Ten years or more on from our first visit, my wife Anne and I returned last weekend to Berlin. We had a very decent hotel, close to Checkpoint Charlie, and we spent Friday afternoon walking in the warm sunshine. Crossing the busy Leipzigerstrasse, where Roger Martin first encountered the horrors of Kristallnacht in my debut novel THE BLUE PENCIL, we headed for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This extraordinary collection of 2711 stelae, or concrete slabs, is spread over 19000 square metres. Some commentators have been critical of the site, questioning what it means, but the visitor is clearly told that this is a permanent site of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. Below ground there is the understated but devastatingly effective Place of Information which, amongst other things, lists 3 of the 6 million Jews murdered during the Second World War. What moves me most at memorials and exhibitions of the Holocaust are the photographs of happy and contended Jewish families in the days before the war
Nearby were complementary memorials to others murdered by the Nazis; Gypsies and Homosexuals, but we needed a bit of a breather so we set off to the Brandenburg Gate and thence into the delights of the Adlon Hotel. After an expensive (but great value) afternoon tea, we explored inside probably the most famous of European hotels which had been destroyed at the end of the Second World War. Externally, the new hotel bears a mercifully strong resemblance to the original but a very senior party member returning to the scene of many intrigues before the war would have difficulty in recognising the interior.
The evening was spent with our son Neil and his wife Liz at the Berliner Republik Restaurant, a lively eating house close to Friedrichstrasse Station, itself a site of great historical significance as it formed the boundary between East and West Berlin between 1945 and 1989. There was no early night and, consequently, we set off late the following morning on our ‘hop on-hop off’ bus tour around central Berlin. This proved to be a bit of a disappointment because the bus was constantly held up by standing traffic in the Alexanderplatz/Unter den Linden area where a new U Bahn station is under construction.
After passing the chief Berlin tourist spots we ‘hopped off’ on the Kurfurstendamm where Berlin’s most elegant shops are located. We chose one to explore, Ka de We and resisted the temptation to spend €900 on a pair of trousers, opting instead to buy a couple of canvas shopping bags at €3 each!. Back on the bus, we disembarked, for the final time that afternoon, at the DDR Museum, close to the Spree. This was an excellent small museum with lots of items of interest for folk of all ages. My wife drove (and crashed) a Trabant and I participated in a mock interrogation in a Stasi cell.
We were so tired that we didn’t emerge from our hotel until early evening. We trudged up to the Potsdamer Platz. This had been incomplete on our last visit but was now a sparkling new entertainment complex which, to be fair, you could find in any major European City. A rather tasty burger, consumed against the backdrop of the Eurovision Song Contest, ended our day.
Rain was forecast for Sunday but, thankfully, it didn’t materialise which was important because most of the day was to be spent outdoors. Our first destination was the Olympiastadion and, when we emerged from the U Bahn, we saw that that the exterior seemed unchanged since our last visit when this famous sports venue was still in 1936 mode. Naturally it has been substantially upgraded in recent years to host the World Cup Final, the 2009 World Athletics Championships, where Usain Bolt set World Records at 100m and 200m, and the 2015 Champions League Final. Of course, the new seats are comfortable, no more sitting on stone terraces, and everything else has been thoroughly modernised.
The purpose of our visit to the stadium was to see Neil and Liz finish the Berlin Lauf where ten thousand road runners raced either over 10k or other distances, all running together. It was no surprise to see two Africans in the first three finishers over one of the longer events and we had to wait a little while before Neil and Liz crossed the line after their 10k, on a track once graced by Jesse Owens, Jack Lovelock and Godfrey Brown, anchoring the final leg of the Great Britain gold medal winning team in the 1936 Olympic the 4x400m relay, a British quartet which included Godfrey Rampling, father of Charlotte.
Neil and Liz certainly looked as if they left their efforts on the course and they were well pleased, as they should have been. A brief U Bahn trip back into central Berlin found us at the German Historical Museum where we spent an hour or so looking at an exhibition by the photographer Martin Roemers. The subject of this display was ‘Relics of the Cold War’ and fascinating it was. Anne and I walked back to our hotel, passing the old government quarter which houses numerous embassies, many of which were proudly flying the flag of the European Union, alongside their own national emblems. It was here in the winter of 1938-9 that Ruth and Jonathan Gerber queued for hours, hoping for British or American visas to enable them to escape Nazi Germany in my second novel TWO FAMILIES AT WAR.
The final delight of a memorable visit was dinner in the Orderquelle Restaurant in Prenzlauerberg district. On the way there, Liz pointed out a grass area which had once been a death strip between the Berlin Wall and the West. Now, in happier times, children were cheerfully playing football on a bright Sunday evening.
Berlin is, without doubt, one of the most interesting cities in the world to visit. This thrilling metropolis, once home to Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Wilhelm II, Hitler and now Angela Merkel, was overrun by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century and the Allies at the end of the Second World War and has risen from the ashes to complete a remarkable transformation from the rubble of 1945. One piece of advice; allow plenty of time for rest and, if possible go for longer than a weekend. There’s so much to see and be excited by.