01/30/2004: "In the heart of the beast"
Sunday I went for a long walk with a friend through the snowy forest. Very Robert Frost. I like winter, and I was disappointed that there was no sun, but to make up for it, it snowed lightly all day. Stefanie and I took the train from Zoologischer Garten to Wannsee, and then took a bus as far as Pfaueninselchausee. (That would be Peacock Island Highway). It was just a road through the forest, not a highway, and we headed off to the ferry for the island. The bus driver told us it would not be running because the water was frozen over. We figured we might as well head that direction, if we got to the island or not was really unimportant.
It had been way too long since I had been in the woods just to be there. I ride my bike daily through a park on the way to work, and it’s nice, but it isn’t really a woods, and even if it were, the ride is too goal oriented to satisfy what I had come for. Shortly after our hike started, a snowplow came to clear the road. Less than an inch had accumulated, but folks like things orderly here. We realized we could take the path that ran parallel to the road, and be closer to the trees, farther from such distractions. We did.
I brought my camera with me. I decided to start a photo project. Make sure to get one good shot per day, for each of the 100 days remaining before I return to Minneapolis on May 3. This was day 100, and I would count down. Before we had gone too far, we came across a pile of felled logs. They all had a number on their base. I think it was the diameter of the cross section. Not too big, like 17, 18. That would be centimeters. The roundness of all the ends looked like so many zero’s to me, and I realized that with a vertical line against them I could have a 100 photo. I tried, with Stefanie’s help, to move one of the logs from the pile. They were too heavy. I pulled a shorter branch from under the snow and leaves, propped it up, and took my picture. (If you want to see it, before the book gets published, e-mail me a request.) I took several other pictures as we walked to the ferry. Holly with berries in the snow. Stefanie taking pictures of me. Pines lightly dusted with snow.
The trees here seem like cousins to the tree spirits I know from Minnesota. There are oaks and pine and maple and birches and something much like a cottonwood. There are basswoods, called lindens here, and elms. Then there are a few that I don’t recognize. One has a very smooth bark, and I think it must be a beech, like those I remember from Rock Creek Park in DC. Another has a bark that is also quite smooth, but covered with camouflage like patches, and dry spiky round fruits. There are also chestnuts, but I see them mostly in parks and along streets. I didn’t see any of them in the woods, and truthfully, I think they are horse chestnuts this far north. The roast chestnuts the vendors sell all come from Italy.
We got to the ferry and it was running. For a euro each we rode across about 80 meters of water to this island. I was last here in the spring of 1974. Not too much had changed, except that the view across to the west from the island was no longer the east. Germany is one country now. Berlin one city. No more wall surrounding West Berlin. Back then there was no wall in the middle of the water, but the water was patrolled by boats of the DDR Border Guard. There were the same pretty buildings and whimsical late 19th century faux castles that I remembered. I got a great photo of bird tracks in the snow. They look like a diagram for learning a dance.
It was quiet in the snow. There were others out walking. We headed in the opposite direction to have even more quiet. We found a great tree. Had it been cut it would have had to have 250 written across the base. It was huge, and still alive. It was mostly hollow, and had another younger tree growing from the dirt inside its hollow. I crawled inside from underneath to have Stefanie take a picture of me inside a tree. You need to be as tall as I am to see out from inside. (This picture will not be in the book, but again you can e-mail me.) On the walk I paid attention to forms, patterns, temperature, texture. This woods, though far from wild, was so rich.
We circled the whole island, rode the ferry back across, and stopped in the little Gaststube to warm up. I ordered a potato soup, and some hot chocolate. The hot chocolate came first, and was disappointing. A watery base that the cream on top did not make up for. It reminded me of the stuff that used to come out of the machine at Kresge’s at HarMar Mall. You pushed the red button on the side of the machine to fill your cup. It made a loud noise (to prove that it was whipped hot chocolate). The first time I did that, I did not really get a cup full. So I pushed the button again, to fill the cup. The cashier wanted to charge me for twice. I only had a quarter on me. She threatened to call the cops. Bad hot chocolate brings bad memories. The potato soup was no better. Very salty and a bit oily, too. Too bad, one of the things I like about being here is how easy it is to get nice things to eat. This is my first bad potato soup memory. I‘ll blame it on the hot chocolate.
We left the café and headed along the shore of Wannsee through the woods back toward the train station. Eventually the woods faded into a very beautiful suburban neighborhood. Before I knew it, we had come upon the place of remembrance I knew “was around here somewhere.” Das Haus am Wannsee. The House on Wannsee. Here, in 1942, the Endlösung (Final Solution) had been decided by Hitler and his top brass. The nightmarish details of the holocaust were worked out in this pretty mansion on the shore of the lake.
That’s the thing about being here. If you are at all conscious of history, you can never forget that this was once the heart of the beast. And that is an important lesson for me, because I think the beast has moved elsewhere, and now lives in the land I call home, the USA. How do we, in the US, come to terms with the atrocities of our history? How do we make sure it is not lost? Unpleasant as it is, we have to live with it.
Funny how being 50 changes for for me how important history is. When we entered the Wannsee train station I wondered, did any of the participants from those meetings pass through this hall to arrive at the meeting?