Time has a way of blurring memories’ edges. Or in some cases obliterating them. We accuse younger siblings of revisionism when they incorrectly recount family anecdotes. Historians spend lifetimes discerning hyperbole, exaggeration, and mistaken identity from so-called reality.
But then there are those memories that are burned into the brain, highly pixelated images that sear our souls. They are not betrayed by the march of time. They can be gratifying as often as they can be horrendous. In either and between such extremes, we are changed.
Thirty-one years ago I visited Berlin. And in Berlin, I was changed. I was a rising high school senior, spending a month in West Germany attending local Gymnasium while living with a local family. I entertained long evening hours with my host “father” discussing World War II and his experience being forced into the Hitler Youth. We drove through empty woods to die Grenze, and I witnessed my German “mother” weep at the tragic reality of her separation from the village where she grew up. And we traveled to Berlin.
In Berlin the past collided with the present. The bullet-riddled Reichstag backing up to the graffiti-adorned Mauer that infamously surrounded that city. The expanse of no man’s land at Potsdamer Platz, covering what remained of Hitler’s bunker while providing an open firing range for the DDR snipers. The contrast between colorful nightlife of the Kurfenstendamm Strasse in the West contrasted and the dull grey of Alexanderplatz in the East. On wooden scaffolding we gazed up and over the Wall and beheld anonymous binoculars staring back at us from behind cement block watchtowers.
For me, Berlin brought a simple realization—that no institution, public or private, has the authority to control the human conscience. And no economic system is as averse to human flourishing as that which destroys our innate sense of worth and stifles our incentive to experiment and grow.
Thirty-one years later, earlier this month, I returned to Berlin. It was a bit strange to be back. This time I was with my children, the youngest of whom was now the same age I was on that first visit. We spent most of our two days there exploring what used to be the Soviet sector. We walked to Checkpoint Charlie, approaching it from a decidedly different angle than I first did in 1983. Today, a large McDonald’s dominates the intersection, the Golden Arch replacing what was once a tense set of switch backed gates.
At 11:00 pm Alexanderplatz was a mass of humanity, young and old enjoying a balmy evening of street performers and endless food tents. Potsdamer Platz is now a temple to modern high rises, glitzy and gleaming and dismissive of what once lay beneath its foundations. A solitary guard tower remains, tucked away on a tree-lined street, where for a few euros you can have your photo taken with East German “soldiers.”
Now, the only place to see a Trabant that was once ubiquitous on East Berlin’s streets is at a special museum that could fit in perfectly with the kitschy Coney Island boardwalk, where “nostalgia is guaranteed!” Apfelmann, the iconic symbol once used by the DDR to epitome the importance of “work,” now has its own capitalist-infused retail store opposite Französischer Dom.
Late one evening we took the U-Bahn to the Ku’Damm, still the central shopping district of Berlin, just as it was in 1983. The Gucci, Tigot, Zara, H&M, and Kenneth Cole stores bathed in the blue reflection off the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche windows. But unlike last time I was here, it was quiet. The stores were closed for the night. A few couples lingered along the streets. Clearly the bustle had shifted to the eastern part of the great city. I wasn’t looking for a metaphor. But maybe it’s there – the capitalistic west becoming stale as it gives way to entrepreneurial energies from the east. Or maybe it was just a quiet night in August when many were on holiday. No need to make it more than it was.
Thirty-one years ago I visited Berlin. I made several appearances over subsequent years, but my last visit was two years before the wall came down. This was my first time back since then. Those days were sobering experiences. Thirty one years later I watched my children whizz through Brandenburger Tor on bikes, soaking up the sunset and the populated plaza, without a care or firsthand appreciation of how that place has changed. I had to stop, and through misty eyes reach out and touch it, profoundly grateful their first visit to Berlin brought with it greater promise and hope than did my visits those many decades before.