Sunday, December 12, 2004

Three Mirrors

My friend the dancer wanted to hit the Weihnachtsmarkt in the Gendarmenmarkt, the plaza not far from my house that is considered Karl Friedrich Schinkel's neo-Classic masterpiece -- and it is, when it's not dookied up by an outdoor stage or a Christmas market -- and so, after thinking about what was where, I agreed to meet her mid-afternoon Friday in the subway station at Hausvogteiplatz. (If your German is as rudimentary as mine is, you may wonder what kind of egg a Hausvogtei is, but it's apparently a plural of Hausvogt, a word that's not in my dictionary, but seems to mean "house steward.") I'd discovered Hausvogteiplatz when I had to go to the Handelsbank, the grim building where one exchanges Deutsche Marks for Euros -- a business that's still going strong -- and had admired its expansiveness and the lovely clock, set in the middle of a stylized sun on the Berolinahaus building there.

I also decided to walk, despite it being the coldest day of this part of the year so far, if for no other reason than getting there by public transport would take almost as long as walking. The hike took me through another Christmas market, at the Unter den Linden Opera, and, because I always overestimate how long it takes to get places on foot here, being early, I scoped it out. I was in luck! A stand was selling sausages from Thuringia, including the garlic ones which make a perfect substitute for Cajun garlic sausages. (Not as good as my old pal Kermit Lejeune makes in Eunice, but then, what is?) I bought a bunch of them, and visions of red beans and rice at the end of this cold day started dancing in my head.

Arriving at Hausvogteiplatz, I discovered something I'd never noticed before which may have gone up since the last time I was there: three tall double-sided mirrors, arranged in an equilateral triangle, set apart, but leaning in towards one another. From the outside, they reflected the lovely open space of the plaza, but inside, in front of each mirror, a caption was set in the ground. Interested, I stepped inside, and noticed that the captions told of the days when Hausvogteiplatz was the center of Berlin's clothing industry until the Jews who owned the majority of the businesses were forced to give them up for "Aryanization," and then sent off to the camps. The captions were short, and terse, and every time you looked up from them you were confronted with a reflection of yourself.

Besides feeling glad I'd been given this information (which I think is also available on a sign over in one corner, with photos -- I have to go back and check), I also felt annoyed. Berlin is the center of many horrors committed in the past, not just the genocide of the Nazis, but also the unimaginably brutal campaign of rape and destruction waged by the Russian victors at the war's end, and I don't contest that these should be memorialized so that people don't forget. But I also think that for this process to be effective, it has to be managed well.

The DDR was the worst with this: their memorial inscriptions hector unmercifully, thanks to the regime's inbuilt notion that the fascists who took the country over were from somewhere other than the territories which formed the Russian zone. Thus, it was "fascists," not "Germans" (or, heaven forbid, "German fascists") who had perpetrated the crimes against humanity. The West Germans settled for being chilling: the signpost outside the Wittenbergplatz station shows the names of the camps, with the numbers of people killed substituting for miles. By the time Germany unified, though, at least one monument got it absolutely right. Not far from the Gendarmenmarkt is Bebelplatz, which is across Unter den Linden from Humboldt University and the former central city library. Students from the former raided the latter in 1933, piled the books up in the plaza, and set them afire. (Interestingly, I just read a first-person account of this from a Jewish intellectual who was there, and apparently it was one of those grey, soggy Berlin days, even though it was early May. The SS had one hell of a time getting the books lit, and keeping them going was pretty much impossible. They managed to get something of a blaze going for the cameras, but after the propaganda had been shot, the fire quickly fizzled out.) At any rate, the metal sign haranguing fascists attached to the Kommode, the lovely Baroque building on Bebelplatz, that the DDR had put up was to be replaced, and an artist named Micha Ullmann figured out the perfect monument: he dug out a good-sized room under the plaza, right in its center, and then furnished it, top to bottom, with bookshelves, painted them white, and sealed the room. A thick glass window was placed flush with the ground, and through it, you can see the empty, white shelves, which are lit up. A very small plaque nearby mentions what the monument is, who made it, and a second one has a quote from a German philosopher that says "When pepole start burning books, they wind up burning people not too long afterwards."

It's quiet, it's appropriate, and not a single person I've shown it to has failed to be silenced by its eloquence. In other words, it's everything Hausvogteiplatz's three mirrors isn't. (It's currently off-limits due to the fact that the city is, for some unknown reason, building a mammoth parking garage under Bebelplatz, but it may be seeable again in the spring).

The dancer's train was right on time, and we decided to head straight to the Gendarmenmarkt. As we climbed the stairs out of the station, I noticed that each one had the name of a Jewish businessman who'd worked in Hausvogteiplatz in the 1930s, so I pointed this out to my friend, and then directed her to the mirrors. "But how can you object to this?" she asked. I told her I thought the mirrors were a bit much. "But this is necessary." She paused. "Of course, the people who actually need to see this never will."

Yes, there's that, too.

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