Monday, November 8, 2010

Being There: Berlin

by Jonathan Rosenthal

Intelligent Life
Autumn 2010

Every city has its history. Some, such as Paris, revel in theirs, while others—London comes to mind—draw gravitas from it. My home town of Johannesburg, which could be weighed down by its history, wears it lightly. And some cities just have too much: Berlin is one of them.

It was because of some of this history that my family fled Germany two generations ago. Our branch of the family was lucky. My grandfather, who lived in a village outside Frankfurt called Gedern, had a run-in with a local Nazi which turned violent. Family lore has it that he left town that night with his parents and brothers. Aunts, uncles and cousins stayed, and few of them survived the Holocaust.

It was a history that followed him to our dinner table in South Africa like a brooding relative who suddenly speaks up in the middle of a meal. Grandpa Ludwig’s fierce temper was supposedly a German trait; my father’s square head was called a “Krautkopf”. And there was bitterness. My father visited Germany just once in the early 1960s and couldn’t stand to stay more than one night. Whenever he looked at men his father’s age, he wanted to ask what they had done during the war. Had he stayed a little longer, he would have found many Germans his age asking similar questions of their parents.

Many still do. History in these parts is not neatly layered like a German chocolate cake: it is all jumbled up, so the past is always present. Berlin’s new business school is housed in the cathedral to communism that was built for East Germany’s rulers in 1964, so blond hammer-wielding workers and athletic, short-skirted women smile down from huge stained-glass windows on bank executives and MBA students debating the intricacies of corporate finance. The national treasury is inside a building that was first built as Hermann Goering’s air ministry, then used by the Soviet army, and later by the East German government.


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