Forty Years On, Berlin Is Better Than Ever

 

The Quadriga of Victory atop the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin

The Quadriga of Victory atop the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin

 

In front of the Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, with my oldest and best friend, Nancy Talbot

In front of the Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, with my oldest and best friend, Nancy Talbot

Forty years ago, I moved to Berlin with two of my brothers and my father when he became CEO of a large German corporation.  It was a decision made as all decisions by my father were, which is to say without prior consultation or even notification.  It was left to our housekeeper, Hedy Hauser, to tell us that we were leaving New York and moving back to Europe, not to Switzerland, where my parents were from, or to England, where I had been born, but to Germany.

Truth to tell, I knew very little about Germany or Berlin at the time.  I was fifteen, a top student at the private school where I finally felt settled after two lonely years, and if I had ever wanted to move back to Europe, it would have been to France, whose language I studied and loved and at which I excelled, placing fourth in the nation among French students, encouraged by my wonderful Algerian-born teacher Mrs. Amsellem.  So the news that we would be packing up and leaving the only country that I could remember, and the few friends that I had garnered, was devastating. But no matter.

After spending Christmas with our Ohma in Switzerland, and on (in retrospect) the presciently named Epiphany Day, January 6, 1974, my brother Dan and I flew into Tempelhof Airport in the American Sector of the four-way divided, post-World War II city of Berlin to join our father and brother Pete.  And though I did not know it then, and even if I still marvel at my teenage self for how quickly I transitioned from Swiss-German to High German after being unceremoniously enrolled at a German-American school where the vast majority of students and teachers were German, moving to Berlin was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

The four years that I called Berlin home before returning to the U.S. to attend college transformed a shy, awkward and impressionable Swiss-American girl into a confident, sophisticated and intellectual woman who proudly called herself a Berliner.  I adored and still madly love this city of opposites on the Spree, where comedy and tragedy, intellect and ignorance, darkness and light, kindness and cruelty, reason and insanity and beauty and ugliness seemed then (as now)so inextricably intertwined, like doomed, conjoined twins who awed and appalled in alternating cycles, each wanting to best the other.

It was in Berlin that I met my best friend in the world, Nancy Holston, now Talbot; embraced classical music, opera, theater and art and culture of all forms; became blasé about tanks rolling by our school every day; watched armed East German soldiers squint at me from concrete towers adjacent to the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie; laughed so hard at the mercilessly sharp humor here that all others paled in comparison; and happily smoked and drank my way through my teenage years.  It was here that I came into my own, falling in and out of love, reveling in the ability to travel to foreign countries for a weekend, devouring history as hungrily as German bread and Currywurst, and savoring the wonderful incongruities of wild boars and high-class brothels, both on the street where we lived.

I have called many places home, but no city has ever captured my heart like Berlin -during or after the Wall – and no friends have ever meant more to me than those made here. And so, forty years after I first arrived, young and not a little afraid, I have come back again, not for the first time, but with my then and still-best-friend Nancy. We are of course older, each of us with our own memories and regrets, but both still filled with awe for the city, even more beautiful now since reunification.  With our beloved and very successful friend, Peter Tarnowski, we have explored the neighborhoods of the former East Berlin, filled with buildings that the Communist regime thankfully never thought to tear down, thus preserving glorious examples of Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, whole courtyards and apartment buildings that now have been burnished to their original glory, as well as yet-unrepaired façades that wear their war wounds patiently nearly seventy years later.

A restored Jugendstil stairway in the Hackesche Hoefe area of the former East Berlin

A restored Jugendstil stairway in the Hackesche Hoefe area of the former East Berlin

 

The rebuilt Neue Synagoge, or New Synagogue, in Berlin

The rebuilt Neue Synagoge, or New Synagogue, in Berlin

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Fittingly for the former East Berlin, many of the neighborhoods still have an air of grief to them, the ghosts of  their former residents, mostly Jews forcibly evicted and sent to concentration camps to perish, still palpable.  Today, brass markers on sidewalks and building facades call them back to mind, as do the restored New Synagogue and the nearby Jewish Cemetery, where, as the war wound down, thousands of Gentile victims joined the Jews in uneasy repose, yet another juxtaposition in this endlessly complex, conflicted and truly beautiful city that I would gladly call home once again.

Brass plaques commemorating the lives of Jews exterminated during the Nazi era

Brass plaques commemorating the lives of Jews who had lived in Berlin but were exterminated during the Nazi era

One of Berlin's many eagles, all stone

One of Berlin’s many eagles, all stone