There and Back Again: A Pastor’s Sabbatical Adventure #4


“I am like a lonely bird on a housetop” Psalm 103:7 (from Bread for the Day, May 17)


“Ich bin ein Berliner!” John  F. Kennedy famously said once from in front of the Berlin Wall. It actually means something more like, “I am a donut!” – he should have left the “ein” off, but the Berliners knew what he meant and loved him for saying it just the same. But, “Ich bin Berliner!” I can say – for the next month at least.  In fact when I mentioned to one of my teachers that  my mother was born in Berlin and that her mother was German, she said to me – “So you are halb (half) Deutsch.”

I have settled in at the German Language  School in Berlin where I am taking a four week intensive German language course. It is in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood in what was at one time East Berlin. I quite proud to say I got here from my cousin’s place ; Crimmitschau using only public transportation. I took a slow train from Crimmitschau to Leipzig; a fast train from Leipzig to the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) in Berlin; the S Bahn (Stadtschnellbahn (city fast train) from the Hauptbahnhof to Alexander Platz; the U-Bahn (Untergrund – Bahn) from Alexander Platz to Rosenthaler Platz; and the M1 Tram from Rosenthaler Platz to the Schwedter Str. stop directly in front of the school…all the while lugging my full of books and a few clothes suitcase. I only got off at the wrong place once – and realized it soon enough to get back on before the train left again – and only once got kicked out of my seat because it was someone else’s reserved seat. There’s nothing quite like managing the public transportation in another city or country to make you feel like you are a native.

I found GLS Berlin somewhat unscientifically so I am glad to say it is great! I live in a efficiency apartment on the campus that has lots of room – even for all my books. They have wonderful breakfast (that is included) each day and most  important of all – high quality German Kaffee virtually at your fingertips all the time. There are lots and lots of students of all ages (though most I would say in their 20’s and 30’s) from all over the world – many studying so they can pass a German language proficiency test in order to work in Germany at some point, but also others like me who just want to learn it for the sake of learning it. The classes are small, and I  have 7 in my class (which is an intermediate one “B1”) – one young man from Mexico; another from Columbia; two young women from South Korea; a nurse from Switzerland; a yoga teacher from Malaysia and me. While there are other Americans here (the wife of a Missouri Synod pastor for one), we are not the largest group by any means. The classes are all in German but interestingly enough the one thing most everybody has in common is the ability to speak English (although everyone but the Americans is also fluent in another language). One of the most interesting aspects of the class is discussing things from all the different international angles we come from – and hoffentlich at the end I’ll also be able to speak a bit more deutsch. We  have two 90 minute classes every morning taught be two different teachers (so we learn to understand two different German speakers) and then an hour or two of homework each evening.

Each afternoon there is an opportunity to take a “field trip” to something or other in Berlin (with longer trips on the weekends). Yesterday I went on one to the Topography of Terror museum. The museum is built on the site of what was once the most feared address in Berlin; the nerve center for the Gestapo (the Geheime Staatspolizei), the  SS (the Schutzstaffel – that began as Hitler’s personal bodyguard), and the SD (Sicherheitsdienst)  – the most despicable elements of the Nazi government. It’s one of the few memorial sites that focuses on the perpetrators rather than the victims of the Nazis. It traces the ways in the which Hitler and the Nazi’s rose to power, first through democratic election and then through various legal steps virtually eliminated the democratic institutions and centered absolute power in the hands of the embodiment of evil that was Adolph Hitler.

Part of the exhibit was a temporary exhibit detailing the ways Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings were used by the Nazi’s to justify and support their “racial purification” strategies. The 450th anniversary of Luther’s birth was the same week in 1933 as Hitler becoming the German Chancellor and “Kristallnacht” when Nazi supporters and followers burned and looted Jewish synagogues, homes and businesses across Germany happened on a anniversary of Luther’s birthday in 1938, a fact noted by some Lutheran pastors/leaders of the time as a meaningful way to celebrate what Luther was about. It is nothing if not chilling and sobering to see scenes of Luther celebrations at Luther’s home in Wittenberg and Luther’s birth and death place in Eisleben replete not only with Luther Roses and Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) garlands but also prominently displayed Nazi flags with huge swastikas hanging over the crowds.

One of the more meaningful parts of the tour we took was that it was led by a young woman from Israel whose grandparents had escaped the Holocaust. She is living and studying in Berlin while working and doing graduate work at the Topography of Terror.

Afterwards I went to visit the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of  Europe” which is not far from the museum and just around the corner from the Brandenburg Gate. I remember that there was some controversy about it when it was first established and installed some 15 years ago. It’s a large area filled with rows and rows of huge dark rectangular blank blocks of stone. You walk into it and through the rows. On the edges they are only about knee high but as you walk in they become taller and taller until they rise 10 or  more feet over your head. It’s sort of like a combination of the walking through a graveyard and also walking out into the ocean. It’s somber  but also quiet and peaceful. While you do descend into the memorial and the blocks are close together they are set up in very straight rows so that you can always see your way out, and at the same time feel very much like you are walking through alone. While there is certainly no way to adequately memorialize the nameless horror of 6 million or more Jews murdered by the Nazis this installation  is certainly a striking and memorable experience.