Thursday, November 29, 2012

Berlin: City Of Museums

A German colleague once told me that I'd need ten days to tour Berlin's museum. He was right. The country which had the birth of printing press, the Reformation movement, cradle of Western Classical music, more Nobel laureates than US and UK combined until 1931, country of Goethe, Schilling and Nietzsche, Nazism, Communism, Holocaust has museums for all and it would very well take ten days to satiate a curious mind.

On the day I arrived in Berlin I trekked to Checkpoint Charlie which was 15 minute walk from the Marriott I stayed in. Only when I stood there in a street could I envisage what a brutal gash through a city the Berlin Wall was. Imagine any city you grew up in and then imagine a wall bisecting it abruptly in the middle. A private museum displays all artifacts from that era including a sub-compact car in which a fully grown adult would stuff himself/herself in the trunk to escape from East Berlin. Before I went to Berlin I browsed through Tina Rosenberg's , Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, 'Haunted Lands'. Rosenberg details the devastation of Eastern Europe by USSR. She details how unified Germany is now prosecuting erstwhile soldiers of East Germany who would shoot at fleeing East Berliners.

The Berlin Wall museum details how Peter Fechter was shot on 17th Aug 1962 by East Berlin soldiers when Fechter attempted a futile escape. The US soldiers on West Berlin stood helpless and watched Fechter bleed to death. The soldiers who shot Fechter were prosecuted in the 90's. Note that it is a contentious prosecution because the soldiers did what was legal in that country at that time.

That architecture plays an integral role to a building and particularly to a museum as thematic as Jewish museum was evident when I went to the Daniel Libeskind designed Jewish Museum in Berlin. Given the shadow of a grotesque tragedy it is natural that the architect tries to evoke a poignant gloom but balance is maintained such that the tragic sense is not overwhelming making the visitor run out in despair. The museum has geometrical alleys and narrow rectangular slices for windows with a cement pathway all intended to evoke a concentration camp feeling. A holocaust tower which has large iron doors and absolute darkness transports the visitor to a grim era.

The genius of Jewish Museum's curator is in ensuring that the museum is not only a tribute to an unspeakable tragedy but in also ensuring that a visitor gets an idea that Jews in Germany lived a culturally rich life contributing to the rich tapestry of the country. That the German Jewish community was an intellectually vibrant community and every inch German citizens is clearly brought out by unique exhibits like the glass mannequins that represent German Jews who fought on behalf of Germany in World War I.

The museum traces artfully the history of persecution of Jews in the centuries before holocaust across Christian Europe. 'Salomon bar Simson', a narrative Hebrew history, recounts the persecution of jews in Germany during the first Crusade 1096 AD. Details of how jews were stereotyped and prohibited from various professions are vivid to learn how hatred seeps into minds. Many Jews would change their last names such as 'Cohn' to 'Coen' to escape persecution. Amongst the many geniuses celebrated was Karl Marx too. Marx was of jewish lineage but his father had converted to Christianity. Marx himself wrote very harshly of Jews that he was accused of anti-semitism.

The most interestingly curious display was a collection of 'detective reports'. A prospective groom was investigated in detail by a detective from the bride's side. The notes include whether the groom had a good job, his salary and even about his mother. This museum is a must visit for any one desirous of learning Jewish cultural contribution to Germany and the world in general.

The DDR museum showcases life in East German days. Every house needed to maintain a 'house book' to record guests staying over 3 days. In libraries supposedly subversive works would be kept separately and labeled 'Poison of thought'. One needed a 'poison pass' to read any of those books. School children practiced throwing grenades and girls had to undergo 'Lehre' or compulsory apprenticeship. Oh by the way East Germans hated abortion more than today's GOP in USA, there was only one 'no' vote against a March 1972 law regulating abortion. Communist economy fixed a professional Engineer's salary at 1470 Marks (1988) and a Bricklayer's salary at 1370 Marks (1988). A chemist earned 1300DM whereas a mineworker earned 1444DM (1988).

The German history museum is breathtaking in scope and could very well take one full day by itself. Indians always haughtily talk of what they 'taught' the world. One exhibit in this museum spoke of what Germans 'learned' from technologically advanced Orient. The city of Augsburg in 1526 regulated aid for poor ensuring they are not dependent on charity by the church. Interesting exhibits on Luther and Reformation impress the vast scope of how the world was changed. Modern day unions have their roots in professional guilds that were established centuries ago for the same purposes. The guilds regulated who practiced a profession in order to stifle competition. Workers guilds practiced pretty much what todays trade unions do.

One very little known museum is the 'Medical History Museum' named after the father of Pathology 'Rudolph Virchow'. This museum has very little exhibits that have an English note. Students of medicine can benefit from a visit. Here too the German's unflinchingly face up to the the dark chapter of medical experimentation in the Nazi era. Twisted beliefs in Darwinism and eugenics led doctors to kill disabled and the mentally challenged in addition to evil experiments on children in Auschwitz and elsewhere.

I'll cover Hitler's last bunker, Holocaust museum and Topography of terror in my next post for the sake of readability.

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