Thursday, May 26, 2005

It Can Be Done

I may or may not be absent here next week, because I've signed on to sort of road-manage Carl Stone's mini-French tour. We start with a Carl solo concert at Instants Chavirés in Montreuil, a suburb of Paris, Monday evening, and then, with pi'pa player Min Xiao-Fen and shamisen player Yumiko Tanaka, we jump into a van we'll be renting and blast off for Strasbourg, where the trio will do a concert Tuesday night at the Modern Art Museum there. Then, the next day, a six-hour drive to Bourges, where I don't think I've ever been before (I did a rather frenetic driving trip about nine years ago and should have kept notes), for a concert at Ecole Nationale Supérieure des arts de Bourges. After that the trip gets somewhat unfair: I get to escort the ladies back to Montreuil on the train, and Carl gets to drive to Aix-en-Provence, where he'll surely get the best meal of the whole tour. (It's also not at all far from Montpellier).

But I have stuff to do here, including actual paying work, so I have to come back Saturday night. Anyway, once I move to France, Aix is, as I noted, just down the road.

Meanwhile, if we think back to my previous encounter with Deutsche Bahn, the following tale is interesting. I have to get to Paris on Sunday, and it's a 9-hour train ride from here, changing trains in Cologne. Unfortunately, as seems to be happening all too much these days, a huge amount of money I was owed took its sweet time getting here. It arrived yesterday, so I scurried down to the station to buy a ticket.

"Paris, on Sunday," I said to the lady behind the counter, and she looked up. "Are they giving something away in France these days? Because practically all the business I've had today is people going to France. Ah, well. Want to take a night train?" Well, no, I did that once, and been there, have the chiropractic bill, you know. Just a regular train, leaving about 10am would be fine. And there it was. "I can't get you the Sparpreis, I'm sorry," she said, looking at the screen in front of her. (This was the very bit of information the last woman failed to mention). "Yeah," I said, "I'm booking late." "Exactly. And when do you want to return?" I told her Saturday, and she typed in some more stuff. "Oh, this is bad," she said. "There are no more reservations available to Cologne." "But I can get a ticket." "Yes, but no seat." "No seat? Does that mean I have to stand?" "It's World Church Days, and everyone's going to Cologne," she said. "So the train's full." "But," I pressed her, "does that mean I have to stand?" "Maybe, I really can't say." (Today I found out that the attraction isn't so much ecumenical fellowship as that the new Pope is rumored to be attending, and he being German, everyone wants a look at him).

She wrapped things up, and even checked to see if paying €50 more for a first-class ticket to Cologne would get me a seat (answer: no), and then actually said "Sorry about the Sparpreis and the reservation. Have a good trip anyway."

Now, besides the obvious difference in attitudes, what was the difference between this woman and the old bat who'd sold me my last ticket to Paris? Easy: this one had an East German accent as thick as Griebenschmalz on a Schmalzstulle (the attraction of a slice of brown bread with lard spread on it continues to escape me, one of several reasons I've figured out I don't belong in this society). The other one was from the west.

Why should one be polite and efficient and the other hostile and dismissive? Easy: one lived in a society that took her for granted for at least the first half of her life. The second one had the postwar economic miracle providing a soft cushion for her capacious hind end and was resentful that she had to have a job. Or that's how I read it.

I'll try to log on from the road, and I'm taking my camera and connecting cable, just in case, so you can expect pictures.

And, in the chaos of departure, yesterday Et Et sent me some URLs and I did some window shopping. The Pope of Mope met him at a party, and he's an architecture student here for a year from his Montpellier. Anyway, these were real-estate search sites, and I checked on the move-in prices for some apartments in Montpellier. €5-7000 ought to do it: the sites list the move-in cost. This concrete information is now stored in my head.

Now to figure out how to raise the money.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Joe Nick Remembers

I alerted Joe Nick Patoski to yesterday's post about Leon Eagleson, and he replied with an e-mail so filled with the memory of Austin in the time just before I arrived there that I felt I had to share it with you. I've edited out some incriminating info, but here's pretty much what he said:

"You triggered several memories: the joke that the name of his place was really OK Book and Records because the one book left in the place when it became a collectors' record store instead of a thrift shop was some ol' porno rag that Rockin' Dopsie and all his Twisters used to pore over in the back of the store whenever they weren't smoking 'cat dick', their description for marijuana cola buds, or shooting craps.

"All the stars hung out there sooner or later. And whenever things were slow, there was always Antone's on one side, the porno peeps, Moma's Money, Benny's Tavern (the last men-only beer bar on Sixth) and Catman's Shine Parlor. Something was always going on at Catman's.

"The parade through the store was constant -- street people like El Paso Slim ("I wish I was your age and knew what I know now" and "If I had your hand, I'd throw mine away"), the great East Austin floating-heads-on-store-windows artist Joseph Henderson who carried a funk that forced the windows down and the door open, some burly guy who grumbled unintelligibly, Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams, former champion heavyweight boxer for a spell. So-called regular people like [the late] Clyde Woodward and N_____ F_____ who had hustler and con written all over them from the git go and you still loved hanging with 'em anyhow.

"That was the hubbingest half-block I've ever known. Oddly enough, that very same real estate had a historical marker dedication last week, noting that the site of the parking garage and mini mall was once the Bremond block, which was one of the oldest buildings in Austin when it was torn down in 1979, forcing Antone's and OK to move, taking all the fun with it."

What he's remembering here is an Austin I never knew. When I first started going there in the early '70s, I hung with the "progressive country" crowd, who, while they certainly didn't have anything against black and Mexicans, didn't hang out with them, either. And that's who was on 6th Street back then. Yup, the very same 6th Street that's lined with clubs and shot bars and frat-boy hangouts today, the Bourbon-Street-like "live music capitol of the world" centerpiece. This strip of 6th Street goes all the way east to Interstate 35, which has always been the racial dividing line for central Austin: east of the line it's solidly black and Mexican, west it's pure white.

Chasing out the dime-a-dance bars like La Plaza and the Green Spot, which closed around 6pm because their clientele was basically Mexican workers who had to be up early, and routing wild places like Scotty's Bar-B-Q, home to strange is-she-or-isn't-he hookers, was essential if the area was going to be made frat-boy friendly, and when I moved to Austin in October, 1979, that change was already underway. Moma's Money, a fake Cajun seafood place that was a front for something, although I never did figure out what, was one of the first incursions of the new scene, but there were still blues bars which opened occasionally and closed just as fast when I first started going there.

When I first visited OK Records, the one I wrote about yesterday, it was on East 7th, in the Webberville area, and the blues bar I mentioned that was just up the hill, Joe Nick says, was Marie's Tearoom #2, although I remember another one with the word "chicken" in the title -- not Ernie's Chicken Shack, though.

There's a school of thought which says that American likes to excise this sort of funk like it's a tumor instead of an essential part of its soul, and I admit I was in thrall to that when I wrote Joe Nick yesterday, but he replied that people seem to like Austin pretty well these days the way it is, and I have to admit there's still plenty of soul there if you know where to find it. After all, 6th Street was still a secret, despite being right downtown, when I first got there, and that secret has just moved. A lot of what produces the whole blues culture is stuff you wouldn't want to raise your family in, and this year when I was in Austin, I stayed on the East Side for the first time in my life, and was really jazzed by the pride the residents there -- black, brown, and white -- expressed in their neighborhood. Real estate sharks are a fact of life anywhere, and they've been particularly predatory in Austin, but there seems to be a heightened awareness of that on the East Side these days, and maybe this movie has played enough times that it'll have a different outcome this time.

Or, to put it another way, it's perfectly possible to have great barbeque and well-equipped health clinics, lovingly-restored 19th century wooden houses and minority-owned neighborhood-serving businesses, and maybe, just maybe that's what's happening there.

What a strange place for Leon's death to lead me to. Thanks, Joe Nick.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Leon's Gone

Spent the tail-end of a dull Saturday afternoon checking up on some blogs, including the one by noted Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski, and was shocked to read that our old friend Leon Eagleson was dead. Joe Nick's post evokes Leon far better than I ever could, although it did bring back the memory of my visit to his mother's house in Nederland once he'd moved back there, where I watched some of the most pathological interaction possible between two people. I remember at one point, she'd been silent for a while (not, most likely, because of Leon's constant refrain of "Shut up, Momma") and Leon mentioned that Nederland once really did have a sign that said "Nigger, don't let the sun set on you here," and she sat up ramrod-straight in her chair and crowed "And I wisht it still did!" which, of course, provoked another "Shut up, Momma."

Later, we went to the barn or garage where his astonishing record collection was, and he challenged me to ask for any record. I'd never seen a Robert Johnson record in the flesh before, so I asked him if he had one. "Shit," he said, "I thought you were gonna ask somethin' hard," and then asked which one I wanted to see. And he really did have just about everything, from the country blues down to obscure Texas and Cajun sides that were great, even if nobody'd ever heard of them but him.

Even later, we somehow wound up driving to Port Arthur, still drinking, which we'd been doing all afternoon, and my only memories are a pretty much boarded-up downtown and us pissing on the grave of Harry Choates, the man who allegedly (and I do mean allegedly) wrote "Jolie Blonde" and died in the Austin jail, where he'd been hauled on child-support charges. I was still working at the Austin American-Statesman at that point, and I'd begun looking into the allegations that Choates had been beaten to death by an Austin policeman who was angry at all the noise he was making in the cell. The best information I got was from another drunk who was in the tank with Choates that night, and claimed that Choates was so drunk he slipped and fell and cracked his head on the bench in the cell, no cops in sight. Anyway, Leon and I agreed that Harry was probably thirsty and would welcome even our recyclings.

OK Records, Leon's store, was a frequent after-work hangout for me and Joe Nick. We'd head down there and hang out, watching Leon banter with the customers and hear him tell stories. I vividly remember one afternoon when some young black teenager was in there talking about how he was going into a life of crime because it was so cool. Leon impassively reeled off a graphic, detailed description of what happens to young boys his age when they get tossed into the general jail population, including a warning that involved a Folger's coffee can (I'll spare you). The kid, to his credit, kept up his bravado, but you could already see the second-thoughts forming across his brow.

When the first hip-hop records started coming out, there was no way in hell to get them in Texas, and I think this, as much as anything else, is what made Leon close the store. I'd hear of something and ask him if he could get it and it would take a month, if he could get it at all. By the time it became evident that this was the new thing, and that the impromptu Blue Monday jam sessions at the shacky bars just up the hill from OK Records were going to fade away, I think he'd made the decision to do likewise, and one day he just wasn't there. His part-time helper Huggy Bear made the transition more smoothly, but it was clear Leon wasn't interested. And now he's gone and faded away his own self.

Joe Nick said it better, but RIP, Leon. It was good knowing you.

Friday, May 20, 2005


Okay, I've had my exercise today. A friend is helping put together the next edition of the Dorling-Kindersley guide to Berlin, and, since I've been frozen out of the Time Out Guide, it felt good to take the old notebook and cruise around the neighborhood for facts and figures. I did one on the galleries in my neighborhood (although it's not as important as it once was, with a number of the better galleries moving to Zimmerstr. once the real-estate sharks moved in on them), and today I knocked off pieces on the Berlinische Galerie, the New Synagogue, and the Berliner Dom.

I'd been to the first two recently enough that I could do them off the top of my head (I reportred the opening of the Berlinische Galerie here last fall), but the only time I'd been to the Dom, the central Lutheran church of the city of Berlin, was some years ago when I went to see the Tallis Scholars play there and felt like I was in a live Phil Spector production, there was so much echo. That hardly enhanced the performance, and they were visibly struggling. So was I, seated below scowling visages of Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Calvin, and a couple of Hohenzollerns, not to mention the overwrought sacred mosaics based on paintings by one Anton von Werner; I felt like I was being judged while the Tallises were trying to stay on pitch with their acappela Tudor church music.

This time, though, I was there to look, not to listen, and although I really hate the Wilhelmine style in general (except the Neptune Fountain, which is just too silly to hate, with its rampaging lobsters and putti), I had to gather facts and figures. So I even launched myself up the 267 steps (there's a sign warning the prospective visitor -- I sure didn't count them myself) to the balcony surrounding the Dom's dome, which is open in nice weather (and today was a sizzling 68 degrees F!) so you can get a panorama of this almost totally hill-less city. Had the thing not been jammed with tourists, I would have lingered, using the steeple-spotting method (always the best way to navigate a European city, something I learned on my first visit to Brussels) to spot landmarks. As it was, I could see, off in the distance, the Rathaus Schöneberg, where Kennedy gave his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, and, in the other direction, the riverside warehouses of Friedrichshain.

In the basement, on the other hand, is the crypt, and there you get to see what must be a hundred sarcophagi of various Hohenzollerns, the family which ruled Berlin as Electors, and then Germany as Kaisers, for several centuries. (There are also a couple more upstairs, including one guy who died in the 1500s, which I think is the oldest one in the batch -- definitely the coolest, with its sculpture of him on the lid). There are also many tiny coffins, belonging to children born dead -- one Elector in the early 18th Century seems to have had really terrible luck producing children -- and, of course, less ornate ones for the wives. There's one marked for Frederick the Great, although I always understood that he's actually buried in Potsdam with his beloved dogs, and, all by itself, gated off from the rest, the last Hohenzollern, dead at the age of three in 1915.

There's something creepy about the people who were hanging around, and it wasn't because of a fascination with death, but, rather, a fascination with royalty. A gymnastics tournament is in town at the moment, and it seems like hundeds of Turnvereine are here competing, all teenagers with their parents in tow, and a lot of the more rural ones were gasping over the crypt. I had a grandmother who was sort of a royalty groupie, but it's quite strange to encounter these people in the flesh in the 21st Century, especially in Germany, where the royals gave up long ago and most titled people (like the Countess in my building) don't have a great deal of money.

Anyway, I did the tour, took the notes, and came back and wrote the entry, but one sign I transcribed didn't make it into the book. I like it anyway, an old enameled sign from the late 1800s that says "Entrance for royal household, diplomats, members of the Bundesrat, Reichstag, House of Lords, and House of Commons, and high-ranking civil servants." Sad to say, they didn't have a reproduction of that in the gift shop or I would have bought one and stuck it on my door.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Har Har

Just to show you that I haven't completely lost my sense of humor, a couple of things that have come my way.

First, the first major change in Catholic liturgy under the new pope:

Thanks, Brett!

And another one which you'll have to get out your German dictionaries for or, just as easily, check out Leo, the always-wonderful online German-English dictionary.

I'm pretty sure this happens a lot these days. Sad to say.

Monday, May 16, 2005

A Different History

I've had several e-mails asking me if I'd gone to the new Holocaust Memorial (or the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, to give it its official title), and so, since DJ F.K. is currently entertaining me with Disko '82's endless repetition of bad German disco hits and AFN-style country (it's Whit Monday, or Pfingstenmontag, a holiday, today, and he's back), I figured I'd essay a few thoughts about it and other related stuff to see what comes out.

The first thing is an anecdote about my friend Andrew, who wrote that Guide to Jewish Berlin I mentioned a couple of posts ago (out of print at the moment, but he'll be here at the end of June to do some preliminary research for the next edition). He'd just published it, and the Jüdischer Gemeinschaft (Jewish Community) was having a street-fair on Tucholskystr. so he rented a booth to sell and promote it, and, since that's just down the street, I went down there to keep him company and see what was going on. At one point, a German guy came up and asked him what he thought about the then-unbuilt and uncertain monument. "It's not for me," he said. "I'm an American." The guy was flabbergasted. "'re a Jew," he said. "Yes," Andrew said patiently, "but I'm an American Jew."

His point, I thought, was solid. This was to be a monument built by the people who committed the atrocities, to remind themselves that it had happened, and must never happen again. Of course this is commendable, but it's got little to do with him and his history, and even less to do with mine. By the time World War II had happened, his father's family had been in the U.S. for a couple of generations. (His mother is British, and was a nurse in England when his father met her during the war). His father was doing what he could about the situation: fighting the Germans (and, for that matter, doing as much as he could, too, since America behaved rather shamefully towards immigrant Jews fleeing the Holocaust: go look it up). Being American, he had his own issues to deal with in terms of being Jewish, since anti-Semitism was still rife in his country. But it's important to remember: he was neither murderer nor murdered.

For me, the Holocaust is even more distant. I grew up knowing about it, read lots about it in books, heard survivors tell their tales, and saw films and still pictures of the camps, both before and after their liberation. But I, too, am American, and I'm also not Jewish. I know about anti-Semitism because my parents were both openly anti-Semitic, and the town I lived in was very heavily Jewish. But to be honest, World War II was never a particular interest of mine. To the extent that I was interested in European history, it tended to be much older segments of it. Hell, most of the kids I grew up with had fathers who'd fought in the war, although my father's partial deafness kept him out of the Army.

So I neither need to be convinced that the Holocaust happened, nor reminded of how awful it was. Upon coming to Germany, I was naturally very interested to see how Germans themselves were dealing with it, with the history that had happened on their soil, and for the most part, I was very impressed, particularly with the people I knew, who tended to be in their 20s and 30s, and had integrated it into a worldview that was coherent and sane, including a burning desire to see that such a thing never happened again. From time to time I'd be out with a mixed bunch of Americans and Germans, and a couple of times, an American (albeit not one who lived here) would bring up the Nazis and the Jews, only to be slapped down by a German saying "Please tell us when your government apologizes to the American Indians."

Killing fields are not my thing. Although our family took long driving vacations in the summertime and my father was really interested in history, I never was much interested in battlefields. I have no desire to visit the Little Big Horn, and I remember climbing that huge hill in Waterloo, Belgium, and looking out over the farms, trying to make sense out of the diagrams on the plaques up there. "You can just see it happening," a tourist said to his wife. Well, I couldn't.

And my feeling also extends to killing fields where the killing was one-sided, as in Cambodia or here in Germany, at the camps. Yes, I was near Auschwitz when I was in Krakow, yes, there's even a streetcar in Munich which goes to Dachau (which is a suburb -- not that that makes the streetcar sign any less creepy), yes, I could have gone to Buchenwald when I was in Weimar on assignment, and hell, I could get on the subway right now and go to Sachsenhausen, although I guess it would be closed today.

It's not my story. I know the story, and yet I'm far more interested in how the Nazis came to power than I am in what they did when they assumed it. I'm far more interested in the story I've been part of, the integration of the former East Bloc into Europe, particularly because that story includes the very neighborhood I live in. I know that the story of the Holocaust remains important, because, as Serbia and Rwanda have shown, there are still people who haven't learned its lesson.

I do, however, know that there's still a fascination with the Nazis among certain Germans. I've seen neo-fascist newspapers, which were spread around the seats of a train I was riding on once (probably by the German cops who were on the train and ripped up my passport, but that's another story). I know there is a tiny number of neo-Nazis running around this country, and in fact a couple of them just got sent to jail for trying to blow up a Jewish monument. So I know that the reminder still has to be visible. I visited the documentation center in Nuremberg a few years ago when it opened, right in one of the buildings where the great rallies were staged, and I thought it was very well done. It, too, is for Germans: a police academy class was there hearing a lecture the day I visited, and schoolchildren were being led through by docents.

But I'll tell you something else, and that it's really, really wearying being surrounded by this every day. Unlike Nuremberg or Munich, just about the only history Berlin has is the history of Prussian militarism (see: Franco-Prussian War, World War I) followed by the Nazis, and, after them, the Cold War. There are no beautiful old buildings to look at as contrast or relief, no public art from a more innocent time -- hell, very little public art that doesn't have a Message, for that matter. The streets of my neighborhood, as anyone who's taken my walking tour knows, are filled with reminders and memorials, be they the small brass Klopfensteine (stumbling blocks) a German artist has hammered into the sidewalks in front of houses of Jews sent to the camps, or the Transportation Memorial on Grosse Hamburger Str., or the bombed facade of the New Synagogue or the plaques on house walls memorializing resistance fighters (read: Communists), or the few remaining houses pocked with bullet holes from the Battle for Berlin, or the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate just a few minutes' walk from my place, or the signs lining Unter den Linden which talk about each building's history, or even the innocent-looking playground in the housing project not far from the Brandenburg Gate, under which, I happen to know, lie the remains of Hitler's bunker. Then there's Daniel Libeskind's famous Jewish Museum, to which I have no desire to return. No matter where you go in this city, you are reminded of this stuff, at least if you're the slightest bit observant and the slightest bit cognizant of history.

It's the Burden of History, folks, that reoccurring character -- perhaps the reoccurring character -- in every single story that's written about Berlin. It's here, and there's nothing we can -- or should -- do about it.

But, like all burdens, it's wearying. It never stops. It's always there. And it's not my burden, but I'm living in the middle of it.

So maybe you can see why I'm not in a big hurry to walk down to Pariser Platz and see the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. You can see why I was so happy to read Amos Elan's magisterial The Pity of It All, a history of the Jews in Germany that stops in 1933: it was about something other than the Burden of History -- or, rather, it contextualized it and evenhandedly dealt with the fair and decent Germans -- who, make no mistake, also existed, as they do today, obviously.

And maybe you can figure out why, after being trapped in someone else's nightmare for the past eleven and a half years, I want so desperately to shed the Burden of History and move on to another place.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Neat Trick

I just registered (twice, because their submit form was wonky) at The Berlin Blogplan, a subway map of Berlin which, when you pass your cursor over it, shows you the nearest blog. I'm apparently sharing space with another American, Radio Free Mike, who seems to enjoy Saul Bellow more than I do.

I'm going to go play with this thingamajig a bit more. Who knew there were so many of us?

Saved From Disco Hell, And Other Crumbs

I just came back from walking around the block, because there have been sirens all afternoon. This is the 60th anniversary of the Germans' acceptance of the Allied peace terms, and I know that, among other bodies, the PDS, the hard-left party here, has been planning celebrations, but none in my neighborhood. All I saw was massive numbers of police cars and wagons directing traffic away from a number of streets, so what I suspect is that the Chancellor or someone else of similar importance is doing something at the New Synagogue. If I find out what's going on later, I'll let you know.


No question, though, that the festive season is upon us. One notable celebration missing in action (so to speak) this year was the annual Mayday riot. I didn't hear a single siren, although I did notice a few trucks of out-of-town policemen arriving the day before. The riot is used as a training situation for various police departments these days, and it would be wonderful to think that the crazies' response this year was to just do nothing, thereby frustrating the cops. But I'm afraid that's imputing too much intelligence to them, since there's not much to the content of these riots these days except a meeting of testosterone and beer. Still, interesting that it had such a low profile.

One celebration that definitely didn't disappear was the one on Thursday, which is Ascension Day, or Christi Himmelfahrt, a day whose German name has always made me think of a stuck-up cheerleader (who would have spelled it Kristi). Himmelfahrt does double duty, though, as Father's Day, which is basically an excuse for men to get drunk. And boy, do they ever. You see them in groups, sometimes riding around in an open vehicle of some sort, singing, wearing odd clothes, and drinking and drinking and drinking, and I must say that that night there were sirens well into the evening. In Dresden, apparently, a bunch of right-wingers used it as an excuse to have some sort of demonstration which ended up in a riot.

But the thing I hate most about Himmelfarhrt is that there's a restaurant with a large beer garden in my back yard, and a chill went through me when I saw a white van with Disko '82 emblazoned on the side pull up. Sure enough, a guy started unloading a mobile disco unit, complete with flashing lights, to be set up there. I was wandering around doing this and that, so by the time I got back from my errands, he was set up, blasting music at a single table with a man and a woman sitting at it.

I've always said that Germans will drink outdoors as soon as the ice breaks on the puddles in the gutter, and so seeing these people out there wasn't too surprising, but I suspected that Mother Nature had the winning card this time. After a short spell of mid-70s weather, we had some hard rains and since then it's been brightly sunny and barely 50 degrees. Not even standing in the sun is particularly warming (at least it isn't today), and as I sat here in the apartment working on this and that, I had a feeling that the endless Stars On 45-style medleys of ABBA songs and Boney M hits, interspersed with the DJ's patter, wouldn't last as long as they had in previous years. I was right; by the end of the day, I'm sure any drinkers at the restaurant had moved inside, and Disko '82 had packed up and departed to whatever Satanic hole it had crawled out of.

That said, it'd sure be nice if it actually did warm up a bit more. I like to sit outdoors in a beer garden myself from time to time myself.


My favorite beer garden, though, the Pratergarten up the hill in Prenzlauer Berg, had some unwelcome visitors the other evening, as did a number of other clubs around town. Ever eager to eliminate cool places before the flood of summer student tourism gets here, immigration police raided a number of premises Wednesday night looking for "black workers," ie, those engaged in illegal work. They caught a literally black worker at the Prater, some poor African with a forged passport, who was arrested and will probably be deported. The CCCP club, a Russian-themed place just down Torstr. where a lot of the Russian chic types hang out, also got raided and apparently 100% of their employees were illegal, so I hear they're in big trouble. And White Trash Fast Food, on the corner, got raided (of course: it caters to foreigners), but it screens its employees very well and the cops left empty-handed. Which isn't to say they're not in trouble, too: apparently some building inspector type showed up recently and told them they had to spend €6000 on a new ventilation system. So, more good news: it looks like they'll be abandoning this particular property in a month or two.

Look for more raids throughout the summer, particularly in illegal bars, which, although premises for them are getting harder to find, still exist. And if you're coming here as one of the student tourists, don't worry: you won't be arrested or deported for drinking in an illegal bar.


Thanks to Snippy for sending me, several weeks ago, the link to the BBC story from mid-April headlined "Germany's new 'great depression.'" According to the story, cases of depression among Berliners have risen by 70% since 1997, based on research by a national health insurance company. They surveyed 2.6 million employed Germans -- employed ones, mind you -- including 90,000 Berliners, so I'd venture to say the results are statistically sound. Some of the depression, apparently, was linked to the huge unemployment here, and the uncertainty as to whether the respondents' jobs would actually last much longer. The survey said they were more likely to blow off a day of work because of depression than for any other reason.

I wonder, though, if the depression might not be for reasons the insurance guys never even thought of. For instance, the fact that this city is dirty (if dog-shit were a commercially-viable crop, the city wouldn't be broke), with graffiti covering just about every flat surface. Or perhaps the fact that, with the unemployment numbers rising and the city treasury being depleted, the cultural life here has nosedived. Or the fact that ever since the government got here five years ago, the blue-noses have been doing things like raiding nightspots looking for illegal workers, putting a damper on the milieu in which the very creative people who are supposed to be making this the hip, vibrant place the New York Times says it is are doing their socializing and networking. Or maybe this is just the culmination of the culture of negativity which rules here, the impulse to say no first thing when people bring up new ideas.

I'm depressed here most of the time, so I don't see why others shouldn't be. Both visually and socially, this is a very depressing place to live. Maybe this survey is just acknowledging that with facts and figures.


Several people have asked where they can get the Goldapple Guide to Jewish Berlin, which I mentioned in the last post. I'm working on it, folks. There is, I think, a way to order it so that the authors make the most money on it, and, while it's not 100% up to date, it's still the best book on the subject available. Andrew? Kevin? You reading this? I need some info! Get in touch!

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Hide The Synagogue!

Okay, kids, want to play a neat game? Fine! With the cooperation of the City of Berlin, and of course the necessary backing of the Burden Of History, let's play Hide the Synagogue!

I owe this to my pal Ina, editor of the estimable Neid magazine, your basic average hiphop feminist art magazine. Ina has become fascinated with Berlin's Jewish sites, although she's not Jewish herself, and one day last year we went to an exhibition in the New Synagogue of architectural models of German synagogues. There was also an exhibition of various furnishings from Berlin synagogues, including a couple of tapestries from the Old Synagogue. Now, I knew we were in the New Synagogue, which had been built in 1866, so I asked Ina where the old one was.

"Your're kidding," she said. "It's in your back yard. It's on Rosenstr., just a short walk from Hackescher Markt."

I was astonished. It was virtually in my back yard. I mean, I knew Rosenstr., and had walked down it a few times, but since it was just a short street that didn't go anywhere in particular, I wasn't there too often. What I knew it for was a particularly hideous bit of public sculpture which memorialized a brave bit of resistance to the Nazis. It was made into a film in 2003, but, like most German films, it barely played in America. What happened was, in 1943 the Nazis raided a bunch of factories and seized Jewish men who were working there, taking them to a top-secret prison they had improvised in the Jewish Community administration building on Rosenstr. Word got out almost immediately, and some non-Jewish women who were married to some of the detainees started a demonstration in front of this building. At the end of a week, there may have been as many as a thousand women in the street chanting "Murderers!" and "Give us our men back!" Ultimately, the Nazis were humiliated into releasing the prisoners, even 25 they'd already shipped to Auschwitz! In 1995, a really, really ugly stone monument was erected in the lot opposite the former prison on Rosenstr., and that was all I knew about the place.

I mentioned this to Ina, and she agreed that this was the place. "It's got a historic marker sign and everything, though. Trust me, it's there."

So I went looking. And walked right past it. Walked clear out the other end of Rosenstr. and onto Karl-Liebknecht-Str. Then I turned around and walked back. And this, more or less, was what I saw.

Now, knowing what I know today, I can see the synagogue and the historical marker. And no, it's not the red pile on the left; that's the Frauenbloc -- Women's Bloc -- monument. I didn't want to singe your eyes with a full shot of it.

See the synagogue? I didn't think so. Here, let's see if this helps.

Ah, yes, over there in the corner! The sign! Alas, there's no synagogue to be seen, because it got hit with a bomb in World War II, and thanks to the DDR, ever ready to promote Judaism as a culture, not a religion, the remaining bits were knocked down rather than restored, even though the building dated from 1714, which is pretty old by Berlin standards. Also, due to an idiosyncracy of German-Jewish relations, most of the synagogue was still intact despite the damage: it was forbidden for Jews to build buildings higher than German ones, so many synagogues had the majority of their space below ground. A simple little building could conceal a gorgeous sanctuary. (This law was off the books by 1866, when the New Synagogue was built, obviously).

So now that we've walked into the corner of the park and noticed the sign with its back turned to the public, we can check out the remains of the foundation and read the sign:

You can see the Frauenbloc monument in the distance, and you can tell from the buildings across the street where Rosenstr. is. Here's a closer look at the foundation.

So we found it, kids! Despite the best efforts of the city of Berlin to hide it, we found the synagogue where Moses Mendelssohn, Salomon Maimon, David Friedländer, Henriette Herz, Rahel Levin, and thousands of less famous Jews worshiped for over 150 years (and, of course, some stayed on after the new one went up), where some of the intellectual lights of Berlin professed their faith and went through the rituals of life and death.

Hey, at least, unlike at the Rosenthaler Tor, there's acknowledgement that it was there. But there are no signs pointing to it, and no other hints that it's there. That I managed to pass it so many times without even seeing the sign is testament to how well hidden it is. Once again, faced with a positive monument in the city's history, the city chooses to celebrate the incident which will cause Berliners to reflect on the shame their city was guilty of and ignore a site of which it could deservedly be proud.

And speaking of Rosenthaler Tor, I think I've found a solution to the non-commemoration of that, too. But I'll have to hike up the hill some nice day and get a shot of it, so that'll have to wait for another day.


Almost forgot: much of the historical information on both the Old Synagogue and the Frauenbloc monmument came from the excellent Goldapple Guide to Jewish Berlin by Andrew Roth and Michael Frajman. Maybe Andrew's still reading this blog and can e-mail me with details as to how my other readers can get a copy of this invaluable resource.