Saturday, June 10, 2017


Our weeklong vacation went without a hitch, fortunately. We had no issues, situations, or accidents. We both agreed that the bus ride from Chicago to Wisconsin upon our return was the worst part of the trip. Tired from the long flight, we had to wait for what seemed like an eternity for the bus at O’Hare. Then, traffic between Illinois and Wisconsin was backed up and the bus driver took a detour through side roads. If that’s the worst part and indeed the only low point, our week adventure was successful. I had a few objectives for this trip: have my fill of döner kebabs, touch base with some associates, and see a few new things.

Above all, I wanted to spend time with Jessi. I didn’t really any choices for travel other than Germany. Istanbul would be nice, but it's not recommended these days. Having some familiarity with the culture, language, transportation system, and layout of the land is no doubt key to success; I didn’t want to repeat the confusion we experienced on our first few days in Japan some years ago. I enjoy her company and perspective. I think she gets amused at the way I hold myself in conversations with other adults. One evening in the hotel room I overheard her talking to Cody, her boyfriend, on the phone. How could I not in this small room? Anyway, it was for some reason gratifying to hear her share her experiences of the day. I hope we can travel to another land in the not-too-distant future, though chances are slim. She stands upon the threshold of a new life: one devoted to military training, career, and ultimately family. Only time will tell. I also want to travel to faraway places with my other daughters in the coming years, if they're up for it.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Reichstag and Wittenberg

We made good use of our last full day in Germany, starting with  a tour of the Reichstag Building's glass dome at 8:30 am. It was a chore getting up early enough, as we have not managed to adjust our sleep schedule since arrival last week. An architect built the dome on top of the august structure in the 1990s to symbolize German unification and the transparency of a democratic government. You can see the chamber of the Bundestag, or German parliament, by looking down the dome. Once we get through the security checkpoint, escorts take us to the elevator and from there we basically walk up a spiraling ramp inside the dome as our audio guide describes the urban landscape we see through the glass. The Federal Diet meets at the Reichstag to conduct legislation of the German republic. It’s a big election year for Germany. A key issue is immigration, the theme of the college course I'm prepping for here in Berlin. The election in September will either vindicate the “open door” policy of Chancellor Merkel or send her packing. Refreshingly, whatever one might think of him, the opposition frontrunner from the SPD is not a right-wing demagogue as we’ve seen in other recent elections throughout the Western world. After the Reichstag we hung out at a coffee shop on Pariser Platz with a nice view of the Brandenburg Gate to consider our next move.
I’ve always wanted to go to Wittenberg, a town in Saxony-Anhalt with a population less than 50,000, but it was always out of reach when I lived in Bavaria decades ago. An Augustinian friar named Martin Luther allegedly posted 95 theses onto the Church Castle door on 31 October 1517. Written in Latin, the theses condemned abuses of the Catholic Church, most notably the teaching on indulgences; Luther intended to provoke debate among the scholarly community rather than initiate a grass-roots or political revolution, let alone a break from the papacy. You'll note Jessi's facial expression posing as Luther in the photo. She struggled with a fitting impersonation of a sixteenth-century theologian. Unbeknownst to her, her mildly constipated look nailed it. Luther, almost by his own admission, arrived at his theological insight of justification by faith alone as he relieved himself in cloaca, on the toilet. If you will the Reformation exploded onto the scene out of the bowels of guilt and the search for restitution with God.

The Reformation would ultimately would split Western Christendom asunder and leave an enduring mark on the cultural and political landscapes of Europe. Lutherstadt Wittenberg, its official name since 1938, beckoned me as a place of Protestant pilgrimage. Moreover, I become intimately familiar with the writings of the reformers and got to know, as it were, the political and religious figures in sixteenth-century Wittenberg and Saxony. Admittedly, my reasons for wanting to see Wittenberg have changed a bit over the past twenty years or so; it’s less faith-based and more historical. Having spent a number of years studying this period of history has a lingering sentimentality. I see less through the eyes of piety but harbor an emotional attachment to this period of history nonetheless.  2017 being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation made a visit all the more imperative, so we took the train and spent about four hours there. I’ll spare you further musings on history.
Jessi and I enjoyed the visit. The cobblestone streets and numerous historical sites give Wittenberg a quaint medieval look. We checked out the Augustinian monastery and Lutherhaus but did not pay for the museum. The sun began to appear brightly as we headed toward All Saints’ Church, or Schlosskirche, where Luther posted his theses, though not much of the original building remains. Ironically, statutes of Protestant reformers adorn the interior of the church; the iconoclasts of yesteryear have become the icons of today. It’s a compelling need for humans to create heroes and lithic saints for their cause, whatever the political or religious ideology and despite a group’s protestations to the contrary.
We brunched at a restaurant called Witten Burger Grill & Bar. (Get it? Witten Burger! Oh how clever!). We enjoyed the gourmet burgers and conversation with a German couple from a rural area in Saxony-Anhalt who summoned us to their table. Somehow the conversation turned to the topic of potatoes. Jessi connected the dots in her experience so far, recalling the potatoes someone had strewn upon the grave of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci. At that time I explained that the Prussian monarch is credited with introducing the hardy tuber to Germany and thereby stirring the economy and feeding his people. The couple recommended that we grab some delicious soft serve ice cream and
fondly recalled eating the frozen treat in the days of the DDRsuch nostalgia a good reminder that East Germany wasn't all bad for the people who lived it. Later, we had coffee and sweets at the Wittenberg Brauhaus, a beautiful courtyard café. I hope to return to Wittenberg at least one more time in the future and explore the historical sites, as we had just taken a cursory look during the few hours we had today. We took the train back to Berlin and started to pack our things for tomorrow’s departure once we got to the hotel. I watched a bit of German TV, Jessi texted her significant other, and we munched on little Kinder Duplo Chocolate bars like it's nobody's business. That's our indulgence.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Day of Shopping

Today was chill. We spent a good deal of the day shopping for gifts and returned to the hotel with little to show for it, except for a few books. The day started in Stadtmitte. I had a meeting scheduled with Anja who works for the Joint American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. She is of Jewish and Croatian descent and has lived in Berlin with her family for some years now. We met at the House of Small Wonder, a café near the Oranienburg Tor S-Bahn station. The location worked nicely, as the café is only a few buildings over from IES Berlin where I’ll be holding classes with my students next year. We’ll be lodging in the vicinity in either an apartment or hotel. I wanted to explore the area for this reason. Jessi ordered an egg breakfast dish of some kind and I had a crescent with scramble eggs inside of it, or at least that’s what I call it. The meeting went well. Our day of shopping, talking, coffee drinking took us to the Alex Shopping Mall on Alexanderplatz and The Berlin Mall of Potsdamer Platz. But it wasn’t just a day of mall shopping. We walked the city, again. In the photo, Jessi is standing next to a memorial for the Rosenstrasse Protest. Aryan women demanded the release of their Jewish husbands in 1943 and were successful.

Monday, June 5, 2017


Monday was Pfingsten, or Pentecost, so most places were closed. We managed to do a lot of walking and see some of the sites in the heart of the city. First, we made our way through the Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park, and checked out the Victory Column located on the Great Star intersection, before heading east on 17th of June Street toward the Brandenburg Gate. A sports festival was going on with too many people around. A Christian holiday with throngs of people in a European capital next to iconic sites of Germany. Also, I had just seen “Patriot Day” on the flight, a movie about the Boston marathon terrorist attack in 2013. We couldn’t help but talk about the terrorist opportunity.  We took photos at the Brandenburg Gate and continued east on Unter den Linden ultimately to Alexanderplatz. Along the way we stopped at a café on Museum Island for coffee and treat, took photos at the Marx and Engels statues, and went inside the Church of Mary that dates back to the 13th century and is known for its “dance of death” fresco. Finally, we headed south and looked at Checkpoint Charlie and the “Topography of Terror,” once the site for the headquarters of the Gestapo and SS.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


The train brought us to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Located in Oranienburg on the northern rim of Berlin, the museum and memorial greet the anxious visitor with grey walls and overcast sky. On this Sunday the site was just as Jessi had imagined it: bleak, muddy, somber. It was raining lightly upon our arrival at the train station, but we opted for the 20-minute walk rather than wait for a bus. I knew the way well by now, as this is my third visit to Sachsenhausen within a year. My reason for coming to this sad place is educational, not a perverse appetite for horror. Though less people died here than in extermination centers like Auschwitz or Treblinka, Sachsenhausen was no less a hell for its hapless inmates. Mass executions, starvation, torture and disease occurred within its walls. The camp also served as a training center for SS officers who would go on to administer Hitler’s ghoulish Barbwire Empire. Today the Brandenburg State Police Academy and College occupies this space, separated from the memorial and museum by only a fence.
Lasting images for Jessi are the autopsy room in the sterile pathology lab, the small foot basins in the Jewish barracks where guards drowned Jewish prisoners, and the execution trench where firing squads massacred Soviet POWs and others. We saw the ruins of the gas chamber and crematorium at “Station Z,” a moniker for the murder site used mockingly by the SS. The place evokes a sensation in me that, mutatis mutandis, I recall from a visit to Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota some twenty years ago. Genocide comes in different forms but it’s ubiquitous and universal. A separate section of Sachsenhausen became a prison under Soviet-controlled East Germany after World War II. Exit Hitler, enter Stalin. Soviets sent German civilians to the camp without a trial. The inauguration of Sachsenhausen as a national memorial and museum occurred in 1961, the same year the Wall went up. In the photo Jessi is reading about Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who spent years in an isolation cell because of his opposition to the regime.
A couple hours later we walked through the town of Oranienburg before taking the train back to Berlin. All the shops are closed on a Sunday. We chanced upon a Renaissance fair in the town center, came across a few Stolpersteine on the bridge leading to the Dutch-style Oranienburg Palace, observed a strange collection of bronze and iron statues of wolves by the artist Rainer Opolka, and headed back to the train station. At Potsdamer Platz we looked for places to eat, but nothing tickled our fancy. We finally settled on an Italian restaurant, Antica Roma, near our hotel on Wittenbergplatz, before settling into our hotel room for yet another sleepless night.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Wannsee and Potsdam

Saturday brought light and darkness. We entered the House of Evil before we sauntered into a summer palace. We took the S-Bahn to the city of Potsdam, the capital of the state of Brandenburg just southwest of Berlin. We got off the train a few stops earlier at Wannsee, however. This area of interlocking lakes and verdant landscapes is breathtaking. Picture sailboats, quaint restaurants, and beautiful homes hugging the lakeshore under a rain-soaked sky. I plan to spend at least a couple of days here again in the future. Our main purpose in coming to Wannsee was to see the infamous location of the so-called Wannsee Conference that took place on 20 January 1942. Members of the Nazi party, the SS, and district officials gathered at a villa on 56–58 Am Großen Wannsee. Supervised by Reinhold Heydrich under the auspices of SS-Reichsführer Himmler, 15 individuals sat at a dining table enjoying fine wine, cigars, and gourmet meals to discuss, over jokes, the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews. This visit led to rich discussions about good and evil between Jessi and me.

We arrived in Potsdam in the early afternoon and, with a break in the rain, opted to walk to the Sanssouci Palace from the main train station. Frederick the Great built this grandiose summer home in the mid-eighteenth century as a retreat to shield himself in a way from all the territorial wars he started and to devote himself to arts and culture. Jessi and I walked the grounds of the palace while awaiting our scheduled tour with an audio guide. Sansscoui was the highlight of our trip for Jessi so far, and it was certainly a welcome change from the house of horror in Wannsee. After the palace we made our way to the Brandenburg Gate (not to be confused with Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate) and walked through the shops and restaurants on Brandenburg Strasse. We ate at a street side restaurant and talked about relationships. The sun was shining. On our return to Berlin we stopped at a grocery store in the Bikini Mall and bought bread, cheese, and fruit to keep in our hotel room. Monday is Pentecost and we’re concerned about all the shops being closed and starving tomorrow!

Friday, June 2, 2017


We spent a good chunk of the day in Kreuzberg, a borough just south of city center Berlin known for both its counterculture tradition and large population of immigrants. Of particular interest to me is the Turkish community and more recent influx of Syrian asylum seekers. We took the U-Bahn to Hallesches Tor and proceeded thence on foot to the Turkish Market along the canal on Maybachufer street. Jessi enjoyed Turkish coffee and we took in the sights and scents of fruit and spices. Half past noon we met with Céline for a spot of tea in at a Kreuzberg garden café. She serves as program director for a non-governmental counseling center for immigrants. It seemed more of a social visit than anything else, but I wanted to strategize a bit for next year’s global seminar.
After checking out the site for the “Carnival of Cultures,” a multicultural festival in Kreuzberg planned for the weekend, we headed to the East Side Gallery, a section of the Berlin Wall along the River Spree containing paintings from artists throughout the world. We gazed upon a sunny skyline from the double-deck Oberbaum Bridge that once straddled East and West Berlin. The gleaming cross of the radio tower provided an opportunity to talk about the “Pope’s Revenge” and differences between the East and the West during the Cold War. Wanting to explore more of the Wall’s history with Jessi, we went from the East Gallery to the Berlin Wall Park on the other side of town. Located along Bernauer Straße, the park features stories and sites of successful and unsuccessful attempts to flee to the West. Once can appreciate the perverse and painstaking efforts on the part of the East German government to keep its hapless people from leaving “paradise.” The searchlights, barbed wire, sensor fences, guard towers, barricades give silent testimony to an oppressive police state. The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, and even Trump’s wall are intended to keep out the barbarians, real or perceived. The Berlin Wall, however, was a large jail cell keeping people confined to their life of Trabants and IMs for nearly 30 decades. Fun.
We took the U-bahn to Potsdamer Platz and walked through the Mall of Berlin before arriving at the site of Hitler’s bunker. Jessi marveled at the unassuming location. One finds neither a museum nor commemorative stone. In fact, the bunker lies under parking lot and apartment complex. Today you can find an informational billboard with detailed description of the bunker’s layout, but it’s my understanding that the site had no indication whatsoever that the Nazis’ last stand occurred below the surface. Walking further up the road we come across the outdoor Holocaust memorial which is aptly and penitently called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The site consists of hundred of concrete slabs in various sizes and heights. While the imagery is open to interpretation perhaps, one gets a sense of dislocation, confusion and loneliness while walking through the grid formation of slabs. Moreover, the slabs look like gravestones.
In the evening Jessi and I met up with my friend Joseph and made our way to the Carnival of Cultures in Kreuzberg. Held every year, the event celebrates cultural diversity with costumes, food, music, and plenty of beer. We watched a few musical performances, drank some of that strange brew, and called it a night. Germans know how to party.