Berlin is huge; it is nine times the size of Paris," the gentleman sitting next to me on our flight to Germany's capital told me just before landing. I wondered if I was going to do justice to the city in three days. I wanted to get a flavour of how Berliners lived, at the same time see as many of its historic sites as possible. At the airport, I spotted pamphlets about guided tours of the city on bicycles. That was it. I remembered the days I used to cycle to college at my hometown in Panaji and at once decided to grab the opportunity of sightseeing plus exercise that the tour promised.
The next morning after a heavy breakfast at the Youth Hostel where I was staying, I made my way to Berlin's famous landmark, Alexandria Tower, the starting point for the ride for Fat Tire Bike Tours, one of the better-known companies. Along with me, there were around a dozen tourists from different corners of the world rearing to start pedalling who had all signed up on the 'Third Reich' tour. The country was called Third Reich or Nazi Germany, when it was under the totalitarian dictatorship of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party from 1933 to 1945. Our guide Kiraan, a six-foot tall Irishman with a big smile, helped us choose bikes according to our sizes and gave us a quick tutorial on what makes for good riding sense in Berlin. Then we were off.
Early in our ride, we stopped near a synagogue. From the outside, it looked just like any other place of worship, until Kiraan told us that the structure that stood before our eyes had been completely gutted by a fire during Kristallnacht -- the Night of the Broken Glass -- November 9, 1938, when the Nazi government provoked a mob to go on rampage and destroy Jewish establishments. While 101 synagogues were destroyed by fire, 76 were demolished and 7,500 stores ruined during a single night.
There were dedicated cycle lanes, so we didn't have to worry about banging into a motor vehicle. A sparkling river skirted most of our way and, very soon, I found myself humming a song to myself. It was springtime and the air had a slight chill, but a few minutes of cycling later, our bodies had warmed up. At regular intervals, cycle lanes snaked into parks that seemed like dense forests.
Yes, forests! The parks provided me moments of tranquility. Oddly enough, some of the parks had memorials of some very fiery events in Berlin's chequered history. One such memorial at Rosenstrasse was about a demonstration during the darkest days in Germany's history and it told a story about the courageous and bold German ladies of that day.
"In February 1943, Hitler ordered his forces to round up hundreds of Jews who had married non-Jews and have them deported to death camps," Kiraan related at the memorial. Their shocked wives swore they would do everything to halt the deportation. And so they marched up and down the streets at Rosenstrasse shouting 'give us our husbands back'. So adamant were they, Kiraan narrated, that Hitler decided not to antagonise them. Many of the victims were on their way to the camps when the trains were halted and turned back.
"Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man B cher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." ("That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.") We were now at Berlin's Bebelplatz square, the site of the book-burning incident on the evening of May 10, 1933, where thousands of tomes were burned by Nazi students and members of the Nazi party. Among them were works by Heinrich Heine, a famous German poet of the 19th century. To mark the terrible event, the above mentioned line, one of the most famous lines from Heine's 1821 play Almansor, has been engraved on a plaque in the ground.
Turning a bend, we were riding towards what seemed like a sea of stone pillars. I wondered whether it could be some sort of a concrete cemetery, when I remembered that a few years ago I had seen a photo of the pillars on the pages of German News. It was the Memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe during the Nazi regime, designed by Peter Eisenman, a Jewish American. The memorial is a maze of vertical pillars installed in 2005. I walked for a few minutes among the pillars and had to keep my eyes wide open to avoid bumping into other tourists who crossed my path. All in all, I felt the memorial didn't make for a contemplative mood and wasn't surprised to find a lot of criticism on the Web, many of them berating the memorial for being too abstract and failing to confront the issue of German guilt.
Towards the end of the ride we stopped in front of a row of houses of apparently no special significance. I thought maybe Kiraan wanted us to take a break, but that was not to be. He was pointing to what looked like a stone, protruding from the pavement by just a few centimetres. This was a 'Stolpersteine' or a stumbling stone, taking its name from the fact that they make their appearance unheralded. Some 15,000 such brass-plated stones have been laid out. The stones remember the thousands who were forcibly taken away from their home by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps, never to return. Each carries the name of one such victim, marking the place where he or she lived. We waited in silence for a minute as a mark of respect to the victim.
With that sobering thought and a lesson in history, we returned. But what a refreshing day it had been! My legs ached a bit but my appetite for dinner was huge!
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