Saving Berlin

K.E. Cybulski

The Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz is disconcertingly beautiful. Healthy maple trees frame the shining white façade of this almost century-old German villa as well as its lush gardens. A short walk down the road leads to the shore of the Wannsee itself, a lake bespeckled during the warmer seasons with sailboats and swimmers. Wannsee is lovely, which can be unsettling. How can such beauty grace a town with so ignominious a past?

A history enthusiast might stop by the Wannsee Conference villa in a morning and take the S1 train through Berlin to Oranienburg that afternoon. If one desired to trace the course of Nazi history, the plan would be thematically logical, if not geographically prudent. This itinerary would require traveling from the S1’s southernmost to northernmost station, and after such a journey, it would be understandable if this visitor found his destination to be rather underwhelming. Passing little houses with neatly trimmed yards, unassuming restaurants, and a few convenience stores, he would leave with the impression that it was all somehow inappropriately ordinary.

The land gives off an air of patience and forgiveness bordering on heroic virtue. If the town of Wannsee had perchance met with Divine Justice untempered by mercy, I imagine it would have turned to ash, its lake shriveled and bare. Of course, only people are subject to judgment. But still, it seems fitting that the landscape should at least bear some reminder of the infamous Wannsee Conference of 1942, at which fourteen civil servants and officers of the SS met to determine the “final solution to the Jewish question.” Likewise, an oppressive haze of righteous anger might still hover over Oranienburg and the whole North of Berlin, baking the earth until it cracked and blistered—-a fitting end to the town that housed the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The camp is a museum today, a memorial to the tens of thousands of Jews, among other prisoners, who met their “solution” here: death by pseudo-scientific medical experiment, gas, hanging, bullet, starvation, disease.

When the Red Army reached Sachsenhausen in 1945, the Soviets freed its survivors, making room for their own prisoners: former Nazi functionaries and opponents of Stalinism. After this “liberation” of Sachsenhausen, at least 12,000 more people died within its walls before the permanent closing of the camp five years later. For forty-four years, these Soviets controlled East Berlin: spying, kidnapping and torturing their political opposition, indoctrinating the youth, closing churches, and banning civic organizations.

A singular blend of justice and mercy has shaped the Berlin of today. In Potsdamer Platz, in the Tiergarten district, the Sony Center rises into the Berlin skyline like a giant tent of steel and glass, more nearly resembling a spaceship from inside, with spirals of glass leading to its summit. The platz draws tourists and locals alike: for gelato at the mall, for beer at an outdoor café, for culture at the film museum. Amid the bustling crowds, it seems here that Berlin has triumphantly claimed its place among the modern cities of Europe, free from the stain of its history. Under the Sony Center’s massive shadow, however, a remaining piece of the wall, a freestanding block of graffiti-covered concrete measuring three feet in length, serves as a subtle reminder that this plaza was once a cleft through a divided city. It is hard to believe that it was in fact quite recently a no man’s land, lying between two walls (anti-fascist protection walls, as the Soviets called them), with snipers on patrol against any escape to the West.

For anyone willing to pay the eight euro fee for a view from the top of the Fernsehturm, Berlin’s distinctive TV tower, it is clear that the city’s recovery did not come at the expense of justice. Communism was its own punishment, if only symbolically. While pretty red tile roofs speckle the west side of the city, the east side is a monotonous succession of grey Plattenbauten. These are prefabricated concrete-slab buildings, as if functionalism had been taken to its extreme to point out its own absurdity, an ugly ideology imparting visible ugliness on its surroundings.

Nestled on the corner of Bebelplatz, slightly east of the city’s center, is the oddly shaped Saint Hedwig’s Cathedral: round, built on the model of the Pantheon, with a central stair leading down to a second altar and the tabernacle. The building looks as if it were humbly and silently offering up penance for the errors of the past. Partially destroyed during the Second World War, it was reconstructed in a “modern” style during the division of the city. It is sparse. A banner with the names of the apostles hangs where one might expect a lordly crucifix. The cupola, which crowned the building for almost 200 years, was replaced by a simple cross. Scarred though it is, St. Hedwig’s stands as a witness to the awesome promise of Matthew 16:18: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” For the gates of hell did come to Berlin—-twice. And though they shook with menace, the victory over them had been won long before.

On St. Hedwig’s lower level, a chapel houses the relics of Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg. As provost of this very cathedral, he said many a Mass only yards from his final resting place. Having dared to lead demonstrations in front of concentration camps and public prayer for the persecuted Jews, he became a target of Nazi enmity. He was imprisoned for two years, and then the Nazis ordered his transfer to Dachau concentration camp. He died in a cattle car en route, a martyr for insisting that man love his neighbor.

His generation is now gone, sinners and martyrs both. After the war, Berlin belonged to the Soviet Union, to France, England, and America. They rebuilt the city in their image, leaving their own unique legacy of blight and blessing. This is Berlin’s inheritance.

Arriving early for a weekday mass, I take a seat with the chapel of the Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg directly at my back. From this spot, I have a view of the whole church in front of me. A short line is already forming by the chapel opposite me where a priest is hearing confessions. A middle-aged man with thick glasses stops to kneel by the tomb, and then, with a clink of coins, makes an offering at the statue of St. Anthony. As the clock strikes the hour, organ music fills the air, and a blonde woman to my right sings boldly to keep us together as the priests process in. Though the summer heat is sweltering in the non-air-conditioned church, no one seems bothered, least of all the two religious sisters in their heavy black habits. The sprite-like, gray-haired priest delivers a homily that my imperfect German prevents me from fully understanding, but the joy and enthusiasm in his voice is contagious. During communion, a mother and daughter make their way down the stairs from the upper church, heads bowed. They kneel at the communion rail, a moving picture of humility.

Before leaving the church, I stop to light a votive candle by a statue of the Madonna and child. A small crowd has gathered, some kneeling, some standing off to the side with bowed heads. The shrine, dark only a few hours before, is again ablaze with light.

K.E. Cybulski is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Dappled Things editorial board.