young city–most people we saw seemed to be in their twenties and thirties.  It’s full of restaurants and art galleries and a feeling that the past can coexist with the present and future; they can respect and honor what came before while still moving forward.

The insistance on bearing witness, though, is something I think will be invaluable for us in the future.  It was frightening to hear the explanation of just how Hitler came to power.  The economic recessions and the need to find a visible scapegoat for anything and everything hit a little too close to home in light of the past ten years of American politics.  It’s hard to believe that an entire country could become wrapped up in something so hateful, and yet it happened.  Of course there were good people–there are always good people–who tried to stop it, who gave their lives trying to prevent it, but at the time it wasn’t enough.  I can only hope that we don’t find that to be the case again.

There are a lot of ways in my life that I’m lucky, from the obvious to the mundane.  I’m lucky to have gone to a good school, to have great friends, and to have had multiple opportunities to study and travel abroad and see many of the places I’ve always dreamed of.  Most of that luck, though, stems from one thing: my parents.  I think that of everything I have in my life, I’m luckiest to have the parents that I do.  Both my mother and father have always supported me and encouraged me in every way, no matter what the decision.  You want to leave a Big Name University?  Do it.  Travel to Asia alone at the age of nineteen?  Why not?  Of course you can spend the next three years in the cornfields of Iowa!  I know that there are many, many people who can’t say the same thing.

I’m also lucky that my parents are financially secure enough to have both been able to come visit me during my year here in Prague.  Again, this is something that many people don’t have the opportunity to do, especially now.  I wrote many months ago about my trip to London with my mother, which was full of walking, food, and served to quell some of my homesickness.  My recent visit from my father had many of the same elements, but with a different setting.  We spent several days in Prague and travelled to Berlin for the weekend.  I’m going to split up our time into two posts, because while I enjoyed both, the subject matter and history of Berlin are much more serious than the less-Nazi-filled time in Prague.

My father is the first visitor I’ve really been able to show around Prague after having lived here for a significant period of time.  When Thomas visited in the summer I was just settling in and getting to know the city, and when another friend from Grinnell was in town a few weeks ago I had to work, leaving him to his own devices during the day, although I was able to make time to introduce him to good Czech food (lucky for him he’s not a vegetarian) and a frustrating round of trivia at the Prague Tiki Lounge.

Much like my trip to London, my father’s trip to Prague consisted mainly of walking.  We walked around Old Town, we walked around the castle, and we walked past my office, where he took a picture of me in front of my law firm’s nameplate.  Because I’m extremely professional like that.  We also played “how many old and famous things can you fit in one picture?”  A lot, as it turns out.

It had been a long time since I had taken my camera around Prague, and I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to use my fancy new camera at night.  Prague after dark is almost surreally beautiful, like something sketched out by a Disney animator.  Everything glows around the river, and the castle up on the hill could be right out of a fairy tale.  I think most cities are beautiful at night, but Prague seems especially suited to the dark.  Even the Charles Bridge, usually unbearable because of the number of meandering tourists, is transfixing.

Having my father here made me appreciate Prague again.  The arrival of spring and the excuse to walk across the city, cameras in hand, made his visit both welcome and therapeutic.  Though I wrote before of my love of the snow and Prague winter, I can’t say that I lament the warm weather and being able to keep my windows open again.

I wish he could have stayed for another day or two, but I think that’s always the case.  I’m sure when I move back home I’ll forget my incredible luck all to quickly as I become bogged down with day-to-day chores and the routine of seeing my family again.  Hopefully I’ll be able to remind myself.