Ah June! To be grounded while I could have been traveling the world…that isn’t a good feeling. But then, there’s nothing bad about it either. As much as travel is about moving around and seeing things in the flesh, it is also about making journeys of imagination, reliving past moments and recreating them for your own pleasure.
Last year in June, we were in Europe on an idyllic vacation. The city lover in me was taking my family through some of the most spectacular sites of urbanisation in the world- Amsterdam and Berlin. Traveling in these two cities has offered me some of the most poignant moments of my life. At 16, I remember visiting the House of Anne Frank in Amsterdam and being moved to tears by what I felt inside.
At 38, I had a similarly intense moment as I turned a corner inside the Judisches Museum in Berlin to be surprised by the spectacular work of art, Shalekhet or Fallen Leaves by Menashe Kadishman. I remember gasping in surprise as I saw before me a sea of faces cut out from sheet metal. Sad faces, agonised faces, screaming faces, horrified faces, faces of despair, blank faces, tortured faces…thousands of them right there before us stretching out to what seemed like infinity.
To put things in context, a visit to the Judisches Museum designed by architect Daniel Liebskind was on my to-do list. But I’d heard extreme reactions to the building and I didn’t know what to expect. This is a structure of blacks, whites and greys. It is stark and has used sheer walls of concrete to express a deep anguish over the fate that befell the Jews at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. But what I liked most about the building were the unusual voids- triangular spaces, spaces out of proportion, spaces with giant cut outs, spaces of deep darkness and sharp pins of light, spaces that held me spellbound.
The Shalekhet occupied one such space, very very tall and extremely narrow, as if life and happiness was being squeezed out of it. I stood there spellbound. And then, the children started to walk out onto the fallen faces strewn on the floor. I remember making a sound of protest, reaching out to stop them. But they were following an older child and I soon realised this is what the artist intended. For us to hear the clanking of the metal as people walked over the faces of all those who suffered and died, to feel that tortured sound of being in chains, of being walked over, destroyed.
For some reason, the Fallen Leaves made me think of the innocent children all over the world who are victims of violence, not just war and terror, but also beaten inside their homes or emotionally abandoned.
We’re letting them down, I thought. A year later, I’m still stung by that thought.
Unmoved by Checkpoint Charlie, Udai marched off in the direction he had been told to, looking for tangible remains of the Berlin Wall. We found this spectacular piece of history just round the corner and along with it, an exhaustive exhibition about Berlin’s history starting from the early 1900s until after the World War II. I’m glad we came here that first day in Berlin as it helped set the tone for our experiences of the city.
To me fell the task of explaining the entire exhibit to Aadyaa. She can’t yet read, but she won’t be left out either! She patiently waited for me to read each panel and then listened to my translation. The exhibition (strategically set up amid the ruined foundations of one of the Gestapo’s important buildings and right alongside the Berlin Wall) affected all of us profoundly as it chronicled the peculiar circumstances behind the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Against the backdrop of an economic slowdown, it seemed to be that the German people did not quite grasp the danger that was to come when they fell under the spell of Nazi thinking. The stark and totalitarian methods that Nazis used and the impacts of their fascism are hard hitting. It wasn’t the systematic extermination of the Jews that hit me so much because the Holocaust has been a significant part of fiction and non-fiction reading over the years. What really hit me is that the Nazis classified a whole bunch of people as out of the bounds of normal and these included the gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals and even the elderly and those with mental disorders. In their definition, a German had to not just be the correct race but also needed to be able-bodied citizens that contributed to their economy and power. One couldn’t help but see some parallels with some of the right wing talk around the world, not just in India where we have recently emerged battle-scarred after an emotionally exhausting election process (no, I’m not convinced about the ‘achhe din’ tag just yet!). The children’s reactions to this harsh narrative was notable. Udai was silent and thoughtful. Aadyaa’s interest and her clear identification of Hitler as the ‘bad guy’ both impressed and amused us.
We climbed up from the exhibition to finally walk alongside a section of the Berlin Wall. As an architect, I was taken aback by its thinness (it is built in concrete, hence the title of the post!). It appeared almost flimsy to me and yet must have been so formidably strong in the eyes of Berliners during the Cold War. The symbolism of the Wall makes visitors to it walk real slow. At intervals, you see holes in it, and its easy to imagine the crowds on either side tearing it down on the fateful November 9, 1989. It is an event I remember from my childhood, seeing the images on television and not quite grasping its full import. But now, seeing it in flesh and with the sun having come out and shining bright, I could appreciate a lot more. Most of all, the day’s experiences helped me admire the resilience of this amazing city and respect Berlin’s embrace of multiculturalism that I now understand as a way to counter its sordid, violent and divisive past.
More pics of The Wall ahead…