Having made our stops in Paris and in Amsterdam, having bickered and trudged cobblestones and deciphered maps for a week, my friends and I stopped lastly in Berlin. I, under the influence of a magazine article about Kirsten Dunst, in which she announced a plan to move to Berlin and called the city young and happening, was expecting to be swept away in a torrent of neon lights and streets drenched with thudding music.
What happened was that we stayed in a hostel that doubled as a stop along a free walking tour of the city. The hostel, like most of the others we had encountered in our travels, was filled with bunk beds topped with discarded backpacks or with collapsed young people, exhausted at the prospect of one more new city.
Despite wanting to lay down for a while ourselves, we had thus far made it a point not to turn down free things, especially of the tour variety. Besides, as Berlin was the last stop for us, Berlin was also the stop that had received the least amount of attention in the weeks-ago planning stages. “It’s only Germany,” we thought. Surely it would be a breeze after bumbling through French and Dutch. Germany was a language we knew, one we had been learning in class and speaking flippantly on the streets of Salzburg. Ja, genau. It would be easy. But Berlin was large and fast and it seemed safest to weave through it in a line, following a guide who would hopefully not make us hold flags or wear itchy lanyard necklaces.
On that tour, having seen Checkpoint Charlie, the graffitied remains of the Berlin Wall, the parking lot that used to be the site (give or take a few hundred vertical feet) of Hitler’s suicide bunker, Brandenburg Gate, a magnificent chocolate shop called Fassbender and Rausch, and the large circle of land they call Museum Island, we came to this:
The Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. 2,700 unique slabs of concrete sitting unassumingly in the twilight, casting shadows on tourists wandering through. Many people, beginning with the opening of the monument in 2005, have criticized it. “It’s not religious enough to be a Jewish monument,” some claim. “It’s too abstract to represent what it’s supposed to.” “Victims’ names should be engraved on the stones.”
But our guide, a 30-something musician from England, merely told the story, folded his hands behind his back, and asked us to walk through the monument for a few minutes.
And so we did. Splitting off from each other, we wandered the undulating path between blocks. Sometimes the blocks would tower over our heads, and sometimes the path would rise (or the blocks would shrink; we never knew which), and suddenly we would be able to see over the top of the entire monument. The dull concrete didn’t reflect the light of nearby buildings; it seemed to absorb it, keeping its contained roads in darkness.
All you could see, once you were in the center of the monument, was the navy of the sky above. It was lonely, in that quiet field of stone. You felt isolated, although you knew that your friends were surely only a raised voice away. You felt that if some giant should reach down, aiming to pluck you up, there would be nowhere for you to go. You would be like a rat trapped in a maze, always desperately, heart-poundingly, stupidly hoping that the next turn would get you out.