German Historical Museum Diary

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Signs from the demonstrations of 1989

This museum was the highlight of my time in Berlin, and I visited it twice because I was so impressed with the more than 7,000 objects representing 2,000 years of trials, tribulations, joyous occasions and everyday life in German history from the reign of Charlemagne to the departure of the Allies in 1994. The museum not only enthralled me with its portrayal of significant events but also with its depiction of everyday life during the various epochs. The upper floor, where I spent the better part of an entire day, tells a narrative ranging in time from 500 AD all the way to the Germany’s defeat in World War I. The ground floor focuses on topics from the Weimar Republic to the departure of the Allies in 1994. The section on World War II is particularly fascinating. We see Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933 through the historical narrative of World War II horrors.

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A plague mask from the 17th century

Perhaps the item that intrigued me the most was a mask with a long beak that doctors had donned when tending to patients with the plague. It reminded me of a commedia dell’arte mask. Doctors wore leather gowns with these masks. Herbs or sponges were soaked with vinegar and placed into the beak in order to filter air. This mask was made of velvet, green glass and leather.

An artwork that I found thought-provoking depicted 19th century German emigrants huddled in a boat, trying to escape the awful conditions of their homeland, trying to build a better life for themselves, on their way to another country. Their sorrow of leaving so much behind and their uncertainty of what awaited them were revealed so well in the 1860 painting by Antonie Volkmar, “The Emigrants’ Farewell.” The sad yet brave people who were risking their lives for a better future moved me.

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I wondered how my ancestors had felt leaving Slovakia and Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire for America in the late 19th century. Did they miss their homeland? When they crossed the ocean, did their faces reveal sorrow and uncertainty, too? Had they had second thoughts during their long, arduous journey, or had the hope in their hearts given them strength to weather any storm, to overcome all the inevitable difficulties?

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I also saw photos of concentration camp prisoners that almost made me burst into tears. The photos reminded me of my trip to Auschwitz some years earlier. That visit remains forever etched in my memory. Sculptures of emaciated concentration camp prisoners vividly portrayed their suffering and desperation.

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The front page of one newspaper caught my attention. On it a big, bold headline announced, “Hitler Dead.” I could imagine the relief that so many people had felt after perusing those two words.

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A photograph of a corpse-ridden street in Dresden, shortly after the Allies’ bombing in 1945, made me shiver. I saw the horrors of war vividly in John Hearside Clark’s painting depicting the morning after the Battle of Waterloo, with so many dead and injured lying on the ground. I found the portrayal of the aftermath of the battle in which Napoleon was defeated to be chilling.

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Viewing parts of the Berlin Wall, marked with graffiti, triggered memories of my first visit to Berlin in 1991, when I saw parts of the wall still standing. At that time, I had found it fascinating to see how a city could be divided in this way, how two different worlds had evolved from the construction of that wall, one representing freedom, the other oppression. My perspective changed when I went to see the Wall Memorial featuring a standing segment of the Wall during my 2018 visit. Then, seeing the Wall then made my stomach churn and made me want to throw up. I had met too many Czechs and Slovaks who had lived under the Communist regime – which had asserted its own mental walls – to see the Wall as anything but horrific. I was no longer fascinated by the disgusting structure. Living more than 20 years in Central Europe had changed my perspective.

I also took notice of an 18th century ornate Swabian glass bridal crown donned at rustic weddings. I saw a remarkable tapestry of a festive procession of explorers returning from one of the first expeditions to India in 1504. Shields from the 13th century were also on display. A triptych from the 16th century included a panel with the coats-of-arms of the territories governed by Charles V while a likeness of this ruler dominated the central part of the artwork. I also saw handkerchiefs decorated with pictures of current events from the 19th century. I viewed tapestries promoting Nazi Germany plus many posters from that era.

For me my two visits to this museum gave me unforgettable lessons in German history. I learned that when Napoleon beat Prussia in 1806, he took the Quadridge from the Brandenburg Gate with him to Paris. Luckily, it was returned eight years later. I learned that in the 18th century, two-thirds of the population of Germany lived in the countryside as opposed to cities. I learned that the abdication of Emperor Franz II in 1806 had triggered a trend of nationalism in Germany.

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I learned about the industrialization and economic crash of 1873. I learned how the Social Democratic Movement had grown in the 19th century. I learned that the Marxist SPD Social Democratic Party of Germany had the largest membership before World War I started. I learned that 700,000 Germans died of malnutrition and related illnesses in World War I and that, in the summer of 1918, two million US soldiers fought on western front against the Germans.

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After each visit, I took my time in the atmospheric, bustling museum café and enjoyed an omelet. Then, when I walked out into the sunshine, I realized that the history in which I had been immersed was not only contained on two floors of the museum. It was everywhere, on every street corner, in each building, on the prominent Unter den Linden and down less noticeable side streets. Lessons from German history had allowed Berlin to grow into the vibrant city it was in the present, into a magical place dominated by the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate but also by the many cafes, busy streets, parks and museums. Most of all, these lessons of history reverberate in the city’s spirit and soul.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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2018 Travel Diary

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A building in Rovereto, one of my favorite places I discovered this past year

For me 2018 will always be associated with Palladian villas and the Veneto region of Italy, the excitement of Berlin and remarkable Czech sights. I also visited some unforgettable art exhibitions in Prague and elsewhere in Europe.

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Basilicata Palladiana, Vicenza

During March I traveled with a friend via the arsviva agency to the Veneto to see Palladian sights and other architectural gems in Vicenza, Padua and Rovereto. The three cities were fascinating, each with its own unique character. I was especially drawn to Vicenza for the Teatro Olimpico, Palazzo Leoni Montanari and Palazzo Chiericati. Of course, I admired the elegant arches and arcades of the Basilicata Palladiana.

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The highlight of my tour of Palladian architecture was the Teatro Olimpico, one of only three Renaissance theatres in existence. Palladio’s plan was based on classical architecture. I most admired the illusive architecture in the set for Oedipus Rex, the oldest existing theatre scenery, which featured painting with a false perspective. It looked as if the seven roads of Thebes led from the stage into the horizon. Also, it was difficult to fathom that the clear sky was really painted. The illusion seemed so real.

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A Russian icon in the Gallerie d’Italia

I cherished my time in the galleries of Vicenza. The Gallerie d’Italia was decorated with rich statuary, stucco ornamentation and frescoes. It houses 18th century Venetian painting, a unique 17th century sculpture made of Carrara marble and vases from Attica and Magna Graecia. However, the highlight of the gallery for me was its superb collection of Russian icons. I had only seen more intriguing collections in St. Petersburg.

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The interior of the Civic Museum

The Civic Museum in the Chiericati Palace also caught my undivided attention. The palace itself was a work of art, designed by Palladio in 1550 with frescoes and stucco adornment decorating the interior. The art spanning from the 1200s to the 20th century was incredible.

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Villa Rotunda – no pictures allowed inside

I also saw some Palladian villas, including La Rotunda, which inspired Thomas Jefferson in his design of his home at Monticello. The exterior’s appearance is that of an antique villa. The geometric design connects the sloping portico roofs with the ribs of the dome. The geometric interior was planned for comfort and beautiful views. The rooms are organized around a central hall with a dome. The villa has three floors and a mezzanine.

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Basilica of San Antonio or Basilica del Santo – no photos allowed inside

In Padua I gazed in wonder at the Basilica of Saint Antonio, which is huge with eight cupolas. The interior has a Latin cross pattern with three naves separated by pilasters. The various chapels were outstanding. The Chapel of Saint Giacomo, hails from the 14th century with six columns of red marble included in the décor. The work, “The Crucifixion” is divided into three parts on the walls. Pictures on lunettes narrate the life of Saint Giacomo the Great.

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Basilica of San Antonio, Padua

The main altar of the basilica was created by Donatello. The pictorial narration of the altar includes four miracles of Saint Antonio, sculpture of the Crucifixion, Madonna with Child and the figure of Saint Antonio, for example. The Chapel of the Saint includes the tomb of Saint Antonio. On the walls are nine reliefs of marble figures recalling miracles performed by Saint Antonio. There was so much to see, a person would need a few days to do this place of worship justice.

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Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

I also was enthralled with the Scrovegni Chapel, which featured amazing 14th century frescoes by Giotto di Bondone. Thirty-eight panels of frescoes cover three walls on three levels. I was flabbergasted, staring at each fresco in a trance.

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From the Depero Futurist House of Art, by Fortunato Depero

I was very impressed with Rovereto, a picturesque town below the Dolomites. Its charming, narrow streets and squares cast a magic spell on me. I visited the Depero Futurist House of Art, the only Futurist museum in Italy, featuring the works of Fortunato Depero, a painter, sculptor, writer and graphic designer. I learned that Futurism rejected the past and celebrated modernity as well as technological advances. The museum included furniture, painting, tapestries, cloth material, drawings, collages, posters, toys and a film. I loved the vibrant colors of many of the works.

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Nowadays school children hang out or wait for tours at the Berlin Wall remnants

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Glazed dome of Reichstag

In May I spent five days in Berlin, a city I had not visited since 1991 except for a one-day visit to the Gemaldegalerie several years earlier. The East had undergone radical changes since then, to say the least. Most of the Wall is gone. The former Communist section of the city is lively with bars and restaurants and includes most of the main sights. Now a Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks greet visitors past the Brandenberg Gate. Back in 1991, the difference between East and West Berlin was almost tangible, the East being gray, depressing and drab.

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the Gemaldegalerie

Once again I inspected the art ranging from medieval days to Neoclassicism in the Gemaldegalerie. I was very moved by the 220 meters of original Berlin Wall at the memorial on Bernauer Strasse. Berlin’s Cathedral impressed me a great deal with the eight mosaics decorating its dome. I had a tour of the Reichstag’s glazed dome, a superb structure of modern architecture soaring 47 meters. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe greatly moved me with its 2,711 concrete blocks of equal size but different heights. The DDR Museum with its multimedia exhibits gave me an idea of what life was like for East Germans under Communism. The Old National Gallery bewitched me with its 19th century art collection, and the temporary exhibition Wanderlust featured 19th century landscapes with travelers on foot. I particularly liked the pictorial renditions of Naples and places in Sicily. I saw the Ishtar Gate and a building from Aleppo in the Pergamon Museum, for instance. The Museum of Decorative Arts was a treasure, too, with amazing exhibits in fashion, design and object art from the Middle Ages through Art Deco.

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Plague mask worn by doctors in the German Historical Museum

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Pictures of concentration camp prisoners

What impressed me the most was the German Historical Museum, where I spent a good part of two days. Encompassing 2,000 years of German history, the museum takes the visitor from the reign of Charlemagne to the departure of the Allies in 1994 by presenting historical facts, personalities and events and by portraying everyday life in the various eras. I especially liked the plague mask worn by doctors treating patients with this disease. Made of leather, it had a long beak and looked as if it belonged in a commedia dell’arte play. The section about World War II was especially gripping. The Germans were certainly facing that horrific part of their past head-on in this museum.

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Troja Chateau from Prague’s Botanical Gardens

When my parents visited, we toured the dazzling Rudolfinum with its beautiful Dvořák concert hall. President Tomáš G. Masaryk was elected in that building on three occasions, when Parliament had met there during the First Republic. I visited the lovely and vast Botanical Gardens in Troja, examining the southern part and the greenhouse. The views of Troja Chateau from the gardens were unbeatable.

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Prague’s National Museum restored

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Painting of Karlštejn Castle in National Museum

Shortly after it reopened after a seven-year renovation, I spent time in the National Museum of Prague. The exhibition about Czech and Slovak relations during the past 100 years and life under Communism was outstanding. The permanent display also was captivating, but the place was so crowded. A Neo-Renaissance gem, the National Museum features amazing sculpture, painting and architectural elements. I especially liked the pantheon, where paintings, statues and busts celebrate Czech culture and history. The four paintings of castles in Bohemia impressed this avid castlegoer. I also explored the Hanspaulka, Ořechovka and Baba sections of Prague with their distinctive villas.

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Gothic archway in Horšovský Týn Castle

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From Horšovský Týn Chateau

Out of Prague I made my way back to Osek Monastery below the Krušné Mountains, established in the 13th century. The Chapter Hall was one of the first Gothic buildings erected in the Czech lands while the interior of the church takes on a Baroque appearance. Hořovice Chateau is much younger, hailing from the late 17th century. The Late Baroque décor includes a fantastic ceiling fresco in the hall of the main staircase. The Large Dining Hall amazes with Second Rococo adornment. Horšovský Týn Castle and Chateau offers six tours; we had time for two. Established in the 13th century, it includes an 18th century pool table with its sides decorated in tortoiseshell and intarsia. A Rococo jewel case and Holland Rococo display case caught my attention, too. The Italian vedutas of Venice made me long for that Italian city. The 18th century Dancing Hall features four big wall mirrors and a 28-branch chandelier made of Czech glass. Ceiling frescoes also captured my interest. However, the original Gothic portal at the entrance to the chapel was the most outstanding architectural feature. The chapel was magical, too. Velké Březno, one of the youngest and smallest chateaus in the Czech lands, also amazed.

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Ceiling fresco at Hořovice Chateau

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Velké Březno Chateau interior

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Velké Březno Chateau exterior

I also spent time in museums this past year. In Vienna I saw the excellent Monet exhibition as well as the Pieter Bruegel the Elder exhibition. Both captivated me. In Prague the exhibition showcasing the various collages of Jiří Kolář was an art highlight. The exhibition about Czech and Czechoslovak history in the Riding School of Prague Castle was unforgettable. There were many more art-related highlights, but I do not have time to mention them all.

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Collage by Jiří Kolář

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Prague Castle Riding School exhibition

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From Czechoslovak Exhibition at National Museum, cash register from beginning of 20th century

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

 

 

 

The Reichstag and other Monuments Diary

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The Brandenburg Gate

On my way to the Reichstag, I stopped to admire the Brandenburg Gate. I noticed the Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks on the Unter der Linden near the monument in what had once been East Berlin. I remembered passing through the Brandenburg Gate on the way to East Berlin in July of 1991. The moment I walked through the gate, I felt as if I had entered a different world – a grey, stagnant, suffocating and gloomy one. However, I remember West Berlin as vibrant and bustling during that visit.

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I took a few moments to reflect on the historical moments associated with the neoclassical gate in front of me. It was built in the 18th century for Prussian King Frederick William II to symbolize peace, but what turbulent times it has witnessed! I counted the 12 Doric columns and took a good look at the Quadriga, the goddess Victoria on a horse-drawn chariot, perched on top of the monument. Napoleon’s troops had marched through it triumphantly and then soon after the Prussians had done the same. For the Nazis, the gate made a political statement. The monument suffered damage during World War II.

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When the Berlin Wall was erected in August of 1961, it functioned as a border crossing that was closed off. West Berliners often took part in demonstrations calling for freedom near the gate. During that magic date of November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall no longer was a barrier between East and West, Germans celebrated their newly found freedom there. The wall was torn down in that area during 1990. U.S. Presidents had made speeches there. It was the site of President Ronald Reagan’s famous words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Presidents Kennedy, Clinton and Obama had spoken there as well.

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After some minutes of reflection, I went to the Reichstag entrance and presented my booking confirmation in front of a tent. I booked a tour of the glazed dome at least three weeks in advance. I had heard it was an architectural gem, and it was not possible to visit it without making a reservation. I was too early, so I decided to take a look at some monuments nearby, such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

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Memorial to Politicans who Opposed Hitler

First, I noticed a small monument of crooked slabs next to the entrance tent of the Reichstag. I had read that there were 96 slabs, symbolizing the 96 members of Parliament who had opposed Hitler and had paid the ultimate price for their bravery. The sharpness of the slabs made me think of the harsh times in which the politicians had lived and how it was a time when they had to pay with their lives to stand up for what they believed in. The monument had a harshness about it – the harshness of history, the harshness of their punishment. The slabs resembled gravestones.

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Then I walked across from the American Embassy and found the 2,711 concrete pillars that made up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. All the blocks were the same size, but their heights varied. It was possible to stand on the pillars or walk between them. I was very moved by this abstract memorial. Walking through the pillars, I felt claustrophobic and trapped, feelings I would associate with the plight of the Jews commemorated by this monument. The shadows around the pillars made me think of danger lurking around every corner, Jews not knowing who would give them up if they were in hiding, not knowing when they would be gassed in the concentration camps – for them, danger had lurked around every corner. I stood on one block and looked at the others. I thought they resembled caskets. In my opinion, this monument was ingenious. I would have never guessed that a memorial made up of concrete blocks could make such a strong impression on me.

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In a park near the Reichstag, I walked through a rusty gate and noticed a small, tranquil circular pond. In the middle of the pond was a triangular stone with one flower on top. This was the Monument to the Murdered Sinti and Roma (commonly called gypsies) of Europe. On the pavement around the monument, the names of concentration camps had been inscribed. With my head down, I looked at the word Dachau on one paving stone and Auschwitz on another. Just seeing those names was poignant and powerful, heart wrenching even. It astonished me that something so simple as the names of the camps could move me so strongly. In fact, the entire monument moved me precisely because of its simplicity. The single flower on the stone slab symbolized reverence and respect for the lives lost, making me think that now the 500,000 Roma and Sinti who had died during World War II were no longer forgotten, no longer buried in history.

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Monument to the Murdered Sinti and Roma of Europe

Then it was time to return to the Reichstag for my tour. First, I was ushered in a tent with many others and underwent a security check there. Then a large group crowded near the exit of the tent, waiting for the signal that we could walk up to the historical building.

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Finally, we got the go ahead, and I stopped in front of the façade of the building, above which the words proclaimed “Dem Deutschen Volke” or “To the German People,” an ironic phrase considering the edifice’s turbulent history. The outer shape of the elegantly columned Reichstag had been preserved.

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I thought back to the history of the building that was inaugurated in 1894. Back then, the Imperial Diet of the German Empire discussed and debated politics there. The Reichstag continued to serve this purpose until 1933. I tried to imagine standing in the crowd below as, during 1918, politician and head of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, Philipp Scheidemann, announced the formation of the German Republic from one of the Reichstag’s windows. When democracy came to an end in Germany and Hitler asserted more power in 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire and severely damaged. Who did the evil deed is still a mystery.

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When the Russians set foot in Berlin during 1945, they placed a Soviet flag above the Reichstag. I could almost see the red flag with the hammer and sickle flapping in the breeze. The Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961, stood very near the Reichstag, which was situated in the West. During 1973, the Reichstag became home to a permanent exhibition on German history, and sometimes political meetings were held there.

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During 1990, the reunification ceremony of Germany took place in the building by which I was so entranced. In 1995 British architect Norman Foster began reconstructing the building, leaving the exterior as a sort of outer shell in its old style while redoing the interior in a modern way. During 1999 the German Parliament made its home in the Reichstag after moving from Bonn.

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The moment I walked inside the Reichstag, I got a taste of the modern interior. It was a different world from the majestic exterior. The modern design was sleek, impressive. After taking an audio guide, I took an elevator and then made my way up the dome. For 20 minutes, I listened to interesting information about the Reichstag and the historic buildings that dotted the panorama as seen from the dome. I also learned about Berlin Cathedral and the three new parliamentary buildings surrounding the Reichstag, for instance. The modern cupola had replaced the original one that burned down in 1933. The modern architectural creation had a transparent quality that I found enlightening.

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During this visit to Berlin, I felt as if the city was being transparent about its past, particularly about the horrors of World War II. The official names of the Holocaust Memorial and Monument to the Sinti and Roma have the word “murdered” in them, epitomizing harsh reality and a good, long look in the mirror of history, an acceptance of the past and a determination never to repeat it. With the right lighting, from the top of the dome there was a view of the plenary chamber. I felt as if nothing was hidden from the dome. Everything was there for everyone to see, judge and criticize as they pleased. There was a sense of fluidity and freedom in the architecture. During my visit in 1991, however, I had felt as if Berlin was trying to hide the horrific part of its past, which, of course, was impossible to do.

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I also spent time taking photos from the extensive roof terrace, which also offered stunning views of the city. Unfortunately, I did not see the graffiti the Soviets left on the roof when they occupied the Reichstag at the end of World War II. The café on the terrace was closed during my visit.

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I was very impressed with the preservation of the outer form of the building and the daring fresh look of the interior and dome. It was as if the Germans were not forgetting the past but were also moving forward.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Berlin Cathedral Diary

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When I entered Berlin Cathedral, the word that best described my impression was grandeur. I looked up at the dome’s eight mosaics portraying the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount and was almost overcome with a sense of awe, even more of a sense of awe than I had felt when I viewed the western façade of the 98-meter high building. The mosaics by Anton V. Werner were stunning, indeed and my favorite feature of the cathedral.

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Mosaics in half-domes of diagonal apses showed the evangelists, and of the four sandstone figures representing personalities in the German Reformation to the left and right of the triumphal arch, I only recognized Martin Luther. There were also statues of John Calvin, a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva; Huldrych Zwingli, a leader of the Reformation in Switzerland; and Philip Melanchthon, the first systematic theologian of the Protestant Reformation who had great influence on the educational system. The cathedral took 11 years to build, from 1894 to 1905. Back then, it was Emperor Wilhelm II’s personal church, constructed in Italian Renaissance style. Today it takes on a neo-Baroque character and stands out prominently in the skyline as I would find out when I walked up the ramp in the dome of the Reichstag, peering down at the marvelous and magical city.

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I was aware that the history of the cathedral was a turbulent one. Much of the cathedral had been destroyed by a bomb in May of 1944. That is when the dome had collapsed. Much of the interior had been reduced to ruins, and even the tombs in the crypt hadn’t fared well at all. While reconstruction did not get underway until 1975, it would take many years to do a full makeover so that Berlin Cathedral could once again be a place epitomizing grandeur. The baptism and matrimonial church section was ready for the public within five years, but for the main church, the path back to grandeur would be a very long one. The main church was reopened in 1993, but the reconstruction wasn’t actually finished until 2002.

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The sarcophagi in the cathedral were made in various styles, created from an array of materials, making an eclectic display of funerary monuments to significant players in German history. The medieval sarcophagus of Electoral Prince Johann Cicero was the oldest, dating back to the 16th century. While that memorial was bronze, the monument of Emperor Friedrich III was made of marble. King Friedrich I and Queen Sophie Charlotte had golden sarcophagi, both with impressive statuary decoration at the foot of the monuments. I liked the figure of Death writing in a book on the funerary tribute to Queen Sophie Charlotte. Electoral Prince Friedrich Wilhelm and his second wife Dorothea were buried in sarcophagi featuring Baroque elements.

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The main altar was made of white marble with yellow onyx columns. Candleholders were created from gilded iron while the Apostles’ Screen was constructed from gilded bronze. I admired the masterful carving of the pulpit with its elegant gold decoration.

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I’ve always admired stained glass windows, and the windows in this cathedral were no exception. I saw stained glass representing the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In another window, a stained glass banner denoting victory symbolized hope.

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Four sandstone reliefs showed scenes from the Acts of the Apostles. I admired the majestic atmosphere created by the red velvet banner decorated with gold that was part of the Emperor’s Box, from which the royals would have observed the religious service. Candelabras and a coat-of-arms added to the elegance. The chancel boasted gold decoration in wall panels, for instance.

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Built at the same time as the cathedral, the organ was once the largest in Germany. Manufactured by Wilhelm Sauer, the organ is one of the most important instruments of its kind from the German Late Romantic period. It includes 7,269 pipes, 113 stops and four manuals. Later, I was reading about the history of the organ. While it suffered only minor damage during World War II, after the war more than a thousand of its pipes were stolen and sold as scrap metal. The organ was under reconstruction from 1991 to 1993.

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The Emperor’s Staircase added to the superb grandeur of the place, made with various colors of marble and decorated with a gilded bronze chandelier. The golden glass in the doors and panels was also impressive, to say the least. I tried to imagine the nation’s leaders entering by this staircase.

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The upper level was not without its delights, either. No less than thirteen wall and ceiling paintings there depicted stories from the life of Christ and parables of Jesus. The baptism and matrimonial chapel, still in use today, flaunted three impressive paintings and a superb organ.

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The crypt was a visual narration of 500 years of the prominent figures in history from the Hohenzollern dynasty. There were 94 members of the clan buried in tombs, coffins and sarcophagi, dating from the end of the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century.

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I did not remember the cathedral from my trip to Berlin in 1991. At that time, perhaps only the baptism and matrimonial church had been open to visitors as the crypt had been under reconstruction for a while after being severely damaged during the war. I remember that everything was centered on what was then West Berlin in those days, so I may not have even ventured as far as the cathedral site.

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Berlin Cathedral was the first monument I visited during my second trip to Berlin, and I knew that I would be very impressed with the city after my trip got off to such a good start. It was in delightful location, too, on the embankment of the Spree River. From the cathedral, I made my way to museums on Museum Island. There was much to see in a city whose magic was already casting a spell on me.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Gemäldegalerie Diary

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I visited the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin for the second time during 2018 and was just as enamored with the museum as I had been when I first came there. It was clear to me that this gallery hosting paintings from first years of medieval art to Neoclassism in 1800 has one of the best collections of European art in the world.

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The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder

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The German art, especially the paintings by Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder, was a true delight. I loved studying Dürer’s The Madonna with the Siskin from 1506. With a scenic landscape in the background, Mary has a cheerful and curious Jesus on her lap as he plays with a bird perched on his arm. Two putti hold a laurel crown over Mary’s head.

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However, it was the collection of Netherlandish work that I was drawn to like a magnet. Ever since taking a class at Smith College in Dutch and Flemish art, I have been a Netherlandish art fanatic. One of my favorites was Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Dutch Proverbs from 1559, which showcases 100 proverbs in a realistic village setting.

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Moses with the Ten Commandments by Rembrandt, 1659

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Susanna and the Elders by Rembrandt, 1647

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One entire room is devoted to Rembrandt’s art, and I spent a long time studying Rembrandt’s creations. While staring at Moses about to destroy the tablets in Moses with the Ten Commandments from 1659, I felt Moses’ ire and inner turmoil. In Rembrandt’s Susanna and the Elders from 1647, Susanna is swathed in light as the letch pulls her backwards toward him. Susanna draws viewers into the picture by looking straight at them, making them a witness to the physical abuse by the elderly, uncouth man and his accomplice.

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Child with a Bird by Rubens, 1624-25

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Saint Sebastian by Rubens, 1618

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Malle Babe by Hals, 1633-35

I also was overjoyed at seeing again Paul Rubens’ Child with a Bird from 1624-25 and felt the pure joy that the child must have experienced when first noticing the bird. Rubens’ Saint Sebastian from 1618 is riddled with arrows as his face is turned toward the sky, toward Heaven. Emotion and turmoil seep from the twisted figure. Frans Hal’s Malle Babe from 1633-35 shows an inebriated woman with an owl on her shoulder. I could almost hear her mad, raucous, and disturbing laughter roar through the exhibition space.

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Cupid as Victor by Caravaggio, 1601-02

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Other highlights for me included Jan Vermeer van Delft’s Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace. I loved the yellow of the curtain and her jacket. I adored Vermeer’s depictions of people going about their everyday routines. Even the simplest and smallest of gestures or movements acquires a poetic quality. Of course, I did not overlook Caravaggio’s works. His Cupid as Victor from 1601-02 displays his mastery at chiaroscuro as Cupid mocks the audience with a sly, cunning smile that announces love as victorious over science, art, fame and power. The five Madonnas by Raphael also stood out, and I remembered touring Raphael’s birthplace in Urbino.

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Overall, there are 72 rooms displaying masterpieces in the Gemäldegalerie. The main galleries house about 850 works. The history of the museum, harkening back to 1830, intrigued me. During World War II, many of its paintings were saved because they were hidden in the Thuringian salt mines, from which US soldiers rescued them. Other items in the collection were stored in air raid shelters during the war. During the Cold War, the works were divided into two galleries – one in West Berlin, the other in the East. The two collections have only been housed in one building since 1998. The Old Master Paintings are located at the Kulturforum with the Museum of Decorative Arts as its neighbor. I was dazzled by the works in that museum as it, too, is well worth a visit.

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Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin Diary

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Located next to the Gemaldegalerie of painting masterpieces, the Museum of Decorative Arts(Kunstgewerbemuseum) in the Kulturforum complex holds a very underrated and impressive collection of top-notch exhibits in fashion, design and object art from the Middle Ages through the Art Deco period. I was particularly impressed with the monumental Renaissance tapestries.

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To be sure, the medieval and Renaissance art was astounding, especially the Guelph Treasure from the 12th century. Objects from the Baroque era also stood out, including furnishings and a cabinet of curiosities from that era. Rococo porcelain, such as Meissen, is well-represented, too. The Art Nouveau and Art Deco collection spans from 1900 to 1920. I was drawn to the Art Deco vases and the furniture in both styles.

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On the lower level, there is an intriguing exhibition of chairs from the 19th century to the present. It was fascinating to see how chair design had developed through the ages. One chair was made of what looked like wire; I could not imagine how painful it would be to sit on it. Another resembled an ice cream cone in a playful yellow with white color combination.

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Normally, I am not interested in fashion at all, but this collection caught my undivided attention. I loved the stunning evening dresses plus the older fashions from 1700 to 1850. I could never wear a corset! This museum outdid my expectations, and I came away with a fonder appreciation of fashion, design and art in general.

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Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Berlin Wall Memorial Diary

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Part of the original Wall at Bernauer Strasse

Seeing the 220 meters of the original Berlin Wall at the memorial on Bernauer Strasse during 2018 triggered memories of my first visit to that city, in 1991, when long stretches of the Wall had yet to be taken down. Back then, on a jaunt to Europe after college graduation, I had been amazed at everything I saw in the city. Even though I had done much research about Berlin and the history of the Wall as a student, I saw the Wall with emotional detachment. During 1991, I could not truly realize what the Wall represented. I knew it divided East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989, and I remembered watching the joyous moments of the Berliners climbing the Wall in October of 1989 as a new era was ushered in and no one would look at the Berlin, Germany, Europe or the world the same way again. I knew there had been escape attempts, some thwarted, others successful, some resulting in death, others resulting in new beginnings in the West. But I hadn’t felt the history the way I did this time, at the Bernauer Strasse memorial during 2018.

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Poles mark where the Wall once stood at Bernauer Strasse

Here’s a little background information. The Wall, built in August of 1961, divided East and West Berlin until October of 1989. Some 156.4 kilometers of Wall bordered West Berlin and consisted of concrete walls lined with pipes at the top. There were 186 observation towers and 20 bunkers plus fences built 100 meters from the Wall. The area between the metal mesh fence and concrete wall was a clearing called the death strip, and border guards had a clear view of anyone trying to cross it. The Wall area also included signal fencing, trenches to deter vehicles from trying to cross, barbed wire and beds of nails under balconies of apartments over the death strip.

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Sculpture at the Chapel of Reconciliation

One reason I had a different perspective during 2018 was because I had spent more than 20 years living in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. I had scores of friends who told me harrowing stories of life under Communism – about the physical hardships and especially about the mental hardships of having one’s life inundated with the Communist ideology day in and day out. Looking at that small section of the Berlin Wall and the posts that marked where it had continued up and down Bernauer Strasse, I felt almost as if I knew the pain and anguish of the East Berliners, even though I had grown up in middle class America as a spoiled only child. This time, I could feel the history, and it seeped through my body, almost making me nauseous from my thoughts of life in East Berlin, behind that Wall, where now a group of teenagers gathered as they studied their mobile phones, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings, as if the Wall were nothing more than a wall.

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Another reason the memorial affected me so strongly was the poignancy of the exhibition about the Wall in the Documentation Center. It featured stories of individuals who had tried to escape, worked as escape helpers or served as informers for the secret police. I looked into each face, read each name and felt as if I had met each person.

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Postcard of the Berlin Wall around the Brandenburg Gate

There was Siegfried Uhse, a hairdresser who had resided in the West area of the city since 1960. He became an informant a year later. By pretending to look for an escape route for his girlfriend and her family, he was able to contact escape helpers who believed his lies. Because of Siegfried, five escape tunnels were betrayed from 1961 to 1963. Because of Siegfried, 89 refugees and escape helpers were arrested. Despite all the bad things that had happened in the world during my lifetime, it still amazed me that someone could do something so evil.

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Photo of a line for food in the DDR from exhibition at Documentation Center

One of those arrested was Harry Seidel, a racing cyclist who could not participate in the 1960 Olympics because he lived in East Germany. He made it to West Berlin and even got his wife and baby out as well. Then he wanted to help others gain the same feeling of freedom he was able to experience. He dug escape tunnels in 1962. Once he was almost ambushed; it was a close call, but he made it. However, in November of 1962 he was not so lucky. It was a trap. The secret police were waiting for him at an escape tunnel because of Siegfried’s intel. He was sentenced to life in prison. Before his arrest, he had helped 100 people flee to the West. That, I mused, was what real heroes were made of.

I also learned about Hartmut Richter, a railroad worker who tried to escape in 1965. His hopes were dashed, though, and he was convicted with a suspended sentence. In 1966, he did succeed in escaping. From 1971 to 1975, he was an escape helper. Then, in 1975, he was caught and received a 15-year prison sentence. He only served five years in jail, though, as West Germany paid ransom for his release during 1980.

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A watchtower at the Wall

I also learned about an escape attempt at the Invalidenstrasse border crossing – I had walked down that bustling street on the way to Bernauer Strasse. Eight young Berliners tried to drive a bus through the border. Fate was not kind to them. They were gravely injured by the 138 shots fired by border guards and arrested. They all spent many years in prison.

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Postcard showing the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989 near Brandenburg Gate

I read about the VW Beetle that drove at top speed through the barbed wire fence erected on the first day the wall was built, August 13, 1961. It stopped in West Berlin, and the driver was free to open a new, exciting chapter in his life.

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The Chapel of Reconciliation

Residents of Bernauer Strasse had been very innovative in their escape attempts. Some had jumped into rescue nets of fire engines from West Berlin after making calls to the fire department, others had jumped from their roofs to the West, and still others had slid down ropes from their apartments on the border.

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Postcard showing the fall of the Berlin Wall, November 10, 1989

I saw remnants of the inner wall with green area behind it, a place where youngsters leisurely kicked a soccer ball. I imagined a guard in the watchtower being ready to fire on anyone trying to make a dash for it through No Man’s Land, which afforded the border guards a clear line of fire. I could imagine patrol cars driving by and anti-vehicle trenches preventing cars from crossing. I could almost hear the fierce barking of the dogs, their teeth barred, as they spotted a refugee in the border area.

 

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Interior of the Chapel of Reconciliation

I remembered watching American President Ronald Reagan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, on June 12, 1987 and declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I had just graduated from prep school and took the concepts of freedom and democracy for granted. I hadn’t been interested in my Czech and Slovak roots back then. I had never thought about life behind the Iron Curtain. That was some mysterious place I was sure I would never go.

I did not stay as long as I had hoped at the memorial because I began to feel sick as I tried to put myself in the shoes of those East Berliners who had dreamed of freedom. I wound up retreating to a museum in the city center. I hope to go back to the Berlin Wall Memorial and spend more time there on a future visit. There is a lot of history to soak in, and one visit does not do the place justice.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Section of Berlin Wall in Museum of German History