Thursday, 12 February 2015

Berlin and Birthdays

15 years ago, when my father was celebrating his 70th birthday with us, we gave him a cheque, some guide books and a hand made voucher, indicating that the cheque should be spent on a trip to Berlin. My father was a conscripted sapper in the Royal Engineers, reaching his 18th birthday in 1947, and was sent to Berlin, to be part of the occupying force during the Berlin Airlift.  He left Berlin 3 days after the Russian blockade on the city was lifted, and had always wanted to return.

Handbook issued to British occupying forces
in Berlin in 1946.

My dad led a complicated life....and for various reasons, he never got around to organising the trip to Berlin. After he died in 2007, Mark and I determined that we would go in his place one day.
My surprise birthday gift last week was a much better organised Berlin trip. Jess and Matty bought the flights, and Mark had booked the hotel. So, last Saturday, Mark and I set off for 3 nights in Berlin.

We’ve had an excellent time. The Berlin Film Festival is taking place at the moment, so red carpets abounded. We went to see a new Ian McKellen film, “Mr Holmes”, which was delightful. The Film festival experience made it very special. The screen was huge, the film theatre was fabulous.....and we did have to walk along a red carpet to get in , although as you will notice it was much too cold to wear anything that could be considered properly appropriate for red carpets. Thermals were worn at all times.

Other highlights of the trip included visiting Norman Foster’s dome above the Reichstag,

 staying at the sumptuous Adion Hotel,

and seeing Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, which must be one of the most haunting architectural designs ever. The  building incorporates huge voids, recognising the absence of Jews in Berlin. The above installation  " Shalekhet" ( Fallen Leaves) By Menashe Kadishman consists of 10,000 heavy iron plates cut to resemble faces. Visitors walk across them making an incredibly disturbing noise.It is a very powerful museum, not without humour though......did I want to buy some kosher gummi bears ? No, I resisted the temptation.

I also enjoyed trying to work out what I recognised from my one and only previous visit to the city, in about 1986, before the wall came down in 1989, and before reunification.

My last visit through Checkpoint Charlie involved a long wait while the bus was checked over, by very serious looking soldiers. Now, people pose with what I expect are actors, by a fake control box, and yes...there is a McDonalds right next to it.

The main difference seemed to me, was that the city centre I recalled....was obviously, in the west of the divided city. 
On my last Berlin trip I stood on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate, and looked to the east.....this time, our hotel, the Adion, was nestled between the American and British Embassies, in what was the Eastern sector..behind the wall.

Now,  the centre has moved east ! Whereas the Brandenburg Gate was the far eastern point of the pre-unified city, it is now very clearly the centre. With the Bundestag in the Reichstag, all emphasis has moved eastwards. Finding Gucci and Armani ( aswell as Primark and H&M ) in East Berlin was strange, recalling the tales of shops selling nothing from my previous visit.

The real highlights though, were attempting to find places my father would have known. I was born 6 years after he returned from his National Service, and his 9 months in Berlin, so it was all quite fresh for him, when I was a child. He used to tell me stories about the underground trains that went through the Russian sector and about going to the Opera in the Russian sector. 

One of dad's programmes from his opera trips in Berlin in 1949.

 He told me about his German girlfriend Christa. He told me about the hours he would spend at the  Naafi. His favourite story was about using the Olympic stadium for  athletics training. He loved the idea that he had run on the same track as Jesse Owens.

So, finding the street on which he worked, the Naafi, the Opera House, and the stadium were important.

We managed it all, and could even use his U-bahn map. ( There are a few other lines now, but it was still possible to use his map to take us to Kaiserdam Stasse, the Zoo and to the Olympic Stadium. It was a shame that the Opera House is being renovated, and was under wraps....but I could make out the columns, and dad would approve of it being returned to its former splendour.

I expected to be emotional when I saw the stadium. I knew it was still there, and although it has been updated, I knew there had been a decision to retain its basic design, which was a pretty iconic but clearly fascist architectural style. What really surprised me though, was how emotional I felt when we found the Naafi. The building now houses a theatre, a hotel and a parking garage....but it was unmistakable...... and my 20 year old dad used to play snooker there !

Dad's photo of the Naafi. Adolf Hitler Platz was renamed in 1946 as Reichskanzler Platz, which had been its name until 1933. It is now called Theodor Heuss Platz......but the buildings around the platz remain completely recognisable when compared to my father's photos.

The use of the building has changed, the lettering and decoration has changed...but the structure remains the same.

Somehow dad managed a very creative ( or accidental) double exposure with this photo....the dark area at the back, being the inside of the stadium.
I couldn't manage a double exposure with my digital camera, but did try to stand in a similar spot, in the platz in front of the stadium, as dad must have done. It has hardly changed.

20 year old Mike Whelan, inside the 1936 Berlin Olympic Stadium, in 1949

We ended the trip by asking the taxi driver to stop at the Airlift Memorial as he drove us back to the airport. It was 7.30 in the morning, only just light, but it made the perfect end to the trip.

I wish, I wish, I wish that Dad had made the trip, but I am so pleased we finally did it on his behalf.


  1. Oh Janice, what a wonderful and poignant post. I am so happy for you that you made the trip to Berlin for your birthday. You look amazing on the red carpet, very chic! The Jewish museum and the little iron faces are really affecting, very moving indeed. I love that you were able to find the locations which were special to your father, and compare with his photos. The stadium is particularly memorable. A lovely post, thank you. xxx

    1. Thanks Patricia. Mark and I would have had a great time anyway, but having the added pleasure of finding my father's Berlin made it very special.

  2. Dear Janice - you had a wonderful time in Berlin walking and standing in the footsteps of your father. It is amazing the way you discovered buildings that impressed him, which you too were able to photograph.
    My abiding memory of Berlin, apart from the grand buildings, was seeing the drawings and sculptural pieces of K├Ąthe Kollwitz. I shall never forget one small piece that had a group of mothers forming a circle and making a tent with their cloaks and arms around each other. Looking closely you could see small children hiding in the middle with large frightened eyes - it haunts me to this day.

    1. It was indeed, a wonderful trip, Rosemary. It is a fascinating city and I felt a little guilty that I was so much more interested in its recent past ( well, the last 70 -80 years) than the history of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. I was somewhat taken aback when a taxi driver told us that 3 days would be plenty of time to see the important sights of Berlin. I think I needed about 3 months just to see the things I already knew about. I certainly missed the Kollwitz sculpture you speak time !

  3. What an amazing trip, a lovely and interesting post, thanks for sharing xcx

    1. It was excellent Chrissie....and such a surprise for me.

  4. What an interesting trip and so wonderful to re-visit your father's past. I wish someone would treat me to a trip to India so that I could do the same!

    1. Doing the family history bit always enhances a trip !

  5. This is such a fascinating and poignant post, Janice. Your trip was obviously very carefully researched and planned to enable you to see so many significant places in just 3 days. I'm sure your father would have been delighted to think of your visiting Berlin for him and tracking down his youthful haunts. I really enjoyed this.

    1. Thanks Perpetua. I really enjoyed my few days in Berlin, and seeing it through my dad's eyes made it very special.