The flights and hotels are booked: my wife and I are flying to Germany this spring for a vacation.
It will be my second time visiting. The last time was 39 years ago, when Germany was two countries and the Wall divided Berlin. I was on an exchange program with Indiana University that summer. The Wall would fall a little more than five years in the future, but none of us could see that coming.
I lived in Krefeld, a city in western Germany on the Rhine River near the border with the Netherlands. My exchange group spent a week in Berlin, where we experienced the Wall. We even spent a day in East Berlin. I wrote about my Berlin experience here, and about my everyday life experience here.
We will start our trip in Berlin, where we will spend a few days. Then we will take a train to Cologne (Köln) and make that our home base for the rest of the trip. I’m eager to see modern Berlin, no longer divided. We’ll see the sights in Köln, including the great cathedral. We’ll take day trips from there, including to Krefeld.
I’m excited to finally return. I’m eager to see whether my German language skills are still sufficient for me to make my way!
But I expect that some aspects of returning to Berlin will be emotionally difficult. I expect to cry openly as I walk through Brandenburg Gate, for this is what it looked like the last time I saw it.
I was unprepared for the Wall’s impact on me. I was 16 and, typical of that age, was all about the adventure ahead. But the Wall seemed to be everywhere, and its imposing presence left me feeling subdued.
We came upon a place where the Wall was interrupted where it intersected the Spree River. Here we found these crosses, remembering people who tried to swim from East to West and were killed, either by a sniper in a nearby watchtower, or by the barbed wire with which they lined this part of the river.
There is one other very difficult memory, so difficult I didn’t remember it until about ten years ago. We toured a prison called Plötzensee, where the Nazi regime executed people who were part of various resistance organizations. I have only a vague memory of a white room there with hooks sticking out of the wall. I think we were told that was where the corpses of the executed were hanged after they were shot. I could be making that up. Something about this tour was upsetting enough that I blocked my memory of it after it was over. I only remembered it ten years ago because someone with whom I’m acquainted mentioned their own visit to this place. Plötzensee…Plötzensee…why does that name ring a bell? I Googled the name. Upon seeing photos the memory came flooding back, and fought the strong urge to vomit.
We won’t be returning to Plötzensee on this trip.
Margaret and I will revisit a couple other sites from my 1984 trip. But we will also visit many places I’ve not seen before, and make many new memories, while we are there. We may also see Margaret’s nephew and his wife, who live in Prague and are figuring out a day trip to Berlin to meet us.
We’ll also spend about half of our time with Cologne as our home base, making a few day trips including one to Krefeld. I’m eager to see the city center again — I never photographed it in 1984, and my memories of it have faded. I also want to drink beer at the Gleumes brewery, which is in the city center. 39 years without Gleumes is a long time!