NOTE: I’ve strayed from my comfort zones of the classroom and staffroom for this post. I’m no historian (my GCSE History grade was something of an embarrassment) or world affairs expert (though being married to one means I have a fair degree of saturation in the news). I feel a twinge of wrongness that this news story should have moved me as it has, simply because I know the place, love the place, know the language and the people. It is perhaps petty-minded to focus on tragedy within the familiar and the known. Nevertheless, my words are authentic and from the heart and I hope they will resonate with others too.
I’ve always said that if it all got too much and I disappeared, I’d probably find myself back in Berlin.
I like to think of myself as a bit of an expert on Berlin, though in reality, the decades have passed and my knowledge and understanding of the city is really over 20 years old – from the years just after the fall of the Wall, where the East-Germans in the town where I lived, 60k outside the city, were still rejoicing in bananas on the shelves and painting their flats in the brightest colours, because they could. When most people still spoke Russian and English teachers were in the minority.
Berlin was a great coming-of-age kind of a place as experienced by the uniquely know-it-all 21-year-old whose beliefs and values are pure and passionate and founded upon many books, many beer-fuelled pontifications and limited real experience. A city where every corner brought another symbol of history, or a more blatant reminder of its ‘nie wieder’ [never again] mantra – the smashed up Jewish cemetery left as was when the Nazis finished their iron-bar rampage; Sachsenhausen, with evidence of layers of tragedy and retribution – first the Nazis, then the Russians. The cafes with the metal remains of planes for us to climb upon to preen and polish our truisms and feel edgy and at one with a proud, battered, smashed-up city, always proud, never pretentious, wearing its honesty like an unconcealed scar. The warehouses where, for the one and only time in life, I experienced the sheer exhilaration of ear-drum-busting techno music and came away with a guttural Berlin accent that made my German assistant giggle. ‘Ick weyss nickt…’
It was a time of naivety and a time of real learning. A time of isolation as the Engländerin living alone at the edge the town, and a time of true bravery – I have never before or since been braver than when I packed my belongings into the back of my Vauxhall Nova and set off across Europe (with my Dad to follow for some of the way, of course) to live with people unknown to me in a language that, despite my studies, continued to baffle me.
During my teaching life, I have taken groups of children there, partly to share in my sentimental journey and partly to expose their senses to the foreign, the scary, the unknown – the vital and the all-too-familiar. ‘No,’ I explained to Ashraf in Year 7. ‘They aren’t still using the concentration camps’. The students blew me away with their maturity – silent in the concentration camp (like the birds) and some overcome by emotion at the metal slabs in the medical rooms. In the Jewish Museum, they were bewildered and entranced, baffled and curious in a way that Liebeskind, I like to believe, would be happy to see. As a relief from history, they tore around the Tiergarten, whilst we teachers surreptitiously on the lookout for naturist sunbathers (one gave my Mum quite a turn a year earlier) and discovered the inimitable joys of Currywurst.
In 2006, my students and I sat just where the lorry collided into the Christmas Market by the Gedächtniskirche eating ice cream. Some had noted a gay bar across the road and, after a temporary struggle from one student with the concept, he concluded that, ‘yeah, I suppose people can do what they like, as long as they’re happy’ before wandering off in search of souvenirs. It was a silly, frivolous kind of a day – we were having a break from History.
Or maybe we weren’t. Several of those students have gone on to make links with Germany and I can think of two from one class whose German is now far superior to mine. I know a number of people living in the city and feel a pull if I haven’t visited for a couple of years.
For all the sentimentality and nostalgia of the 20-year-old me, through that year I became aware of a real grit – a stubborn strength – at the heart of the Berlin spirit. Hitler hated the Berliners and resistance in the city was greater than anywhere. The Berliners I have known don’t like to be told what to do or how to think. They wear their history on their streets and their walls and their street-signs. The Gedächtniskirche itself has been left in half stained-glass as a reminder of the destruction of World War 2 and as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.
Berlin has seen horrors that our generation in Western Europe could not begin to comprehend and has come out strong, eclectic and inclusive (if at times a little shinier than my nostalgic self would prefer). Berlin is the sometimes-forgotten gem I urge anyone who hasn’t been to to visit.
2016 has twisted the knife once more and there will be hand-wringing and rage and deepest despair. But if the attack was planned, if it was intended to manipulate and intimidate and corrupt and fracture and divide, I’m quite confident this bully (if that is what it is) has underestimated its intended victim.
The Berliners I know are made of strong stuff; they will not be cowed or brainwashed into black-and-white hatreds and cycles of rage and retribution. Berlin knows better than most how these can end. Say it again, and know we stand with you. To hate and intolerance: ‘nie wieder’.