The artists trip to Berlin happened to coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years prior. The celebration, called MauerFall, only added to my sense that history (good and bad) was present throughout Berlin. After the defeat of Germans in World War II, Allied powers occupied the country and divided it into two zones, with Berlin forming a microcosm of the division. West was occupied by French, English and American powers while East became a socialist state under the Soviet Union. Though the city reunified in 1990, the effects of the division linger. Thanks to the subsidies and resources poured into West Berlin, the East side still deals with disparate levels of unemployment and poverty. The remnants of the wall make present and tangible the social and economic divides which remain. Although I am aware of histories presence in Rome with the layers of Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque, and modern architecture that guild every building, in Berlin it felt much more somber. As a Jewish person, it feels impossible to walk down the streets without thinking of the suffering and horror that occurred.
Talking to a few friends about this phenomena- the simultaneous excitement of experiencing a new place and the chagrin and sadness of it’s history– we reflected that this happens in many other places. For example, the United States’s dark history of colonialism and forced relocation of Indigenous people as well as the history of slavery, segregation, and continued racial violence are still central to many people’s experiences. These events might technically be called ‘past’ but they feel very present.
With that being said, I still felt very lucky to experience the present of Berlin- both it’s ugliness and its beauty. I think that’s why our visit to the East Side Galleries, the 1.3 Km strip of murals on surviving wall fragments, felt so special. Early Sunday morning, we braved the frosty temperatures and biting wind to walk the expanse. I couldn’t help but smile at the famous My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love by Russian artist Dmitri Vrubel is based on a photograph of USSR and GDR leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing each other on the lips.