Berlin Nights

“Really cozy and strangely horrific pub, a rough spot tucked into some of the finer quarters of the city center. Much appreciated!”

says a review of Eschschloraque Rümschrümp on Foursquare.

I did not even know I was near this pub somewhere in Mitte, the night I went out with a fellow desi I met at the Circus hostel. [Sadly I have forgotten his name so I’ll just call him X].

We strolled down from the wonderful Circus Hostel, and we kept walking, looking for things to do in the middle of the night in a city we were not familiar with.

The thing is, if I hadn’t met him, I would never have seen much of the night life in Berlin. I travel alone, and with the typical guarded sense of a South Asian (scratch that…Indian) woman, with my own set of paranoia. I would never DREAM of walking down empty streets in the dark.

Which is what most of the European countries turned out to be. Really empty, absolutely empty. Not even dogs roam the streets of the western world. Maybe they are used to it. But to me, growing up in India’s perennially crowded streets, this is like walking at a really late hour and feeling very alone and unsafe.

So, thankfully I met friend X. While I was a day-bird who spent all my days at the museums, he was basically the opposite. Slept until quite late in the day and then was out, with a small bottle of JaegerMeister tucked in his front pocket “cheapest way for us desis to get drunk in Europe, is to buy this baby from a convenience store“. And because I thankfully spoke to him at the hostel, we made a plan to go out and check out the night scene in Berlin.

We were walking down a street after some burgers on Alexanderplatz, when crossed a little corner teeming with graffiti. Perhaps it was still early in the evening, because there was, again, no one around. That’s when I took this photograph.

>> i was laughing at our attempts to pronounce this <<

It was only today, when I was going through my photos that I realised I was holding up a placard that said “Eschschloraque Rümschrümp”, and only when I tried to find out what that meant that I realised it was yet an underground bar in Berlin.

That’s the thing about Berlin, you never know that you are outside a pub, or anything outside of the stoic walls bathed with posters and graffiti; which is so cool because that year I was beginning to be surfeit with India’s over-exhibitionism.

When all that you are, is on display, it begins to subtly affect what you choose to show, and why you do what you do. All the drama of our news channels, our “patriotism” worn on fragile sleeves, our moral values infringing on everyone else’s; Berlin was a sharp contrast to all of that. Ironic in a way…considering its history. But perhaps that is also what is so hopeful…that one day, even we, who currently aspire to be little fuhrers, will one day break free, from the shackles of group-think.

>> Anne Frank will live on <<

Meantime, onward ho! At some point we started looking for a disc (ancient word, I can’t remember the more trendy word– ah club), that X had heard about from a friend. We finally found it, on a quiet empty street. Unlike India (or shall I say, Delhi? :D), the street outside was quiet and not lined with parked cars. No hawkers, no random women falling over, no men hanging around. People slip in and slip out, and one would never know.

Unless we were too early, this is exactly how empty and quiet it was. So we went up to the door, and basically got a good hard germanic stare (droll). We were asked if we were wearing anything underneath our decidedly boring jackets. X zipped down his jacket, good old sweater beneath. “And below that?” she asked. He was like “Umm, my tee shirt”.

“and below that?”. OKayyy, time for us to leave now 🙂

So we did a small hop skip jump over to the other side of the street where X decided to top up on another Jaeger and get a couple of beers. We sat outside the store laughing about the whole thing, when suddenly…the street erupted. A taxi dislodged, quite literally, a dozen young men. They all go out laughing, drinking, hooting, very excited about the same club we’d just tried to get into.

They looked middle-eastern, they talked with an almost Cockney accent, and guess what…they were of Punjabi origin! Soon, X (also Punjabi it seems), was out there hugging-shugging, and even me, trying out the little stereotypical Punjabi phrases, only to realise that the Punjabi they spoke was even more “theth” and unintelligible to the average non-Punjabi 🙂

After offering us their drinks (I love how our Asian genes are still so strong no matter where the descendants ends up), they crossed the street to try their luck. X and I grinned at each other as the bunch of good old hearty boys went up, and in five minutes were calling cabs, waving goodbye to us as they rushed to a less esoteric pub-shub.

We finally ended up at a club too, a regular one. The kind where you dance the night away and not find cabs on the way back. Quite fun.

A day in Sachsenhausen

I have been dreading the moment of writing about my visit to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. So perhaps I shall do it ploddingly, asking myself questions along the way.

How did I get here? Well initially my intention was to travel across Germany and go to Auschwitz, but with my tendency to micro-plan (on a tight budget), the idea started becoming daunting. I was suddenly also getting cold-feet, the cold and dreary vision I conjured of Krakow and the camps were making me very hesitant.

Auschwitz was out, but I had to visit a concentration camp. In my head, I simply cannot imagine being in a country or continent whose history is defined (for me) by the war, the Holocaust and struggles of human free-will and not visit the places where some very brave and many innocent people perished. Human depravity, I believe, has to be confronted and recognised, and where else would one do that but in Germany, which has stood up so resolutely to confront its past.

Why Sachsenhausen? I almost went to Ravensbruck but I again my budget, the limited time and trying to figure out routes etc. was getting too much for me. So I decided that Sachsenhausen made the most sense. It’s within Berlin city limits (probably it’s outermost tier as it does need a special “C” marked ticket, just like Potsdam), so I could dedicate an entire day to this while staying in Berlin.

On a brilliant morning in May 2019, I set off on the S-Bahn towards the camp. I can’t remember much of the train ride, except perhaps there was a station called Wannsee, and it reminded me of an English town called Swansea. I was also thinking as I sat in the train, of how pretty the countryside was, and how it must have been for a Berlin Jew to have been on a similar train-ride, perhaps this person looked out (if possible) and saw the same landscape that I was looking at, only with a different outcome to this journey? Were these the same train tracks that led towards the town of Oranienburg?

From the station I decided to walk to the camp, along the broad pavements and quiet neighbourhoods (where are all the people in Europe?). Again, I was constantly reminded of the camp prisoners who were also made to walk through the town back in the ’30s, only with a much more hateful crowd jeering at them. Sachsenhausen camp had political prisoners as well as Jews and other people that the Nazis considered “racially or biologically inferior” (ref: camp museum brochure). It also had, as I discovered later, a large number of Russian POWs. Thousands of these prisoners died here. After the war, when the camp became a Soviet prison. The museum brochure that I am referencing mentions 200,000 prisoners in the Nazi period, 60000 in the Soviet era and the death toll is in tens of thousands.

How did we get here? No, I can never quite answer that. Much much better minds have tried and grasped at some or none of the reasons. Even now, when I see these photographs, I am in deep sadness. Always I imagine myself in the shoes of the prisoners, when they first walked through these gates with the horrific words “Arbeit Macht Frei” [‘work sets us free’]. How is it that these geometrically straight paths, the symmetry and deliberate planning hide such a squalid mess of humanity, or did these symbols of order actually delude the Nazis into thinking that they were just managing for efficiency, optimising a service at these camps?

It is to the credit of the various memorial foundations that fund these camps that today we are given access to these historical places, places where people suffered and died. We have been given, almost like a second life, the opportunity to contemplate the ruins and to look at the same view that a prisoner sentenced to death by hanging had. If I were to bring in Tibetan beliefs of past life, I may even be here because I had a connection with the place in a previous birth. [hmmm…past life is not my thing, but it’s a good way to begin to learn empathy].

Many of the old barracks no longer exist, but the locations are marked, so we can still imagine what this vast empty plain must have been like. Long low barracks with crowded interiors. Some of the barracks have been preserved/ renovated.

Men and women died here! I walked all around the camp and realised how big it was, the outer left edge had the horrific crematorium and according to my audio guide, human ash could still exist beneath the ground. My god…how many people died for ashes to have accumulated?

How can we be so cruel? The concentration camps were the product of the Nazis, but every human being is capable of being perverted into such masters of death. We have always been capable of infinite cruelty, madness and violence, and the concentration camp was just another reminder of this sad trait of humans. Infact, I could not take it any more. I sat along the distant perimeter wall, on a bench which was windswept and looked back at the camp…and cried.

and these men existed too. In fact, they died here…thousands of miles from their homes somewhere in Russia. This reminds me of the Russian infantry’s peasants who died at Austerlitz during the Napoleanic Wars. Travelling all that distance to die in foreign lands. I wonder too of the families these men left behind…perhaps their wives died in Soviet Gulags. What was the point of everything when as they say, the poor will always die for the rich?
ashes still lie here…

and i know one thing more, that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those, regardless of their nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated and hanged

Andrzej Szczypiorski

It was a difficult place to visit because it can be so depressing, but if we cannot confront the ugliness in us, then we will never be free.

Memorials for Victims of Persecution

How do we mourn the ones we lose to tyranny? The lives that were so short and compressed. Germany has gone through some of the worst excesses, but unlike many other places, they have also memorialised the past. I believe that a society’s ability to remember and acknowledge the victims of the past is a necessary stage towards forgiveness and growth. Otherwise, like that oft-repeated but true phrase goes “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it“.

After my guided tour of the Berlin gate and other better known sites, I walked alone through the Tiergarten that is nearby. This garden is expansive, and probably deserves a day of its own. As I skimmed the periphery, I came across a small clearing and there stood the Memorial to Homosexuals persecuted under Nazism. The memorial is a large block of stone with a small “window” cut in one side through which you could look in. Inside, I could see on continuous loop, a video of two men kissing. If you come from eastern cultures, you rarely get to see couple hugging, so there’s always an element of novelty when I see couples kissing or displaying public intimacy. That is why I would recommend everyone from different cultures and upbringing to go and see this, because we need to get over our initial reactions, whether it is to see a man and a woman kiss, or two people of the same gender get intimate. We are all the result of our past, but we have the ability to change the direction of our future. We can all exercise the ability to expand the boundaries of our minds.

This video of the actual memorial is by Stefan Ourakcha. Interestingly the video I took (and which I can’t upload it seems) has a different set of men kissing. So maybe the content is changed occasionally. I believe there is also a proposal to show women kissing.

In the same garden I also came across another quiet memorial. This was the Memorial for the Sinti and Roma people, the gypsies of Europe. These interesting community have some obvious and distant connections to our own banjaras (gypsies of western India) and have always fascinated me, especially when I come across linguistic similarities. Here’s a video I watched a long ago, featuring a young Romani woman walking through the bazaars of Delhi.

Can you imagine her people when they first arrived in medieval Europe? Gypsies/ the Romani, Dom & Sinti people have a long and over-looked history of being victim to atrocities, typical of what befalls the poor and the weak. Video from
The memorial is a beautiful and dark pond surrounded by flags of stones, on which the names of concentration camps have been etched. A poem by a Romani poet Santino Spinelli, is written on the outer boundary of the pond-“Gaunt face / dead eyes / cold lips / quiet / a broken heart / out of breath / without words / no tears”

Earlier in the day, the tour had taken us to yet another tragic memorial, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and that of course has to be one of the lasting scars in the history of the world. The memorial is a block of large granite stones that reminded me of tombs, hundred of them stretched out. A forest of darkness through which our tour-guide let us walk in silence. Afterwards, when we came out on the other side, we were asked to describe what we felt. That was a powerful experience that I think I should not put into words, and let it remain somewhere inside me.

walking through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews amplifies your contemplation of the holocaust through visual and tactile stimuli.

In the course of visiting all these memorials, it struck me that each of these had been planned with deep thought. This ability to think through the objective of the memorial is in itself a testament of the respect shown to the dead. These memorials were built to evoke emotions, context and experience in us who come many years after these tragic deaths. Needless to say, I am simply blown by the scope and scale of such acts of remembrance, especially the individual efforts, like the stolperstein.

On one of my night-outs (with another desi that I met), I inadvertently found myself standing next to a set of stolperstein. I had spent days looking down while walking, looking out for these little bronze plaques and never coming across one; and yet, here I was, looking for some dinky club, stopping to take a breath..and right at my feet were these bronze embellishments. The stolperstein are the work of a German artist Gunter Demnig. Each hand-made plaque bears the name of a Jewish resident of the town. The stones record the year and place of birth, as well as the final destination… in all cases, the death camps. Local communities are actively involved in researching the names of the Jewish residents and an application is made to produce the little plaques. A few months later, these are lovingly set into the pavement, outside the homes and old offices of the victims.

Stolperstein for the Schwartz family, and I think, the Nielsen families, all six perished in Auschwitz.. Apologies for the very bad quality of the photo. I still shudder when I think..imagine, taken from this threshold, all the way to Poland to die?!

Finally, as a book lover and also a product of a most open education, I remember the plaza where the Nazis had a massive book burning. The irony is that these “ultra nationalists” destroyed potent symbols of knowledge right in front of the Humboldt University, in a square that is flanked by buildings from Germany’s own enlightened past.

This is the irony or perhaps the truth of the far-right ideologues, often they have little sense of the true greatness of their cultures and instead they represent the most narrow (and violent) tendencies of the primal human. As I stood over the glass pane that now covers symbolically empty book-shelves, I was thinking of the countless acts of violence back in India, the various artists we have hounded out of the country, the voices that have been silenced, the youth that has been stifled. It is the curse of our human existence that we will always co-exist with the Cain of our species.

“Where they burn books, they will, in the end also burn people”- Heinrich Heine

Stepping into history

My ancestors were from a part of the world that had been sheltered from everything that most people would know as world history. Even if consequences did reach them, it would be days, even years after the passing of an event. That is until the late ’50s, when the modern era broke into the lives of people living in the lee-ward side of the Himalayan range.

Once it did, the modern era was probably too much to take in for my great-grandparents. My grandparents stumbled through it, my mother eventually found her footing while we have been feeding from a steady drip of exposure to western perspectives. In the last few years, an explosion of perspectives has enveloped us, and sometimes we are washed onto distant shores, muttering quae regio quae mundi plaga? And yet, even in the confusion of all the commentary on the world, the invisible string of the puppeteer is faintly visible, but again I seem to digress.

To get back to my trip, I loved Berlin because I am fascinated by places that are steeped in history. We have places like that in India too, but here we have a fatalistic and tragic truth…we bulldoze over our past. We tear down the walls or we let it sink into obscurity. We believe that if we raze down structures and rebuild pastiche over it, we have made our history even better. Additionally we have displacements of humanity by the millions. That always reminds me of the stray dogs.

The story of the stray dogs of Delhi

This used to happen a few years ago and has thankfully become less noticeable of late. Every few months, an animal sterilisation van used to round up the stray dogs on our street. After a few days the van would come round again, and release dogs back on the street. For a few days you would see hungry or scared looking dogs sniffing around, jumpy and anxious. Vicious fights would break between them and always the weakest would run across the street, tail between its legs and howling into the night. So frightened that it would smash against grills and thorny bushes, trying to get away, anywhere. This was very strange behaviour from dogs that had been born and brought up in these streets.

Only when we got closer to these poor confused animals did we realise that..these dogs were different from the original residents. The sterilisation van was callously mixing up where they picked up the animals from. Everything was one big chaotic operation and the boys in the van were probably completing their daily quotas, 10 dogs to pick up and 15 to drop back, plus dog-bites, chasing the animals down, stomachs to feed all for a few hundred rupees.

This was what is happening to the dogs, people and history every day in the poorer parts of the world. We are not even sure that we will die in the same city where we were born.

Today we walk so casually across the “wall”. But over fifty years ago it stood like an impossible end of all dreams for so many Berliners.

Back in Berlin…

Forgetting who lived here and why, that has not happened in Berlin, and rightly so. As they say, if you do not learn from your past, then you are destined to repeat it.

The Detlev Rohwedderhaus was the centre of Reich Aviation Ministry and was “Goring’s centre of power”. During the Soviet era, the building continued as part of the military administration. Today the building has been converted into the German Finance Ministry.

In Berlin, I took the Sandeman tour on the first day, just to orient myself. I could have walked to Brandenburg Gate, but the U-bahn connects very well, stopping at historic stations whose names I think I still remember (in random order) Oranienberg, Rosenthaler Platz, Friedrichstrasse etc etc. Every station name made me google its history and some of it was sobering- old Jewish quarters, or the names of brilliant people with tragic lives.

Somewhere under this carpark is Hitler’s bunker. The bunker was flooded with water and buried under earth. Some things you really do not want to preserve.

Whenever I walk around a historic part of a city, I always imagine a person born at the beginning of a period, say just near the end of the war. I imagine all the experiences that the person would have gone through in his or her lifetime. Perhaps as she went through life, she did not recognise the momentous events for what it was. She would live every day, every week and year like the rest of us, until one day she was old. Only then would she realise the phases of history that she had gone through. Was her father a Nazi? Was her husband a spy? Did her son make it to the other side of the wall? Where was she when the wall fell? How old was she when it went up? Did she die in unified Germany?

Here I am, super excited to see the Humboldt University facade. Humboldt was a familiar name to me, the explorer and early scientist, whose South American travels was so vividly covered in one of my first National Geographic magazines. So this was like meeting a familiar person in an unfamiliar land. ha ha!

It was fascinating to learn on the tour that many parts of Berlin were rebuilt after WWII, and that people were given a choice- did they want absolutely new structures, or did they want buildings similar to what they had before? I am glad that they chose to mostly rebuild their city. No matter how far below they sank, the German people chose to rebuild, removing the stains and trying to retain the great ideas that some of its true luminaries had.

Before my visit, Berlin, and indeed all of Germany, was stained by Hitler. This trip helped to understand a lot more about German history and the far-reaching consequences of every event that a country can go through.

Even more interesting was to see how quickly people’s lives could change and adapt to the most displacing external shocks. Truly fascinating, our human history.

Modern Berlin is radical, underground and hopefully always going to encourage her visitors to always strive for the frontiers of human freedom