Friday, July 21, 2006

I'm melting.... (July 21)

Well, it was supposed to be cooler this morning, but it sure didn't feel it.

After breakfast I had to pack up my things as I'm changing rooms in the guesthouse (it has to do with problems I had in booking all six days). Then I headed down to the local Prenzlauerberg museum. It was a small, local affair. The first set of displays were on the history of the highschool where the museum is located, as well as a set of pictures of the neighborhood using postcards. Unlike the museum at Nowy Targ, which also used postcards, this one actually grouped them by theme and provided captions where necessary.

Also unlike the museum in Nowy Targ, this one also included a whole set of displays on Jews in Prenzlauerberg and particularly on the Rykestraße Schul. There were many photos of Jewish schoolchildren on outings, with their teachers, in classes, etc. After Jewish students were expelled from public schools by the Nazis, these Jewish schools became their only source of education. I was particularly moved by the list of the teachers and their ultimate fate.

Although my grandmother grew up in Prenzlauerberg, it was very unlikely that she attended either the Jewish school or the high school. My great-grandparent's apartment was in the southernmost section of Prenzlauerberg, about half a block from Tuetobergerplatz, so she probably went to high school down there.

Last time I was in Berlin, I checked out the block of Templinerstraße where my great-grandparent's apartment was. It was all undergoing gentrification, which now proceeds along adjacent streets. This part of Prenzlauerberg seems to have escaped significant damage by allied bombardment, and a lot of the building facades seem to be pre-war. The building looks quite nice, though I know that it is highly unlikely that my great-grandparents -- one of whom was a mostly unemployed tailor and the other sold herbs at a stand in the open-air market -- could have afforded one of the nice apartments fronting the street. Most likely, their apartment was one of the poorer, smaller apartments facing the back courtyard.

I walked down to my grandparent's last apartment on Linienstraßse in the north end of the Scheunenviertel. The area on what is now Rosa Luxemburg Platz where my grandfather had his first beauty salon is now a small triangular park. Even though it was only 11 am, I was covered from sweat from the heat, and my head was hurting slightly, as if my brain was melting from the heat. I found a cafe around the corner from the Karl Liebknecht Haus (still communist party headquarters in Berlin), and got some soda water.

Then I headed down to find the new DDR Museum. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a half-hour walk, by which time, I was seriously exhausted. I did run across a group of Israeli tourists and we got to chatting. I asked if they were on a heritage tour, but they said no, just for fun. We joked about the heat and how at least in Israel there's air conditioning. One joked, we (meaning me) should head back there now. It's strange, the kind of raport that I feel with the Israelis I've met on this trip. Sort of a landsman experience.

The DDR Museum was a real trip. This is quite different from both the Museum of Terror in Budapest and the Museum of Communism in Prague; it is much more nostalgic than either. The Budapest museum was all about how unremittingly evil the communists were, while the Prague museum poked fun at their foibles, but also went into detail about political and social repression. The museum in Berlin, however, is much more about the social and every day life of Germans in the German Democratic Republic (the DDR auf Deutsch). A lot of the exhibits involved all sorts of clothing, utensils, and products that typified East German life, along with a full-sized Trabant in the entry way.

While the museum also dealt with Stasi surveillance and the wall, it got much lower key treatment than in the other museums I've been to. At the same time, it does make quite clear how limited the options for East Germans was in evading the state. My favorite part was the film clip of an East German fashion show, which was just laughably bad. There was a Spanish-language film crew following a reporter as she toured the exhibit. They stopped for a while in front of the East German answer to American blue jeans. Called boxers, many people complained that while the color in the pants wouldn't fade over time, it would ruin the fabric of any clothing worn with it. The entire exhibit ends with an extended exhibit on the East German penchant for clothing-free holidays, something which has been somewhat restricted since reunification.

After that I headed towards West Berlin to get a new travel pass and some lunch. At Alexanderplatz, the thermometer read 38, two degrees celcius higher than yesterday's record-breaking 36.1. By the time I reached Zoo Station, my head was pounding again. I decided to eat at Mövenpick, even though it's too pricey, just because they have AC. I had a nice assortment of salads, two diet colas, and a cool, tasty dessert of whipped lemon foam and raspberry sauce, all for 17 euros. More importantly, I had an hour of AC to cool off.

When I came out there was a bit of a breeze and some clouds in the sky. Hopefully this bodes well for a cooling front. Tomorrow is the annual Christopher Street Day parade in Berlin, but there's no way I'm going to spend any time in full sun unless the weather breaks.

I headed over to Potsdamer Platz. I saw the designs for this years ago, and the realization of them is a little strange. It's sort of like a stand-alone city, with not much else connected to it yet. There's also an odd urban wetland system they've created, but I wasn't quite sure how it was supposed to purify rainwater or prevent flooding.

My goal was the Neue Nationalgalerie, whose building was one of Mies van der Rohe's last designs. This normally houses the major collection of late 19th and 20th century art, but when I arrived, I saw that it the entire space had been dedicated to a new exhibit on Berlin-Tokyo, Tokyo-Berlin: the cultural and artistic interchanges between the two cities and societies. A little disappointed, I bought a ticket figuring to make the best of it; I mean, other than WWII, what sort of relationship was there?

It turns out I was in for a major and very pleasant surprise. The exhibition opened with several beautiful color prints from Meiji-era Japan, including one of Berlin from a book on capitals around the world, all reflecting the rapid modernization that had taken place in just a few years (though the audio guide gives the false impression that Japan opened up voluntarily). But the next room was even more impressive. It included works by German avante-garde artists, such as Kirschner and Emil Nolde, reflecting their interest in Japanese art. These included several water color and ink sketches done by Nolde on a visit to Japan in 1913.

But this interest didn't just run in one direction. The museum exhibition recreates (as much as possible) an exhibition of German avante-garde works that took place in Japan before WWI. It also includes works by Japanese artists who were strongly influenced by this new art. I was particularly moved by one painting of a running deer, which combines elements of Italian futurism with German expressionism. I couldn't find a print of it online, but here is a similar piece by the same artist:

The next part of the exhibit dealt with the influence of Dada and the Neue Sachlichkeit on Japanese artists, including one side by side comparison of Georg Grosz with a Japanese counterpart (whose name escapes my memory). There are explorations of German influence on Japanese architecture and Japanese influence on Bauhaus architects, followed by a look at the political and artistic relationships during WWII.

The exhibit also covers the extensive post-war relationship, but I must confess I've never particularly liked most post-war art. I find that in it's effort to shatter the values that led western civilization into the war, artistic aesthetic is often sacrificed for the larger political message. Still, it was interesting to see again how the two special exhibitions I saw in the Vienna modern gallery -- on the Vienna aktionismus and the Neue Realismus -- keep recurring in many of the modern art museums I've visited.

One of themost spectacular works in the exhibition is a quite modern one by the Japanese artists Yayoi Kusama, called "Dots Obsession." To see it, click on the link:

After that I wandered over to the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is located only a few blocks away. From the outside, it appears like a field of charcoal grey tombstones, arranged in rows. As you enter them, however, the ground seems to undulate, and you begin to notice that each pillar is placed individually, not always perpendicular to the ground. As you go deeper into the monument, the pillars grow higher, blocking one's view. To the extent they evoke impressions of Jewish cemetaries, than one finds oneself walled in by ever higher stacks of the dead.

At one end is the museum of the memorial. It is below ground, and in some way the pattern of the stelae on the surface is echoed by the standing information displays below. Each one covers one Jewish family during the Holocaust. In a final room, a voice reads out the biography of one victim, in a process that will take several years to complete. As you leave, there are computer terminals where you can access the Yad Vashem database on victims. As always, I have to remind myself to have my great-grandmother's information entered when I get back.

After that I headed back to my hotel and then to dinner. I tried an Italian restaurant in the neighborhood. By now, the weather had gotten much cooler. Not exactly pleasant, but no longer unbearable. The food was good and the outdoor cafe would be lovely in nicer weather. Lots of young families, small children, and pregnant women, mixed in with a counterculture crowd.

Well, there about to lock up the internet cafe, so I will log off til tomorrow.

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