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.