Sure, we knew it would be cold in Berlin, but having passed so many mild winters in Istanbul, our memories of what real winter can be like were dulled. So it was that recently, we landed after dark at Tegel Airport and stepped out into several days of the kind of face-biting, bone-chilling cold that we remembered from our younger days and that Berliners claimed was abnormal for the middle of March. More shocking was that we had left home only hours before from a sunny, mild spring-like day in Istanbul.
So we had to adapt. Our transition was eased on that first evening by beer and the comfort of a large room in our favorite hotel, the Hackescher Markt. It was there we would spend our remaining nights in the city.
We love Berlin and Germany generally and need no excuse to visit; however, on this occasion we did have a couple of specific matters of interest.
We normally see our German friends Jupp (Joseph) and his wife Karin once a year at our annual literary conference in July. This year because of a scheduling conflict they will not attend, so we chose to spend some time with them in Berlin instead. Our second wish for coming at this time had to do with seeing the district in Bavaria where my ancestors lived and from where one family of Farbers emigrated to the United States in the 19th century.
Happily, these desires meshed because Jupp and Karin, always up for an adventure, offered to drive us down to the Franconian town of Selbitz and help us with research and interpretation.
That road trip would take the better part of three days and two nights and would include side visits to Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth and Vierzehnheiligen, the Basilica of Fourteen Holy Helpers, or Saints, located near the town of Bad Staffelstein near Bamberg. These sidebars to our main purpose greatly enriched our pleasure. I’ll say more about Bavaria presently, but first I want to describe our first day in Berlin.
One of that city’s perennial pleasures for us is Dussmann, the large book and music store on Friedrichstrasse that is a feast for the eyes and the mind. It was the first place we headed for on our first frozen morning after having fortified ourselves with one of our hotel’s delicious breakfasts. I came with a list of titles to buy and found most of them in the section of Dussmann designated as the English Bookstore. There, I had only to show the list to the knowledgeable saleslady to have them produced in a flash. We had less luck in the music and DVD departments. Even so, just the experience of browsing among so many exciting titles lifted our spirits. We couldn’t fail to note the stacks of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury for sale in three languages, evidence of that what goes on in the Trump White House is of international interest.
We had arranged to meet Jupp that afternoon and join an English-language tour of Tempelhof airport. Kay, who is still recovering from a bout of bronchitis, begged off while Jupp and I, due to a misunderstanding about our meeting place, never found each other so I took the tour alone.
I had long been curious about Tempelhof, the site of the Berlin Airlift, which until the building of the Berlin Wall, was the most dramatic event of the Cold War years. My first surprise was the airport’s size. The Nazis built it in the later years of the 1930s to be a glorious symbol of the Third Reich’s power and dominance. They never quite finished the job. During the war years, the airport’s hangars were used to repair and recondition the Luftwaffe’s planes. After the war, it was occupied and used by the Americans as a listening post to keep tabs on what was happening in East Berlin and to stage the legendary airlift that for eleven months during 1948/49 flew in all the food, coal, machinery, and other supplies needed to support the two million residents of West Berlin that Stalin, by cutting off all road and rail traffic to the city, tried to force the Western allies to give up to Soviet control. The Soviets finally backed down, and by then the allies had made an astonishing 278,000 flights, delivering 2.5 million tons of cargo.
The airlift changed the relationship between Germany and the Allies, who became protectors instead of occupiers. Our guide entertained us with the story of how one particular American pilot would drop bundles of candy in tiny parachutes to West Berlin’s children. Everything about the Airlift is inspiring and emotionally moving.
Beneath the canopy that faces the airfield, stands an example of the U.S. aircraft used in the lift.
Our tour lasted nearly two hours. Here are a couple of highlights: Under the airport’s foundations dozens of small rooms, designed to shelter Germans in case of poison-gas attacks, would accommodate up to eighty-eight persons packed tightly together. A ventilation system kept a positive pressure in the rooms to keep gas from seeping in. A burning candle gauged the amount of oxygen. If a candle went out, it meant there was not enough oxygen to breathe, and the room would be evacuated.
After the war, the occupying Americans turned a hall that had been built as a ballroom into a basketball court where an air force team would play a German team called the Berlin Braves.
The Americans also installed a bar and a bowling alley.
Once the Americans left, Tempelhof finally became a commercial airport. Looking at the names over the disused check-in counters, I didn’t see any airline names I recognized. The airport finally ceased operations in 2008. It had been built before the age of jet travel, and its runways were too short to accommodate larger aircraft. Since its field is surrounded by heavily residential neighborhoods, there was no way to extend the runways.
Today the airfield is a huge public park, although on the freezing day of our visit, no one was in sight. Currently, Tempelhof’s hangars shelter refugees, and its buildings are used for events and as settings for motion picture production. Because the allies wanted to use the airport after the war, they mostly spared it from bombing so that it remains intact.
There is very little Nazi architecture remaining in Berlin, so besides the stadium that was built for the 1936 Olympics, Tempelhof is one of the few sites to appreciate it. By the way, Tempelhof’s name is derived from the Knights Templar, who were a presence in the area during medieval times.
I was beat by the time I returned to the hotel. The cold and all the climbing and standing during the tour exhausted me. Fortunately, across from the hotel is the Hackescher Hof, a lovely restaurant that we enjoy. That evening we ate delicious salads of oyster mushrooms, shrimp, and white grapes topped with fresh greens followed by Norwegian cod set over a portions of warm potato salad containing bits of shrimp and super thin slices of marinated cucumber. After that meal, accompanied by a bottle of Alsatian Salvaner, I was feeling no pain.
I have to add that food is one of the pleasures of our visits to Germany. Like other European countries it has regional specialties. Berlin has curry wurst, a sausage cut into bite-size pieces and spread with a red sauce sprinkled with curry powder. It is traditionally eaten with French fries. It’s delicious street food. We never leave the city without eating it at least once. The Hackescher Markt neighborhood where we stay, formally part of East Berlin, has plenty of fine restaurants. One evening we ate Italian cuisine, and on two occasions, Vietnamese food that was just what we needed.
In Berlin one can eat at any hour, which is not the case in the countryside. In Selbitz, we could not even order food before 5 p.m., the hour that our guesthouse opened on Sunday. Before that, we had no option but to find the Café Weiss and drink glasses of Weltenburger Kloster, a beer from a local Bavarian monastery.
Earlier that the day in Bayreuth, where we stopped to view the outside of the Festspiel Haus that Richard Wagner had had built for performances of his works, the only eating place we found open was an unpretentious Turkish döner restaurant. (Döner is the sliced meat that Greeks call gyros.) The Turkish proprietor made us lovely plates of sauced meat set over salad, which in turn was laid over French fries. We were happy.
At the Goldene Krone (Golden Crown), where we stayed, the restaurant served local dishes. On our second evening, we consumed plates of boiled beef and potato dumplings served with a horseradish sauce. Yum!
Our experience among the archives at the Selbitz Rathaus (Town Hall) was interesting. A local man, who on his own initiative had digitized the records of the town’s Lutheran church, came and did a name search that revealed a few details about my ancestors I didn’t already know. Besides the child who grew up to be my great grandfather, John Farber, my great, great grandfather and his wife had two others who died in infancy and a daughter named Catherine, about whom I know nothing.
It was that great, great grandfather, Johann Erhardt Farber who brought his family to Herkimer County New York in 1852. It’s interesting to speculate about the reasons for his timing. Although I don’t know many historical details of that period in Germany, I believe Selbitz and its inhabitants were under the rule of the King of Bavaria. The failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe must have been a recent memory, and the major political stirrings that would culminate in 1871’s German unification must have been apparent even to Bavarian farmers. What was the local economic situation like in 1850? I don’t know, but since there were many who emigrated then, things must not have been too good. I have to assume that my ancestor went to the U.S. looking for freedom and a better life. Although there is no official record of his emigration, I was told that fully half of those who emigrated did so clandestinely. Were I to pursue it further, I might find Johann’s name on a ship’s registry in Bremerhaven or Hamburg.
In spite of what I did and didn’t discover in terms of information, I was able to view the town and the surrounding fields.
We went into the Lutheran church where my family likely worshiped and saw the font in which my great grandfather may have been baptized. It really was a worthwhile trip in that regard.
Selbitz today looks modern and well kept.
As you can see from the photos, the fields were snow covered and on our drive back to Berlin we followed two snowplows for many kilometers as the snow fell around us.
Back in the city for the next few days, and despite the weather, we continued to avail ourselves of its multiple pleasures. There is much that remains of Imperial Berlin before World War I and much Communist architecture of the German Democratic Republic that ended about the time of the fall of the wall in 1989.
One darkening afternoon, I walked the length of the monumental Karl-Marx Allee, East Berlin’s most impressive avenue. It is wide and elegant, lined with vast apartment buildings built to house the GDR’s comrades and indistinguishable one from another.
Of the infamous Berlin Wall, one section remains in the southeast corner of the city. It’s called the East Side Gallery because accomplished artists have decorated its concrete surface with murals.
Some of these are fantastic surrealistic visions, others carry political messages. A famous one depicts the faces of the Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev locked in a kiss on the lips. Its title: My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love. One freezing, wet morning Kay and I walked with Jupp along this wall, going as far as we could before the weather got the best of us and sent us back to Kreuzberg where we met Karin for a Turkish lunch at the Adana Grille.
Visits to two museums and some gift shopping rounded out our sightseeing. Though the Berlinische Galerie’s permanent collection features work by 19th and 20th-century Berlin painters, it was there that a large temporary exhibition introduced us to a different kind of artist.
Eduardo Paolozzi was born in Scotland in 1924 and died in London in 2005. During his long career, he was for a time a pop artist and later became a sculptor and a print maker. What endears him to us are the brilliant collages that he created throughout his life. These amazed us not only by their craftsmanship but also by their cleverness, especially in their humorous juxtapositions. They are the creations of a truly interesting mind.
In contrast to the Berlinische Galerie, the large Gemäldegalerie located in the complex known as Berlin’s Kulturforum contains impressively large collections of old masters. German artists like the Cranachs, père and fils, and Albrecht Dürer are well represented as are many of the major Netherlandish artists of the 16th and 17th centuries. In addition to paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Goyen, Holbein, Franz Hals, and Jan van Eyck, we came across two Vermeers new to us.
In the “The Wine Glass” and “Woman with a Pearl Necklace” we recognized the artist’s subtle, natural light from the unseen window that is so uniquely pleasing.
Lest I risk making food the theme of this piece, I have to mention the delightful Alsatian dinner our friends prepared for us in their West Berlin apartment. The centerpiece was Bäcköffe, a traditional dish of pork and sliced potatoes baked in a special clay casserole.
The following day, we returned the favor when we invited Jupp and Karin to celebrate our 39th anniversary with us at Augustiner, a popular Bavarian restaurant in the Gendarmenmarkt district. A plate of Bavarian sausages, mashed potatoes, and sauerkraut lubricated with a tall glass of wheat beer was a perfect way to say goodbye to Berlin until our next visit when we’ll make sure the weather is warmer.