For­eign

Geist - - Features - Ju­lia Per­roni

In our first three days of five in Berlin, my friend and I saw four mu­se­ums, mostly re­lated to the his­tory of other places, and we ate Viet­namese food and took a day trip to Ham­burg. We didn’t learn much about the place we were ac­tu­ally in, ex­cept just enough lo­cal pedes­trian’s eti­quette to not get hit by cars.

On our fourth day in the city, we de­cided against an­other day trip, this time to the Sach­sen­hausen con­cen­tra­tion camp (I de­cided it would be too much for me) and went on a walk­ing tour in­stead. The tour had come strongly rec­om­mended by the man­ager of our hos­tel and sev­eral of the other guests, and we were ex­cited to see the city’s mon­u­ments. We walked the twenty min­utes from our hos­tel to the Bran­den­burg Gate, just in time to miss the two o’clock tour, so got lunch in­stead. My friend pointed out that there were many old Ger­man men faintly re­sem­bling my grand­fa­ther. I didn’t be­lieve her, and then as we walked from the restau­rant to the tour’s muster point, I did no fewer than three dou­ble-takes caused by vague lookalikes.

Our tour guide was an Amer­i­can woman who was short enough to lose in a crowd but loud enough that we could fol­low her. My friend and I may have been the youngest peo­ple in the group, which con­sisted of fif­teen or twenty mostly white, mostly North Amer­i­can English-speak­ing tourists. Our guide gave us the whole his­tory of Berlin, pre-ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion to the present, in less than ten min­utes. Then she took us one block south, to the Me­mo­rial to the Mur­dered Jews of Europe. We paused on the north side. The guide talked about the Me­mo­rial a lit­tle, but I only heard that she

was go­ing to let us walk through it for our­selves be­fore she dis­cussed it in any de­tail. In­stead I looked out at it: its stark, pale pil­lars of grey, ris­ing in ir­reg­u­lar waves, and its dark path­ways that dipped into shadow like trails to the Un­der­world. The guide set the group free, and I chose a path.

At 4:30 in the af­ter­noon, the June heat was sti­fling, and walk­ing down into the cool con­crete cor­ri­dors of the Me­mo­rial felt like walk­ing into the sea. Among the ste­lae I drowned in mem­ory. The echoes of other voices were the whis­pers of the past, and I was alone among them, even with my friend not far be­hind me. I felt the hands of my an­ces­tors on my shoul­ders in the weight of the chill breeze that drifted be­tween the pil­lars. I didn’t linger.

We walked out of the Me­mo­rial and back into the sun­shine. Our tour group had gath­ered again in the shade of a tree, and my friend and I re­joined them. Once ev­ery­one was back to­gether, the guide told us about the Me­mo­rial: that it had been com­pleted in 2004, that its ar­chi­tect had re­fused to ex­plain what he meant it to sym­bol­ize, though maybe it was in­tended to re­sem­ble a grave­yard (which it does, I guess), and that it had been an ex­pen­sive project for the city, and con­tro­ver­sial. She told us that this was the largest Holo­caust me­mo­rial in Berlin. She said that there was a mu­seum un­der­ground at one edge of the Me­mo­rial, and my friend and I ex­changed a look that promised a visit the next day. Then she asked, “Do you think that this is worth the 27 mil­lion Eu­ros of tax­payer money spent to build it?”

I said, “Yes, of course it is.”

The guide looked at me. I re­al­ized that ev­ery­one else was look­ing at me as well. The guide said, sound­ing gen­uinely sur­prised, “Wow, that’s the fastest I’ve ever had any­one an­swer that ques­tion. Usu­ally peo­ple look around the group and try to gauge what ev­ery­one else thinks be­fore any­one an­swers.”

I said, “Oh,” and crossed my arms. I hadn’t re­al­ized that her ques­tion had been rhetor­i­cal.

The guide went on to dis­cuss the con­tro­versy a lit­tle more. I lis­tened to her talk, and when we moved on I leaned over and said to my friend, “I didn’t know that that was a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion.”

My friend said, “Yeah, that seemed a bit weird.”

The rest of the tour con­sisted of, in or­der: my friend and I strik­ing up a brief con­ver­sa­tion with an older cou­ple from Saskatchewan; a visit to an un­re­mark­able apart­ment build­ing that sits over the place where Hitler com­mit­ted sui­cide, where there is no mon­u­ment and no plaque; the last re­main­ing piece of Nazi ar­chi­tec­ture in Berlin; a dis­mal slab of crum­bling grey con­crete that was once part of the (in)fa­mous Berlin Wall; Check­point Char­lie; a Star­bucks; and the Square of En­light­en­ment, which in­cludes Hum­boldt Univer­sity, the Berlin Opera House, St. Hed­wig’s Cathe­dral and a me­mo­rial to the Nazi book burn­ings.

At the end of the tour, our guide told us that if ev­ery coun­try apol­o­gized the way Ger­many—and par­tic­u­larly Berlin—has, the world would be a bet­ter place. I didn’t ask if univer­sal good was worth more or less than 27 mil­lion Eu­ros. Ju­lia Per­roni is a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia. Her short story “Fair” was pub­lished in Lan­gara Col­lege's W49 mag­a­zine in 2015. She lives in Van­cou­ver.

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