Monday, 18 July 2016

'Re-living' Holocaust horrors

I find Berlin a very compelling city. A city of contrasts, hundreds of years old bombed out cathedrals juxtaposed against new shopping malls, busy streets with fast cyclists ringing bells to pedestrians who would have strayed into the cyclists lane against the slow sluggish Spree  River with tourists taking a lazy boat ride and some Berliners sun-basking on the banks.

One very striking feature or features, are reminders all over the city, of the war that ended over 70 years ago. There are memorials dotted across the city, to remember the war and to commemorate those who lost their lives during these really tumultuous times.

One of these features which stood out for me was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; or simply The Holocaust Memorial, located one block south of the Brandenburg Gate in the Friedrich Stadt neighborhood.

The memorial, by Architect Peter Eisenman and Engineer Buro Happold is covered with 2 711 concrete slabs or stelae arranged in a grid pattern on slanting ground, with 54 rows going to the north south whilst 87 go to the east west, at right angles but  slightly askew.

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 I remember sending a video I took whilst going past the memorial to someone back home and they said that the place was creepy.

I was not ready for the emotions I experienced as I went into the memorial after a brief history session by our guide from Israel.

From a distance, to me, the place resembled a cemetery, with the grey concrete slabs looking like graves. The differences in the heights oft he blocks also symbolised the different people killed during the Holocaust.

Though the concrete blocks are the same length and width, at 2.3 metres long and 0.95 metres wide, the height varies, from 0.2 to 4.7 metres. This, according to Eisenman, evokes a sense of isolation and disorientation, symbolic of the events that took place during the Holocaust.

The American architect said the magnitude and scale of the horror of the Holocaust was such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means was inevitably inadequate.

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´´ Our memorial attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia . We can only know the past today through a manifestation in the present."

In this sepulchral maze, I realised that as I went further from the starting point, the hubbub of the busy city began to fade and my field of vision was getting restricted despite the squares of light appearing at the end of each long path. There was an uneasy and confusing atmosphere and was always startled if some other person showed up from anywhere.

Already feeling chilled from the sombre atmosphere in the maze created by the stelae, we walked into the underground ´Place of information´, also designed by Eisenman, holding the names of the Jewish Holocaust victims.

This permanent exhibition which tells the savagery of the holocaust from different people’s points of view, pushed me into a reflection on one of history's grim acts of inhumanity and the quote by Italian writer Primo Levi;

“It happened, and therefore it could happen again; this is the core of what we have to say.” 

written in large letters on the wall in the main entrance immediately forced this brooding on me.

The exhibition began with an overall view of the national socialist policies that spanned the years from 1933 – 1945 and was followed by The Rooms.

The Room of Dimensions which houses diaries, letters, postcards and any  last source of news received from the victims was harrowing.

´´My dear
Don't separate from Michel. Don't let yourselves be taken tot he children’s home. Write to Papa, maybe he can help you, and write to Paulette. Ask the furrier across the way for advice. Maybe God will pity you. We are leaving tomorrow for God knows where. I'm hugging you, in tears. I would so much have loved to hug you again, my poor children, I will never see you again.´´

Letters like this one broke me.

After the room of Dimensions, I started rushing through the other rooms, overwhelmed by a sadness so profound and disgust that human beings could go to those lengths to do such to other human beings.

 In the next room, the Room of Families, 15 Jewish families were presented with photos and documentation depicting their  way of life before the Holocaust and with information on the expulsion and murder of the families.

 The Room of Names had names of the Holocaust victims are projected onto the walls with her speaker announcing the end of each victim whilst the Room of Places had a large map of Europe showing  the location of the different concentration and work camps.

I was startled as I stumbled out of the exhibition to realise that the sun was out and bright in the city after moments of being transported to a dark and horrific period underground. I left the memorial a different person that the one who had walked in.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Heat-wave,melting Eis and nudity.

It is a lovely Thursday evening, a little after 1800 hours and according to European summer days, it is still very much light outside.  Actually, the sun is blazing on us, it seems there was a heat wave in this beautiful Bavarian city of Munich, or München as they call it here.

The heat is stifling, but we have to explore this beautiful gem of a city.  Fedora on, shades on, loose clothing on, and we take languid step after languid step towards the UBahn station.

Our steps take us past the Ludwig-Maximilius University Juristice Faculty to this unique place, filled with sweltering bodies, on this hot day.

So imagine me, back home, my conventional ice cream flavours are Vanilla, chocolate, raspberry, banana, cherry and a little bit more. Then here, we walk into this place where icecream flavours range from Bier (Beer), to Strawberry champagne, to cabbage,to bacon , to garlic and more other quirky flavours. This is Der Verrueckte Eismacher, with very friendly staff who are eager to help and urge you to try on more flavours. 

Well, I was not really up to experimenting with my belly. I had not recovered from the huge shock to my palate experienced in this upmarket Lebanese restaurant in the Merchant City of Hamburg, when I tried this so-called ´refreshing´ drink called a Lassi, which in-fact was a blend of yogurt, water, mint and salt.

So in the icecream shop, I ordered two scoops of ´Bananen-Schokoladen-Eis´ which I quickly regretted. The sweetness was a little cloying and the Eis made me so thirsty. Well, I soldiered though my Ice cream as I could see that my colleagues had enjoyed theirs and had finished.

With my melting Eis still in hand, we walked towards the English Garden. The place took my breath away. Its size. The beauty. All of it.

Well, here is where I received my shock of the day.

Right. There is a river, It is a madly hot day. I understood people in bikini suits and bathe suits lying on the grass and splashing around in the water to cool down. I also yearned for the coolness of the river water to cool down my body.

Yet nothing prepared me for this middle aged man who leisurely walked his dog on the grass at the bank of the river, with nothing on. Nothing on. Zilch. The way new born babies are like. Strolling, strolling, strolling, with no F’s to give. Thank God my throat was dry or I could probably have choked on my spit. I looked around and no-one seemed to be as shocked as I was. Well, except for my colleagues, who are also from Africa. One kept saying ´´Man, did I just see that?´´

It seems people here are more comfortable with their nudity and bodies and that of others.  I tried picturing this in Africa and my mind just failed to cooperate. Our guide said some of these people are exhibitionists, they get naked to be seen. I'm trying tot think of a similar place back in Zimbabwe, like Lake Chivero, what kind of uproar would there be if someone just decided to take all off and walk around the place, with nothing but a smile on their face and a beer in their hand? H-Metro would have a field day. Social media would be popping I guess.

I just realised that I was probably going to see and experience more jarring things on my stay here and had to learn to take it in my stride.