This weekend, when it seemed the entire world was celebrating one of the 20th century’s most important events, J and I got out of town. Having both been blessed with the same opinion that we generally dislike large holidays and events promising crowds of people in a small space, we decided there would be nothing better for us than to remove ourselves from the premises.
For me, there was something more at work too. I had celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall in Berlin five years ago (J and I had just met, and having felt the exact same way about the commemorative events – “I was there for the real thing, why do I have to be here for this?” – as he does now, he had escaped to our house in Brandenburg, and I had stayed behind, wanting to capture something of those heady days 20 years ago for myself, even though I had only been a toddler at the time). So I was more than familiar with the mixed feelings one can have when participating in an act of mass commemoration when one has no real memory of the event that is being commemorated. I felt, somehow, that it was not my due.
A few days earlier, I had posted an article about the Lichtballon installation that would be used to commemorate the Wall along with the question, “Am I the only one who just doesn’t get this?” and was met with a range of responses that ran from agreement to polite confusion to near hostility. Why didn’t I understand how beautiful and right this rendering of the Berlin Wall was? Did I not appreciate the magnitude of the event it was honoring? Did I not see how it was the perfectly attuned response to that historical moment, eschewing what could have been a day of overblown kitsch and embarrassing bombast? Well, I hardly needed to point out that it was not the importance of the anniversary I was disparaging, but rather the flimsiness of the way—basically the only way—the city had chosen to mark that anniversary (not to mention the potential environmental hazards of releasing thousands of balloons into the air—even ones that are supposedly made of biodegradable material that will only choke some animals, but not all—but that’s another story for another time).
We passed Potsdamer Platz on the way out of town, and drove through the opening in the line of balloons that had been left for traffic—the significance was not lost on us. The balloons were there, waving on their stands; a few of the stands had no balloons, leading us to wonder whether they had not been put up yet, or had already been stolen or popped or released before the officially sanctioned time.
As the weekend wore on, I watched all social networks flooded with photographs of the balloons—some of them blurry and dark and completely unnecessary, some of them bright and clear with a graphic appeal I hadn’t expected. A few even made me wish I had stayed in town—momentarily. But then the criticisms started coming in, letting me know that I hadn’t been entirely alone in the first place. A photographer I know with a top floor flat in Mitte looked down over the city and could see no sign of the balloons being released, a gentle wall of light slowly rising into the sky, and found this compounded her general sense of disappointment. Someone posted a video of the balloon “ambassadors” releasing their balloons, but the effort was not coordinated, and each went off into the ether at a different time, instantly losing their light as soon as they were disconnected from its source. Today, Tagesspiegel also chimed in.
We chose to mark this anniversary a bit differently. At 8 o’clock in the morning on Sunday, we woke up, got dressed, ate breakfast, and made the half hour drive to the town of Schwedt—a depressing eyesore of a place that was just profiled in the Telegraph pretty darn accurately, replete with Socialist Plattenbau buildings falling apart or just standing there waiting to, empty storefronts and parking lots, concrete and broken glass. For the past two years or so, J has been playing a church service there several Sundays a month, hired by a community that is actually getting funding from a church in Switzerland, and quite a lot of it at that. Now, I’m an atheist Jew, and I certainly have my problems with organized religion, but no one can doubt that these people are doing quite a lot of good. As the Telegraph stated, the average age of the population of Schwedt hovers at around 50, but this building on this particular day of the week is always full of families with kids, teenagers who come to service alone because it’s the only thing to do on weekends, and quite a few Wessis who, for whatever private reasons of their own, decided to take a chance on Schwedt and see what they could build there.
After the service, we drove another 30 minutes north to the town of Gartz, where a forester we had befriended had invited us over to share a leg of wild boar he had shot himself along with his wife, daughter, and elderly parents. This is someone who is employed by the state to keep the boar and deer population in check; his house is replete with stag horns and boar tusks on wooden plackets, hanging on the walls in rows like gold medals to his hunting prowess. He is also an unexpectedly gentle, soft-spoken man who writes and records his own music. That’s how J and I met him. As we sat down to this generous, Thanksgiving-like meal on this distinctly extraordinary Sunday, J and I got into a conversation with the forester’s parents, who lived in a town 60km farther north: his father had worked for the LPG before those three letters became known as a very expensive organic supermarket in Prenzlauer Berg, back when it was merely the “Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft” of the former GDR. He had taken care of cows for the collective farms, and now he bred and raised doves in his retirement. I wanted to ask them how they had experienced the fall of the Wall but simply couldn’t bring myself to do so, wary of how annoying it can get to be quizzed continuously, by everyone you meet, on what it was like to be in New York City on 9/11. They seemed quite content just to sit with us, leaving the outwards shows of celebration to the rest of the world while their granddaughter played at their feet.
Afterwards, we walked down to the end of the road with the little girl skipping ahead and a gigantic Weimeraner hunting dog named Inca, clearly bred to carry entire wild boar carcasses, on a leash, happily stalking and sniffing ahead of us. We opened a creaky, rusted gate and stepped onto a plot of ground sheltered by still-green fir trees while yellow, brown, and red leaves from other bare branches rustled and then disintegrated underfoot. Ahead of us was a small collection of 25 gravestones, some of them cracked down the center, others half covered in glowing green, soft moss, still others standing straight up, as if to say to the world, “we are still here.” This was the Jewish cemetery of Gartz, first used as a burial place in 1850, its last headstone laid in 1935, only three years before it was partially destroyed. The wife of the forester explained that she had tried to do some research, and had found that there was a sizable Jewish community in this area prior to the 1940s, including quite a few going by the name of Guggenheim. The children, at least, had mostly survived, brought to London by Kindertransport. The rest must not have been so lucky, and this cemetery, this tiny collection of chipped, worn stones in between two residential streets, is the only tangible proof we will ever have that the Jews of Gartz existed.
This is the other side of 9/11, which to the Europeans already signifies Nov 9, since in Europe the day is written first and then the month. Nov 9 was the day the Berlin Wall fell, and the night of Kristallnacht, and an important date in so many other ways. I am grateful that I, an Amerikanerin who really has no personal connection to the events of either day, could celebrate it in my own special, non-light-balloon-filled way with a couple of Ossis and Wessis, in a decimated city called Schwedt, and a tiny old town called Gartz, in a region called Brandenburg, in a country that used to be called East Germany.