Confession (though for my parents, this will just be stating a well-known fact): I used to be a liar. And I used to lie a lot. And I used to be really, really good at it. In my defense, it was a necessary skill in my household, one I perfected over time. My dad ran a pretty tight ship, like the one-minute-late-on-curfew-is-one-hour-off-your-curfew-the-next-time-you’re-out kind of ship, and if you wanted to have any fun, you had to get creative. So I had to carefully construct all sorts of half-truths to attend all weekend/no parents parties at a friend’s house, because there is no way in hell that would get a yes when my mom said, “Go ask your father.” And these stories were true masterpieces. I would get into unnecessary, elaborate details and answer any probing questions without skipping a beat, the beautiful lie taking shape before both of our eyes.
But as all liars eventually learn, all liars eventually get caught. Especially if cursed with a shit memory. As it became increasingly stressful to remember the lies I told (SO many details – I can’t even remember reality, much less my creative fiction) I stumbled, fell, and paid the price. When lying became more effort than it was worth, I converted to my new, “honesty is always best” policy, and I haven’t been bothered to lie since. Plus, I turned 18 and my dad unlocked the chains – I was free to mess up my own life. He had done all he could.
So I am going to blame that total crap memory of mine for what happened when I exited the Brandenburger Tor S stop in Berlin, and came face-to-face with a metal structure covered with the bright green words “1939 The War of Annihilation in Poland.” I stopped breathing all together.
I know that somewhere in my endless years of education I learned all about WWII, and I know that I must have known Germany’s invasion of Poland was the spark that ignited the deadly fire, but reading the detailed timeline on the monument, it felt like I was discovering the past for the first time.
Like so many others, I’ve seen Schindler’s List and read Anne Frank’s diary, but I am rather ashamed to admit how little I actually know about WWII. I’ve always associated it with the Holocaust and obliteration of all things Jewish, not so much the original intent – to totally destroy Poland and everyone in it – which is embarrassing, since my father’s side of the family is 100% Polish, and I have actual relatives who experienced these horrors. But sitting in a cozy classroom in 8th grade history in the American Midwest, it’s so easy to disassociate yourself from events, especially events that happened 50+ years ago.
I wish I had paid more attention, I wish I had understood more, I wish I had made more of an effort to care back then, because maybe I would have been more prepared walking through the outdoor Topographie des Terrors exhibit, maybe I wouldn’t have had to don sunglasses to hide those tears without the sobs, the ones that just spill over without your permission, the ones there is no point in controlling because there is no where else for them to go.
Or maybe that would have happened anyway.
I wasn’t crying because of my Polish heritage, or because I felt all of a sudden personally wronged in some way, though I did feel strangely connected to my Kowalski-ness, and this surge of Polish pride. I can see how reading things of this nature could easily drum up some intense feelings, as it did for me, but these feelings weren’t of misplaced hatred toward anyone or anything. Just a deep mourning and sad acknowledgement of reality. Because let’s be honest, though I may be Polish (er, half Polish), it would be strange for me to claim to be directly affected by WWII. I wasn’t even born yet. I cried because of the unmentionable, unthinkable things humans are capable of doing to other humans, with absolutely no remorse.
Though I won’t say I didn’t internally applaud when I got to this part of this exhibit, the little ventricles of my heart flapping together with pride:
And I will hand it to Germany, say what you want, but I think it takes a lot of balls to acknowledge the horrors of your past and erect monuments with quotes like this:
Not to mention the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Besides, it wasn’t the Germans of today, or even Germany itself. It wasn’t Berlin. It was a few very clever, very manipulative psychopaths of yesterday. And God knows, every country has their fair share of those.
Truth? I fell deeply in love with Berlin. I loved the grittiness of the city, of the people. I loved the language, how smooth and musical it sounded as it bounced back and forth between friends and family. I loved that it was dirty with history and street art and a bit of actual trash. I loved that I felt totally safe and welcome to enjoy the nightlife that Berlin is famous for, that spills well into the next day, and I do believe it lives up to all that hype. I loved the rawness, the realness. I loved that it wasn’t trying to be something it wasn’t.
Just pure, gritty, dirty, beautiful Berlin.