That Memorial at Friedrichstraße


Train to death

Evening in Berlin comes with shades of melancholy. Not the ideal mood for your first day in such a beautiful city. But I suppose that is the problem. Beneath this city’s charm, there is a shadow, a dark history that blankets my heart, me a foreigner, coming years after the worst of it. Footprints of this history are all over the city; monuments, historical sites, structures. Mementos of dark times gone.
Not far from my hotel on Friedrichstrasse, there is one such monument that has engraved itself on my mind. I had arrived earlier in the day and my new friend, Boris took me round to see Berlin and that was when I saw it. A haunting memorial titled “Train to Life-Train to death”. It is just beside the Friedrichstraße Train Station and features the statues of some children, five of them cast in a gloomy shade, heading off to concentration camps, and another two, going in the opposite direction. These ones, cast in ruddy hues, were the ones who got away, those who escaped the Nazi massacres and made it across to England by train shortly before the outbreak of WWII. The unfortunate ones were gassed; their lives and their dreams lost forever.
This memorial for a tragedy that occurred decades before and ended when Hitler and his armies were defeated in 1945 is haunting enough. But some people, in remembrance of what had happened, had tucked flowers into the crook of the arms of this statues, both the ones who got away and the ones who didn’t. There were flowers also on the pedestal as well. And in Berlin’s mild sun, the flowers were wilting, as I imagined the hopes of those children put on those trains to their deaths must have wilted decades before.
It was important for me to note, even after all these years, after generations have passed, that these children are being remembered and acknowledged, (and the role the railway played in this tragedy). They are commemorated not just with statues, incidentally designed by Frank Meisler, one of those who escaped the holocaust, but by people, generations after, who make the effort to bring flowers, to say, in their own way, that we know these things happened 70 years ago and we will not forget.
The image of this memorial stuck with me all evening such that not even a chance encounter with German celebrity and actress Eva Mattes, who was exceptionally nice, could improve my mood. Not even a visit to the Berliner Ensemble, where the great playwright Bertolt Brecht directed one of the most famous theatres in Europe, could do much good. Having encountered his works in my undergraduate days and admired him and his legacy, the excitement of seeing his theatre was severely dampened by the haunting image at the Friedrichstraße Railway Station. And by extension, the wilting flowers tucked into the arms of these statues came to signify to me Brecht’s disenchantment with his country.
He had escaped the Nazis and spent the war years in exile in the US, by the time Brecht decided to return, Germany had been split into two countries, East and West, communist and capitalist. Surprisingly, Brecht chose to return to the East because he believed communism would offer the chance to create a more balanced society. After a while, he realized his convictions were no more than misplaced ideals. Regardless, he chose to remain in the East and watched his dreams, like the flowers tucked into the arms of these statues at Friedrichstarasse, wilting.
But tears too, like flowers, and sometimes even like dreams, dry up. Nowhere is this more vividly demonstrated than at the city’s ‘Palace of Tears’, so named because of the many weeping that marked the parting of loved ones at one of the most famous entry point between East and West Berlin. Germany having been split by WWII allies, the capital Berlin, ended up wholly in East Germany, under the control of the Soviet Union, as opposed to the West that was controlled by the US, the UK and France. But the allies wanted a share of Berlin for themselves and so the city was split, one half for the western allies, the other for the Soviets. In 1961, the East German government, in a desperate move to prevent its disenchanted people from fleeing to the west, erected a massive wall surrounding the whole of West Berlin. And thus people who had crossed over to the other side of the city for trade, visit or other reasons in the morning, found they could not return to their homes by evening. It was that spontaneous. And between 1961 and 1989, Germans on different sides of the fence, needed a pass to cross over for a few hours to see relatives and friends and the partings, often at the Palace of Tears, were teary and emotional affairs.
Today, there is an exhibition there, featuring fragments of the old wall that had separated the city, pictures of one people divided, videos of the spontaneous erection of a wall and sealing of windows on buildings on the border, so people in the East couldn’t look into the West or dare an escape. There was a shocking video of a desperate young woman running right through the fence as it was being built, dangerously being entangled in the barbed wire and luckily being aided to escape. The walls were guarded by armed personnel and landmines. In 1989, this sad manifestation of repression was brought down by people power. And by 1990, the whole of Germany was unified.
A little later, crossing Berlin’s iconic Weidendamar Bruecke, the bridge straddling the Spree River, one is confronted by the spectacle, caught on from Paris, I hear, of lovers, attaching special padlocks symbolizing their loves on the rails of the bridge. The keys to these padlocks are often thrown into the bottom of the river to signify the unbreakable bond the lovers have forged. Romantic, but largely symbolic. These padlocks are often decorated with the name of the lovers and clusters of them have formed on the bridge, particularly on the wings of the Prussian Icarus on the rails.But perhaps the biggest padlock of all on that bridge, the one people will never see, is that of the East and West Berliners whose resilience has forged an unbreakable union. (Where better to overcome the trauma of a wall than at a bridge?) And the key to that padlock is most likely lost forever at the bottom of the Spree, like those children, ferried away on those trains, all those years before.