These are my last two days in Berlin: by this time Wednesday 28 January I will be in the air en route to Frankfurt to catch the flight home. It’s been a quite a ride and no more so than this last week when I bussed to Dresden, took a 100-year old US flag back to the city from which my great uncle Ulysses Bywater had removed it from the roof of the American Consulate in 1912, and presented it to Holger Starke, a surprised and delighted historian at the Stadtmuseum in Wilsdorfer Strasse.
I also got to sit in the magical restored Frauenkirche and have my soul and all my senses drenched in the most celestial organ music I have ever felt. I say felt and not heard as its sublime power went right through me and rendered me silent and still, like all the other visitors. If ever a city underwent a resurrection, it is this one, burned rubble in February 1945 and strewn with charred human remains; today, an island of peace, even amidst the rumblings of the anti-Islam and anti-immigration activists, Pegida.
Back in Berlin on Thursday, I was getting ready for a trip on Saturday to Wolfenbuttel with Konrad and Gaby, who wanted to show me around the famous August Herzog Bibliotek and the Lessing Museum nearby. I was probably a bit worn out for another big day on the road and it did prove stressful, but well worth the journey. We even saw the sun and blue sky after passing through what were the two checkpoints Berliners had to get through until 1989, if they wanted to visit West Germany.
My hosts remember the Cold War only too well. Konrad was hired to work in the Ministry of Education in Berlin in 1969, the first Federal German agency inside the encircled city. The Russians responded to this “provocation” by flying Mig jet fighters over the city and above the Ministry building, breaking the sound barrier high above as well, in a pointed message that they were not to be trifled with. We forget this time now, when so many fingers were on hair trigger.
Back from the Bibliotek – a bibliophile’s heaven of ancient printed and handwritten manuscripts, delighting also in snowfall that whited the town – I was ready for Sunday and a trip to the Grunewaldkirche with my new friends, Rainer the veterinarian and Alexandra, his pianist wife. The service was being recorded for radio and the priest had emailled everyone to come and fill the church.
During his sermon he mentioned the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer several times and questions to Rainer and Alexandra revealed that the young Bonhoeffer had been confirmed there with his sister in 1921, the family living nearby in Wagenheimer Strasse 14 (where I determined to go if I could). Here was a man who confronted the Nazi evil head on and paid the price, suffering death by hanging in 1945 when the war was all but over. His memory is a shining star in that long night of darkness.
The next – and last – visit to a site of great interest was to be Teufelsberg, the famous mountain and Cold War spy station run by the American NSA to track Soviet bloc communications. A graffitied ruin now, in those days it kept watch over what Moscow and its satellites in the East were up to. Abandoned and sold to developers after the Wall fell in 1989, it proved to be a major commercial failure as none of the projected apartments were completed and sold and its promoters went bust – then the spray can tribe moved in.
There is a locked gate there now and a couple who act as caretakers. Rainer has privileged access as the vet who looks after the three dogs that guard the fort these days, a Rottwieler, a Dobermann and a little Schnauzer. We drove straight in and took a guided tour through a labyrinth of dark concrete corridors and cold bleak stairways, every available surface so choked with graffiti that it resembled the set of some dystopian epic, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
We made it to the top, freezing, looking out not on Berlin but on a blanketing canvas of swirling mist. It was time to go and find the dogs and give them their injections. The caretaker and his partner live inside the Minotaur’s cave like postmodern techno-hippies. You really would have to love the lifestyle to survive up there in winter. Confidences preclude any further revelations of their privacy, but the coffee was great and the atmosphere in the bunker – out of this world.
As we left, Rainer pointed out to me a small series of what looked like porcelain figures, white flowers on the wire that upheld them. He told me it was a memorial to the Trummerfrauen, the German women of Berlin wh0 cleared away the millions of tons of rubble that the Allied bombing campaign had reduced their city to.
This then was not a natural rise. It consisted of 20 million tons of bomb-broken stone, brick and concrete that was trucked to Teufelsberg from the war’s end until 1972. The Americans had built their spy base on top of it, on top of a site where Hitler himself had laid the foundation stone of a never to be completed military school. This was Berlin’s wartime graveyard and the grave of Hitler’s dreams.
This was a good place to end my journey, overlooking a city and a people I have come to embrace in the past three months, upending my old stereotypes, showering me with goodness and human stories. Berlin! Berlin! as Tucholsky saw it was a place not to be resisted or ignored. Standing silent today before Bonhoeffer’s house in Grunewald, my prayer was for them, as much as myself. The good Germans.
Konrad and Gaby Kutt, Grunewald, my peerless Berlin hosts.