For the past week, and the next two, we have hosted/are hosting Ruth’s brother Rob in Germany. Rob is a writer by trade and temperament, and we have drafted him to contribute to our blog to chronicle his time here, and document our trip to Berlin. Here’s Rob:
On Monday, January 23, I boarded a flight out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, bound for Frankfurt (via Dulles). I arrived in Frankfurt the next morning and caught a train for the German university city of Göttingen, in Lower Saxony, where my sister and her family are living for a year while my brother-in-law is a visiting fellow at the Licthenberg-Kolleg, the university’s institute for advanced study.
On my first full day in Germany, my sister Ruth showed me around Göttingen while her three children—Greta (11), Anya (8), and Walter (6)—were in school. We went into the old St. Jacobi (St. James) church, dating to the 14th century, but festively painted in Renaissance style. The gilded altarpiece dates to 1402. Ruth ended up having a long conversation with (or rather, listening to a long lecture by) Herr Knittel, the churchwarden, about the history of the church. We also passed many historic plaques on buildings where famous scholars lived, including a plaque for Benjamin Franklin, who was here in July 1766. I also paid my respects at the grave of the famous mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, which is in a cemetery not far from Anya’s school. I also spent a lot of time helping Walter sort through his Lego collection.
On my second day in Göttingen, I took a walk by myself up into the wooded hills above Göttingen to see the Bismarckturm, a pseudo-medieval tower built in the 1890s to honor the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, the architect of the German Empire, who had been a law student at the University of Göttingen as a young man. The tower is at the top of a high hill overlooking the city, but was easily-accessible (zugänglich means “accessible” in German; I’m learning a lot of odd vocabulary) from Ruth and Jason’s apartment. I’m hoping to return to the tower and do more exploring in the woods before I leave Göttingen. At the moment, however, it’s about twenty degrees colder here in Germany than it is in Minnesota, so I will have to walk rather briskly to avoid freezing.
After a week in Germany, I feel like I can understand and read quite a bit more German, but I don’t really have the confidence to speak any. Greta, however, is getting quite fluent (and Anya is also doing very well), and I’m very impressed by my sister Ruth’s ability to dive into conversations with people in German.
On Friday afternoon, the entire family—Ruth, Jason, Greta, Anya, Walter, and I—boarded the high-speed ICE (intercity express) for Berlin. We arrived at the relatively new Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station) in the early evening and walked to our rented self-catering apartment on Turmstraße, in the quiet neighborhood of Moabit. During WWII, Moabit was known for a huge prison used by the Gestapo. Our apartment was near a prison and the Kriminalgericht (criminal justice building), but the notorious Moabit prison of Nazi times is no longer standing.
But it was strange to be in a city with such a notorious history, a city in which there are still ample reminders of the tragedies of World War II and the Berlin Wall. On my first morning in Berlin, I walked down to the Tiergarten to have a look at the Sieggesäule, the monument celebrating Prussian victories over Denmark, Austria, and France in the mid-1860s. After World War II, France carried off the friezes on the base of the column as spoils of war (as the Russians carried off much of the “treasure of Priam” that Schliemann excavated at Troy in the 19th century), and only recently returned them.
After being in England for a year, it was an odd experience to be in a country with a history of being both proudly imperialistic (like Britain), and also soundly defeated. The history here is definitely complicated. It’s so strange to walk into a building like the Berliner Dom (the Berlin Cathedral) and realize that it was built under Kaiser Wilhelm II (World War I), severely damaged by Allied bombing in World War II, left in disrepair by the Communist East Germans until the 1980s, and finally restored to its original pre-war state after reunification. There are so many layers of history in Berlin, and it’s fascinating how the restoration of a building can repair the ravages of the past, and yet leave the memory of those ravages so painfully close to the surface.
In the Pergamonmuseum, there are reconstructions of three great architectural monuments of the ancient world: the great altar from Pergamon (ca. 150s BCE), the Ishtar Gate (6th c. BCE) from Babylon, and the Miletus market gate (ca. 120 CE). The museum itself was heavily reconstructed in the decades after the war. One of the strangest displays in the Neues Museum, which contains the bust of Nefertiti (ca. 1340 BCE) and other ancient objects, is the Fragmentarium, which contains bits of the museum itself that couldn’t be put back in the right place when the museum was rebuilt in the 1980s-2000s.
After visiting the Sieggesäule, I walked through the Tiergarten. I stopped to look at the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven Monument, the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, and the memorial to gay victims of the Nazis, then met Ruth and Jason and the children at Potsdamerplatz and headed over for a visit to the glass dome on top of the Reichstag. It was a cold visit, but gave us great views of the city. And at the very top, I ran into a group of St. Olaf College students on a January term visit to Berlin. (Note: St. Olaf is in Northfield, where I live, and my older son is a student there.)
After the Reichstag visit, Ruth and Greta and I spent the rest of the afternoon in the Gemäldegalerie, the fabulous collection of Old Master paintings in the special Kulturforum west of the Sony Center (and across the street from the Berlin Philharmonic) in Potsdamerplatz. The collection includes two gorgeous Vermeers, more Rembrandts than I’ve ever seen in a single museum, some of my favorite Germans (Cranach the Elder and Holbein), and hundreds of other great pieces (including one by my eccentric favorite Carlo Crivelli, with his trademark cucumber). Nearly eleven-year old Greta is the perfect museum companion, studying everything carefully, asking great questions and making great observations. She’s a smart girl.
The second day in Berlin was spent almost exclusively at the Deutsches Technikmuseum, the museum of technology, which includes detailed and fascinating exhibits on everything from computers (Conrad Zuse’s 1938 Z1 computer and its descendants) to trains (including Kaiser Wilhelm’s personal train carriage and a cattle car used to transport Jews to concentration camps) to planes to boats to cameras to radios—there was even an exhibit (which we made fun of) on the manufacture of suitcases. We spent about six hours at the museum, and could have spent more. It was brilliant. I was completely worn out afterwards, and glad to spend a low-key couple of hours making our way to dinner in Prenzlauer Berg via the Gendarmenmarkt, where we briefly visited the Deutscher Dom (heavily reconstructed), where I found a silver Coventry cross of nails on the wall, given (unless I deciphered the sign wrong) by the late Queen Mother to former BRD President Weisacker to symbolize the reconciliation (Versöhnung) of Germany and Britain. We ate dinner on Sunday night (using a Groupon) at a tapas restaurant with another American family living in Berlin.
Monday—our last day in Berlin—was a big museum day. I walked from our apartment down Alt-Moabit, past the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, then down Unter den Linden to Museuminsel (Museum Island). I eventually met Ruth and Jason and the kids at the Berliner Dom, the Berlin Cathedral.The building has been beautifully restored to its neo-baroque pre-War splendor, but it didn’t impress me as much as my favorite gloomy old English churches and cathedrals, like Lincoln Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey. In the shadowy crypt of the cathedral is a macabre collection of Hohenzollern lead coffins from the 17th through the 19th centuries, all laid out and labeled like a museum exhibit, some with dried-out wreathes laid in front of them.
From the cathedral, Ruth and Greta and I headed to the museums, while Jason took Anya and Walter to the Sea Life Center. Our first museum was the Altes Museum, which has a fantastic collection of Greek and Roman (and Etruscan) antiquities. Then we went to the Pergamonmuseum, and ended with the Neues Museum. In the Altes Museum, there was a smoke-damaged Roman sarcophagus that had been stowed in a bunker that caught fire in the bombing late in World War II. The Altes Museum was quiet and uncrowded, and I probably spent the most time there, looking at sculptures and vase paintings. The Pergamonmuseum was heaving with people. The Babylonian Ishtar Gate, reconstructed with pieces excavated in Iraq in the 1930s, looked oddly as if it could have been constructed out of colorful Legos—like the Lego model of Berlin itself that the kids saw at the Lego Discovery Center on Potsdamerplatz.
I think my favorite piece in all of the museums was a mid-second century CE sculpture, probably from a Roman tomb, of a pubescent girl playing with astragaloi (knucklebones), a game like dice. What I’ve learned is that a throw of four knucklebones that land in different positions was called an “Aphrodite,” and that depictions of girls playing knucklebones seem to represent the transition from childhood to adolescence and marriageability (as well as chance and fate). This little girl has two knucklebones in different positions. I wonder what the significance of that is? Perhaps it symbolizes life cut short. She has a very sweet face, although I believe that she has a reconstructed head. Again, it’s hard in Berlin to figure out what’s authentic and old, and what’s recreated.