June 24, 2022  •  Leave a Comment


I would like to continue my discussion of the power of travel photography to provoke memories, especially if you allow yourself to personalize your vision by looking at and responding to the things that provoke you. So many of the places we visit have been so documented by both good and bad photography that it's sometimes hard to see how your image will be any different than anyone else's take on the subject. But I believe that this challenge can lead to some important and personal images. And even if they are not that "loaded" to anyone else, you will remember how you felt at that place.

I approached our trip to Germany in 2006 with some trepidation, but we had promised Benjamin a European trip before he went off to college, so our German language student mapped out our route through Germany. We ended up having a great time, and the beauty of the country, my love of it's wine, and my ability to map out a weekly rotation of the narrow confines of German cuisine overcame my anticipated depression in confronting the overwhelming layers of German history. It turned out that we visited at just about the best time, since the Germans were in an unusually good mood during the World Cup, and the country was finally beginning to see the fruits of reunification. I might have been a little naive, but people seemed generally friendly, and I concluded that most felt like the United States was still the big brother who had delivered them from the evil of their own creation, not once but twice. 

                                                     MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE - INTERIOR VIEW

It was fun watching Benjamin leading the way with his language skill, although his incredibly good accent would quickly lead to village idiot status when the natives would instantly conclude that he wasn't an American, but just an ignorant German with a small vocabulary. While Fran was certain that I was an idiot when I decided that I could communicate in English as long as I affected a German accent, the truth was that many Germans seemed fully fluent in English, with a German accent. We also soon realized that unlike in the rest of Europe, and even in England, we could pass as Germans, since we looked like them, especially when we held hands, which is our habit and seems to be theirs, while walking through the city.

Which is not to say that I overcame all of my personal triggers. Sometimes the small towns and villages were just a little too neat. Street names and map reading was okay, but I still seemed to quake when confronted by a full newspaper in German. I still couldn't abide with German Shepherds, no matter how handsome they were. The fact that it was 2006, and Germany seemed to be a very young country, helped me get comfortable with most people under 75 years of age. But now we were heading to Berlin, which in my nightmares is always pronounced in a very forbidding accent.

                                                      THE REICHSTAG : FINAL VERSION


Berlin turned out to be just fine, a city still finding itself 60 years after the War, and less than 20 years after the Wall was torn down. We stayed in the former East, in a neighborhood named Prenzlauer Berg, which seemed to be incredibly authentic since it hadn't been destroyed by Allied bombers and had been mostly abandoned by the East Germans since it was too close to the Wall. While we were at first a  little disturbed by the graffiti, whose presence was over the top even for New Yorkers, we soon realized that gentrification and change were happening so fast that it would probably be gone in another six months. It was very interesting to be in a city of two million people with only a few skyscrapers in the new developments at Potsdamer Platz. How did so many people live in a city of only ten story buildings? It was only when we realized how big the blocks were, with most apartment houses containing a large park as a courtyard, that it all started to add up.

These images are mostly my reactions to the overwhelming layers of history in the city, and the German relationship with their own history, which seemed more introspective and nuanced than most Americans. Sometimes these were outright memorials, but often we would just stumble on something that would stop us in our tracks. A little park where we had some ice cream turned out to be the place where most of Jewish Berlin was assembled to depart to the East. I visited an exclusive camera store, and found one of the few swastikas in Germany on a vintage Leica similar to the one my father owned - it was the SS edition. What was interesting was that the Germans were ensuring that they would not forget their terrible history by keeping it around in prominent locations, no matter how disturbing the juxtapositions.

The first two images are of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe right in the center of Berlin, near Parliament, the Brandenburg Gate, and across the street from one of the most exclusive hotels in the city. These are color images, but you can see how these granite blocks seem to suck all of the color and sound and views of the Capitol city. The field of obvious granite caskets from the outside swallows up visitors who venture inside, since the ground falls away, and you are soon alone with your own thoughts, only conscious of the terrible grid and searching for the city you were just a part of.

                                                     REMNANT OF THE WALL : FINAL VERSION

The Wall is mostly gone, but it always reappears when you least expect it , even as just a line in the pavement. The idea of a city as a prison can seem almost beyond politics, but it's hard not to be proud of the Allies at Checkpoint Charlie, preserved as a museum of the Cold War division of the city.

                                                      ALLIED FLAGS, MINUS THE SOVIETS, AT CHECKPOINT CHARLIE : FINAL VERSION

Sometimes it wasn't so grim. One of the most jarring things to this New Yorker was a subway without turnstiles - this is an above ground station. The idea that people could just buy passes and be free to come and go as they pleased (and pay a hefty fine if they were caught with out a pass) was as foreign to me as the language.

                                                      "WHERE ARE THE TURNSTILES?" : FINAL B&W VERSION


                                                      BACK GATE, JEWISH MUSEUM : FINAL VERSION

The Jewish Museum was one of the most interesting, and troubling, and frustrating buildings this architect had ever visited. It is an addition to an old Palace, which is now the entrance. The building seems to have been dropped from Outer Space, and it hits the ground with such force that even a simple back gate seems weird as Hell. This sculpture of a building doesn't even have a front door - you enter underground from the old Palace and then head down a one-way stair another five stories to an atrium that you can't see from anywhere else. This route is as disorienting as it sounds.

                                                     MAIN STAIR, JEWISH MUSEUM : FINAL VERSION

The only thing that relieves the pain is that the Museum succeeds in showing the entire history of Jewish Germany, not just the Holocaust. The building of course drops hints at the dislocation everywhere, from the windows on the skin which obviously don't seem to function as ordinary window openings, but appear as gashes in a metal skin. Once you are inside you realize that they have absolutely nothing to do with the rooms they appear in, so they don't seem to relieve the architectural tension.


When you finally get to the inevitable end, you are confronted with that hidden atrium, only lit from skylights at the top of the cube. The floor is lined with German train couplers, whose resemblance to faces is much more than off-putting. The climax comes when you are allowed (?!) to walk across the atrium, where the metallic sound of death echoing off the concrete will never leave you. Architecture, even that of a concert hall, has never left me with such an overwhelming sonic memory.

As if Berlin wasn't enough, the final image comes from Nuremberg. This city as well preserves it's history, seemingly by design, and almost in spite of itself and of the future. The Holocaust Museum known as the Documentation Center is just for Germans - their are no translations in the entire museum, although it is clear what is being discussed. The museum is also a "local" museum, since it concentrates on the Nazi nightmare in only one place - the spiritual center of the Party, Nuremberg. The museum is only part of Albert Speer's enormous arena - think of Madison Square Garden as a brick ruin - which seems almost too big to tear down. The most chilling part of the exhibit to me was my realization that the plaza where we had just eaten lunch, the exact table, appeared in a photo from 1938 under a large Nazi flag.


We took a tram to the reviewing stand, that reviewing stand where Hitler screamed his evil intent to thunderous applause. While the American Army blew up the swastika that crowned the stands, it made it clear to the Germans that this place would not be allowed to disappear, and it hasn't. In fact the brand-spanking new municipal soccer stadium is literally in view across the parade ground. In many ways it's like being in your own private newsreel, and I hope these images have conveyed some of my feelings of historical dislocation that will always be present in Berlin and Germany.