The Canadian author tells us why he fell for Berlin — the city he’s visited repeatedly over four decades — and how it’s influenced his writing career.
Imagine Berlin. Imagine a city of fragments and ghosts. Imagine a metropolis that inspired countless artists and witnessed uncountable murders. Imagine a laboratory of ideas, the fount of both the brightest and darkest designs of history’s most bloody century. Imagine the most arrogant capital of Europe devastated by Allied bombs then divided. Imagine it reunited and reborn as one of the creative centres of the world.
In my lifetime I have known three Berlins: West Berlin where I made movies with David Bowie; East Berlin where I researched my first book; and now the unified capital. Over the years I’ve visited so often that today, if the notion took me, I could find my younger self in almost any corner of the city.
If I waited long enough at Bahnhof Zoo, the old West Berlin central railway station, I would see myself aged 19 fall from the Hoek van Holland train and into waiting arms. At night on Savignyplatz I would catch sight of myself, four years older, cycling home in the summer rain, soaked to the skin, my companion and I throwing off our clothes as we rode; shirts in the Tiergarten, skirt in the Spree. Along Friedrichstraße I’d watch myself — over 30 by 1989 and losing my hair — run between East German ministries, applying for travel permits for a country that might no longer exist (none of the bureaucrats knew for sure).
Later in the Grunewald, the dense urban forest which hugs the city’s western fringe, I’d linger until I spotted myself — with notebook in hand — and bow my head in the forest cemetery. In the black earth at my feet, the stones were engraved Unbekannter, Unbekannte, Unbekannt. Unknown man, unknown woman, unknown. Some victims of the Allied bombing were so disfigured their sex couldn’t be determined.
Finally today I see myself lost in the memorial to the Jews murdered in the Second World War. The vast, undulating labyrinth of concrete plinths rises and falls away into the darkness beyond the Brandenburg Gate. I stumble between its hard-edged, disorientating pillars, built on top of sealed Nazi bunkers, spooked by dusky sounds and shadows.
Berlin fascinates me both because of its history and my history in it, not because I did anything of importance here, but because others did and their deeds have become enmeshed in my life.
Five years ago — after four decades of visits — I settled in the city to write a book about its history. Soon after my arrival, I heard the tap-tap of hammers beneath my window. Workmen were re-laying cobblestones, levelling them by hand in sand. I went to investigate and a glint of brass caught my eye. I stopped, as had a dozen other passers-by, and read:
Here lived Flora Philips
Next to it were more brass-capped stones, recording the names of seven other Jewish residents who had been pulled from their homes in this leafy and peaceful neighbourhood, and murdered in the camps.
Some 25,000 of these brass ‘stumble stones’ have been planted across Germany, engraved with the names of the Nazis’ victims, paid for by the residents of the deceased’s former home. The idea of the brass stolpersteine so moved me I wrote a blog about them which, in a serendipitous internet moment, was spotted by Flora Philips’ survivors.
Six months later, Flora’s daughter stood at the doorway she’d last walked through 72 years earlier. With tears in their eyes, the building’s gathered residents welcomed her, along with four generations of her now-British family. The Berliners spoke — in English, in German and with humility — of the need to “commemorate the unbearable fate of our fellow citizens”. They said that as one stumbles upon the brass stones, and stops to read them, one has to bow — in respect for those so cruelly and needlessly killed. One by one, today’s residents — none of whom had lived in the building during the war — read aloud the names of their Jewish predecessors, and the dates and places of their murder. Their voices, wracked with emotion, echoed down the street where the deceased had once walked, talked, laughed and wept.
In 1939 Flora Philips had put her daughter on the last Kindertransport train bound for London. After the war that daughter, on learning of the execution of her parents, had vowed never to return to Berlin. But because of the regret and courage of individual Germans, she decided to return to take part in the act of remembrance, to give her family — as they told me — “a huge sense of a circle completed”.
In Berlin one can never escape the past, and the noble and necessary act of remembering. It’s part of the reason why I live here, why I had to collect and tell the stories of the people and forces that made (and almost destroyed) the city, and why it’s now the most dynamic capital in Europe.
Rory MacLean is the author of 10 award-winning travel books. His latest, Berlin: Imagine a City, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. rorymaclean.com
Published in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)