My Berlin: Reckoning With the Past


Il Casolare, perhaps the best Neapolitan pizzeria in Berlin, in Kreuzberg.

Andreas Meichsner for The New York Times

Last year, after nearly a decade of long sojourns in Berlin, I signed the lease on an apartment in a pre-World War I, or altbau, building on a tree-shaded block just off Güntzelstrasse, a quiet neighborhood southwest of the city center.

Although I was vaguely aware that the city’s Jewish community had once been centered here, I found it unsettling to discover that Nazi terror had unfolded just outside my front door. Beginning in 1942, the Gestapo arrested dozens of Jews on my street, Jenaer Strasse, and shipped them to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, where almost all were killed.

Today, whenever I’m back in town from my reporting around the world, I walk past a handsome apartment building just down the street from mine, where 23 Stolpersteine small brass memorial plaques embedded in the sidewalk lie in three neat rows, and try to imagine what had happened here: police wagons stopping in front, Hitler’s uniformed enforcers marching up the stairs. In the 1910s and 1920s, about 20,000 Jews lived in this neighborhood, known as Wilmersdorf. By the time World War II ended, there were virtually no Jews left.

Spending large amounts of time in Berlin requires a constant reckoning with the past. And yet the German capital, as I long ago discovered, doesn’t allow you to linger too long over the dark side of its history. It is an astonishingly varied city, an urbanscape in a constant state of change, blending Kaiser-era glories, vestiges of Nazism, slapdash postwar architecture, multiple cultures and new creations — bars, restaurants, museums and open public spaces that are continuously altering the face of the city. In recent months, the pace of change has accelerated, with the arrival in Germany of more than one million refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq and, most of all, Syria, drawn here by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s promise of sanctuary, a pledge that she has since drastically dialed back in the face of rising opposition from Germany’s right wing.

About 50,000 of those immigrants have settled in Berlin, many of them taking up residence in makeshift camps and hostels, and infusing the city with a new multicultural dimension, a burst of energy and an element of tension.


Bendlerblock, the former Nazi defense headquarters beside the Tiergarten.

Andreas Meichsner for The New York Times

Though unflinching about its past, Berlin is also looking toward the future. In just the past year, for instance, I’ve watched the neighborhood of sex shops and shoddy 1970s architecture around Zoo Station — once the main train station of West Berlin — undergo an ambitious redevelopment scheme. A new Waldorf Astoria, and the renovated Bikini-Haus complex, which includes the 25hours Hotel Bikini, the Israeli-owned rooftop Neni Restaurant, the Monkey Bar and the Gestalten Book Shop — are transforming this once-dowdy corner of the west into an uncharacteristically trendy neighborhood. Berlin carries you along on a wave of reinvention and revival.

I first arrived in Berlin in January 2000, to become Newsweek’s Central European bureau chief. It was not a fortuitous beginning. The winter was snowy, gray and bitingly cold; the supermarkets were dismal; I didn’t speak the language; the seam where the Berlin Wall once stood was still largely a landscape of rubble and vacant lots. But in the spring I met the former East Berliner who would become my wife, and I began to establish roots in the city. Then barely a year after getting there I was gone — on my way to Jerusalem.

Seven years later, after stints in the Middle East, at Harvard University and in South Africa, we returned, with two young sons in tow. I had left Newsweek and was trying to jump-start a new career as a freelance magazine and book writer, and Berlin — cheap, child friendly and ideally situated in the heart of Europe — seemed like a good place to spend a few years. Then the marriage broke up, I met another German woman, and in 2012 my third son was born. Without intending to, I had established a long-term connection to Berlin.

Nowadays, whenever I’m in Berlin, my daily routine revolves around Wilmersdorf, a quiet neighborhood of playgrounds and leafy plazas that some Berliners deride as burgerlich — a word connoting haut-bourgeois complacency. There’s little cafe life, little of the immigrant culture that has transformed the face of the city in the past decade. To find that, take a shortish bike or U-Bahn ride east to Kreuzberg, Neukölln or Mitte, where you’ll find vibrant markets, heterogeneous street life and a vibrancy that Wilmersdorf lacks.

But within walking distance of my apartment stand two landmarks that are among my favorite places: Viktoria-Luise Platz, a turn of the 20th-century square with a gushing fountain and one of the city’s best gelato shops; and the Volkspark Schöneberg-Wilmersdorf, a sliver of lawns, copses, playgrounds, duck ponds and bike paths that terminates at the Rathaus Schöneberg, the imposing district hall where President John F. Kennedy gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in June 1963.

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Moreover, just down the road lies Friedenau, a near-perfectly preserved island of Old World Berlin. A one-time settlement for convalescing veterans of the Franco-Prussian War, it developed over the next decades into a prosperous enclave of high-level civil servants, artists, writers and some Jewish families. I often cycle with my son to his preschool down Handjerystrasse, a long street of half-timbered mansions with rounded galleries and gabled red-tile roofs; palatial villas with marble lintels, gray-shingled cupolas and columned porticos; and English-style country manors marked by handsome brickwork and tidy front gardens.

The place is rich in history, both tragic and inspirational: On Stubenrauchstrasse, the extension of Handjerystrasse, stands the home belonging to the founder of the Comedian Harmonists — an all-male, mostly Jewish vocal group that achieved worldwide fame during the 1920s but fled Germany soon after the Nazis came to power. At Fregestrasse 76, unmarked by a plaque, is the house that belonged to Friedenau’s most infamous resident, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Marlene Dietrich is buried in the neighborhood cemetery, and on Niedstrasse, just off Handjerystrasse, one of Germany’s greatest novelists, Günter Grass, lived for 30 years.

The neighborhood’s central location also makes it easy to reach the near-unbroken swath of lakes, forests and meadows that lie at the western edges of the city. On many Saturday mornings when I’m in town, we set out on bikes with our 4-year-old down the Südwestkorso, a boulevard that cuts a diagonal swath through western Berlin. We often stop along the way at the BäckerMann, one of Berlin’s most popular bakeries, for zimtschnecken (cinnamon rolls) or my son’s favorite, Ampelmännchenred and green cookies baked in the shape of the little figures that signal “stop” and “go” at western Berlin traffic lights. The boulevard spills directly into the Domäne Dahlem, a working organic farm in the rustic Dahlem neighborhood, built around a restored manor house originally constructed in 1560.

A Saturday morning organic farmers’ market selling cheeses, local honey and fresh produce draws hundreds to the farm’s main courtyard; spinning, weaving and pottery demonstrations take place in the manor house during seasonal festivals. (Unlike in the Turkish markets to the east, the vendors here are almost exclusively ethnic Germans.)

For us the highlight is the ramble through the Domäne farm, which begins just past the outdoor market area — a 29.6-acre expanse of chicken coops, pigsties, cattle pastures and vegetable plots that was taken over by an environmental society, the Friends of Domäne Dahlem, in 1976 and opened to the public shortly afterward. This is a place where my son has dug for red potatoes, harvested apples, petted goats and fed chickens from the grain dispensers conveniently set up outside the henhouses.


Colorful wares at a Turkish market in Kreuzberg.

Andreas Meichsner for The New York Times

Farther afield lie two of our other weekend getaway spots, Schlachtensee and Krumme Lanke, twin swimmable lakes inside the Grunewald, the wilderness on the outskirts of the capital that began as a private hunting ground of the Electors of Brandenburg in Prussia in the 16th century. Wildschwein still dwell deep in the forests, and I sometimes catch sight of these furtive, tusked and bristly beasts in the thick woods in the early morning. On fine weekends Fischerhütte, a pleasant biergarten and restaurant between the two lakes, is packed with affluent Berliners munching bratwurst and potato salad at picnic tables.

Occasionally, I take a break from writing to ride my bike through the Grunewald, past the Jagdschloss Grunewald — a hunting lodge built by the Prince-Elector Joachim II in 1542, and remodeled as a Baroque palace in the early 18th century. I head down a path through a forest to run or swim across the Schlachtensee, blissfully deserted during the workweek and best avoided on hot summer weekends. In the winter, we huddle under blankets at Fischerhütte and sip mulled wine and hot chocolate and, on the increasingly rare occasions when the lakes freeze over, haul our blades onto the ice for a day of skating.

These forays into haut-bourgeois Berlin can obscure the darker side of the city, but this aspect is an inextricable part of Berlin’s historical arc, and cannot be ignored. Any time I pass through the Grunewald S-Bahn station, in the leafy, placid Grunewald neighborhood, for example, I reflect upon the fact that this gloomy depot served as the major transit point for Jews from Berlin to the concentration camps. My usual bicycle route to Mitte, the city center, brings me past the Bendlerblock, the former Nazi defense headquarters beside the Tiergarten, where Claus Von Stauffenberg, the decorated Wehrmacht officer turned anti-Hitler conspirator, and his fellow officers involved in an assassination plot were executed in the courtyard in 1944. (Von Stauffenberg lived in an opulent house at Tristanstrasse 8, built at the turn of the 20th century, just a few steps down from my first Berlin home, in Nikolassee; Hollywood filmmakers closed off the street for a couple of days back in 2007 to film the Tom Cruise movie “Valkyrie.”)

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