This first appeared in Magnapoets
I loved it right from the first moment – for its strange hard melancholy broken beauty, its tristesse, its air of looming tragedy, its fathomless Sehnsucht, its pale northern dream-coloured skies. Now it was time to go. My last day in Berlin! This is the first time I’ve ever really left Berlin, and left him. I’ve run away, but always come back. But I’m not running now. I do not think I will ever come back.
The last day of April, and one of the very first spring days of the year. There is almost no spring, nor fall either, here. The winters are long and hard and very dark, they go on and on, then a brief blossoming and suddenly you are plunged into the heat and stillness and long silvery summer twilights. The rare spring days have a peculiar undecided quality, somehow warm and cold, dismal and bright at the same time. I thought I would go on this, my last day, to Treptower Park to see the Sovietisches Ehrenmal. It was the only thing left on my list of ‘things to do in Berlin before I go’. I’d already been to the Philharmonie, and the Berliner Ensemble (Hallo, Bert Brecht!), to the Deutsches Historisches Museum with its dreadful tale of rise and fall – out of the dark forests, up the ladder to civilisation, down to the bowels of hell - not a place to be taken lightly, the Deutsches Historisches Museum. That left only the Sovietisches Ehrenmal. It’s not at all far from here, only ten minutes on the bus, but of course it’s drüben as they say, ‘over there’, in the mysterious east. Not so different from Neukölln, where I live, also working class and seedy, but more rundown and with fewer Turks.
To reach the monument you first have to walk down a seemingly endless allée of giant plane trees, they were still quite bare in these last days of April, while the lower, easy-going plants closer to the ground were already green. The sky above a pale, changeable blue behind a haze of marbled grey that forms and dissolves in the perfectly still air. The bittersweet perfumes of hawthorn and lilac, and the bright, broken singing of the larks.
This beautiful allée, of over a thousand plane trees, is known as the Puschkinallee, and was laid out by Gustav Meyer between 1865 and 1877. Meyer was the star pupil of the renowned Peter Josef Lenne, who is responsible for, among other things, the elegant formal gardens at Sans Souci, Frederick the Great’s little folly in the woods at Potsdam, and one might expect him to know his business. But somewhere there was a miscalculation, the trees in the nascent Treptower Park were planted too close together, and so have been obliged to fight one another down through the years for light and air. This constant struggle upwards, towards the light, has made them unusually tall, even for trees of this great age, and the effect is of a towering, even overbearing vault. I walked forever down this allée, under the monumental shadows of the trees - they seemed to be bending over me, watching me, even following me in their endless ranks. Like the city of Berlin itself, they somehow had survived the war, and their air of paranoia seemed to belong perfectly to the east, and to my own sad German love story.
The Ehrenmal lies at the very heart of the enormous park. It is huge and white, and socialist-realist, with a gigantic soldier clutching a baby girl as he treads a swastika underfoot, and the whole thing is falling apart, and no one has the money nor the heart to fix it, and it’s all so big, so empty, so sad. There weren’t many people about – a pair of lovers strategically placed, a few German tourists, a few Berliners relaxing on the grass. It’s a melancholy enough place, with its grandiose promises. You Heroes Who Died for the Fatherland Will Never Be Forgotten. We Shall Think of You Always. And so on. How many Russian boys died in the battle for Berlin? God knows – a lot, a very large number. When they had taken Berlin, they took their revenge on the cowering remnants of the population, raping and pillaging at will throughout the smoking ruin of a city.
Around the Treptower station at the entrance to the park is a little conglomeration of rusty trailers selling this and that – the inevitable curry-wursts and beer, fresh flowering plants, ice cream. I bought an ice cream – it was about the worst I’d ever tasted – and sat down on a bench to eat it and watch the people. This is his world, these are his people. I know them now. I don’t care anymore. I think they’re funny, though. I got so used to them in the end, the little kleinbürgerliche Ossis, so hopelessly behind the times, so suspicious and withdrawn, and then so suddenly and explosively friendly.
I bought a big pot of magnificent orange lilies for Frau Schemann, the old lady who lives across from me and who’s very fond of me. Because I carry her groceries when we meet on the stairs and because, more importantly, I listen to her. She’s told me all about the war times in Berlin, for example. Once she drew me to the window and pointed down at the quiet street below. ‘All this was on fire,’ she said. ‘Burnt black, people, buildings, everything...’ There was a time when she could speak French and English too, but she’s had a stroke and now has trouble enough just speaking German. For example, sometimes when she wishes to say ‘foot’ she says ‘boat’ instead. It’s rather confusing. Still, we call one another ‘Madame’, in memory of former glories, and genuinely enjoy our brief encounters on the stairs. One time she had an accident and was away for a while – then I met her nephew and his wife, and when I asked after her they told me many things. That she had lost her husband in the war, and that her only child, a son, was stricken with meningitis and left severely damaged in both body and mind. That for years she looked after him, all alone, and he could neither walk or speak. She never mentioned any of this to me – only once, that her son was dead. But somehow I sensed right away inside this fragile and slow-speaking old lady a person of great character and intelligence. Last week she was held up in her flat by two women who came to the door and pretended to need her to sign some papers. They took her money, over two thousand marks, and ‘a few good things I had’, she said. ‘I cried so much. I cried,’ she said. I patted her on the shoulder. ‘Don’t open the door,’ I said. ‘Never open the door, Madame.’
The man who sold me the lilies kept flirting with me and calling me eine schöne Frau – he said I made his day. ‘Don’t exaggerate so much!’ I said, laughing. ‘I’m not exaggerating at all!’ he said. Then he got his friend to come round from the front of the truck and say whether or not he was exaggerating, and we all had to laugh. It felt good to laugh with so much pain in my heart. Frau Schemann loved the flowers. She was really touched, and really sad that I was leaving. But when I said I was going to Paris, my! how her face lit up. ‘Paris! Wunderbar! Paris is so beautiful. I was first there as a very little girl,’ she said. ‘I went with my father, I remember walking with him in the Tuileries Gardens. Oh, I am happy for you. But I’m so sorry you’re going, because it’s very rare to meet such a charming person. I tell all my relations about you. It’s very rare indeed, and at my age, well! If I live to be a hundred I probably won’t meet another one like you.’ ‘I hope you do – live to be a hundred,’ I said. And she took my outstretched hand and pressed it to her heart, and we wished one another health and long life, and happiness. Ade, Berlin! Und reiche mir zum Abschied deine Hand! Good bye Berlin! And give me your hand in farewell.
With warm thanks to Herr Herbert Lohner at the Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland in Berlin for help with the trees.