Ich bin ein Berliner (Part 1)

The next morning we were ready to get back on the road and head off to Berlin. That was a brand new day and a brand new country. I was much excited on that brisk morning and hated to say goodbye to Poland but I knew I was going to be back at the end of my trip. I couldn’t wait to experience Germany. The fact that I did German as my minor at the University added to my excitement.
So we hit the road again. As the night before we were staying at the hotel near the Poland-Germany border, German was just about 10 minutes’ drive away. When I saw a German autobahn sign, I knew it was time to have a ride German style. Everything around us seemed to be clean and well looked after. Germans are generally famous for loving Ordnung (order). I was bubbling over with excitement as I saw signs for Berlin. The German language seemed so easy to read (which is obviously not true) after spending the previous day in futile attempts to figure out quirky Polish words. It felt that I was more at home here in terms of the language which I’m sure can make or break a trip. I was thrilled to get a chance to practise my German (which proved to be not as easy as it seemed at that moment as we were enjoying our ride on the pristine German Autobahn). Needless to say, this road was a far cry from what we have in Russia.
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During the course of my trip, I made a point of taking these drives in between the cities and countries as a chance to reflect on things. On my way to Berlin, I started contemplating history again. There was something that enhanced my sense of national identity and made me want to embrace what I am (Russian) as I was about to arrive in Berlin. We might be all just a sum of experiences of our ancestors because at that moment I couldn’t help but wonder what it felt like for Russian soldiers making their way here for the final battle of Berlin in 1945. Even though people of my generation are becoming increasingly ignorant of WWII (or what we call the Great Patriotic War here), one will make no mistake in saying that what started as Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and gave rise to what the generations to come would know as the most genocidal and bloodiest conflict in history, still lingers in this country. A Russian must have a heart of stone not having this page in history resonating in them. I know there’s so much controversy surrounding this war and its picture is not black and white as we might like to think. Some people in the West say this Battle of Berlin which ended with Soviet soldiers hoisting the Soviet flag over the Reichstag (German Parliament) was the case of one totalitarianism trampling over another.
Le drapeau de la victoire
Unfortunately we can’t go back in time and resolve the issues people have been hugely divided on since the day that iconic image of those soldiers flying the Soviet flag over the Reichstag was published in Soviet newspapers. My perspective of this war can be largely subjective and biased as I was born and brought up in the country deeply affected by the Nazi regime. I guess there’s something in my DNA that makes me want to hold on to the belief that it was the Soviet Union that led the way in overthrowing this vicious and deadly regime. We know for a fact that there wasn’t one family unscathed by the war and millions of people were killed or starved in concentration camps. My family was also affected as my great great grandfather was brutally shot by Nazis as he was too poor and frail to leave his village when the Nazis seized it. As much as I resent Stalin as a leader (even though I know my granddad was shocked at the news of his death in 1953 and had the leader’s portrait in his hands with tears running down his cheeks), I’m genuinely outraged at attempts to equate Stalin and Hitler, which I think is a blow to all people in this country. With the Russian casualties in mind, how can one possibly have debates over who started the war which was a “crime against humanity”? I know there were atrocities perpetrated by our soldiers as they encircled and shelled the city of Berlin in 1945. But again with all the atrocities in mind, can one truly blame them for doing bad things which were obviously in the name of a good cause?
I was happy in the knowledge that there will be no shelling or bombing as another group of Russian tourists make their way into this city. This trip to Berlin sparked a flurry of questions in me. Which is more, I knew our first stop would be the Treptower Park with one of the largest Soviet memorials in Berlin that commemorates the death of thousands of Soviet people in the battle of Berlin. This is definitely a must visit for any Russian coming to Berlin. I never knew I would feel the way I felt when I entered the park. It was like a perfect pristine piece of Russia along the Spree River.
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The atmosphere was somber and calm and as it was early morning, we had the park to ourselves. I physically felt proud to be Russian as I was standing looking at a remote 70-ton bronze statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German girl in one hand and a sword slashing swastika under his feet in the other and the monument of mother Russia on the left. This memorial was also home to bodies of thousands of soldiers killed in the bloodshed of 1945. The enormity of the park was breathtaking and I got really emotional and incredulous to believe I was actually in Berlin. For a moment I thought Germans were probably bigger in this conflict as the construction of this monument showed the dignity with which they dealt with their Nazi past. At the end of the day, it all comes down to learning from the mistakes of the past and acknowledging them. I was wondering if what we saw in front of our eyes was the German’s way of saying sorry for what had happened years and years before.
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This fondly maintained area, beautifully landscaped trees made me want to whisper (I couldn’t dare to scream so as not to break the peace and quiet of the place) that the apology (was it the whole nation that had to say sorry in the first place?) was taken and it was time we put this all behind us and moved on paying tribute to millions of people of different nationalities who were killed in the war. It was a shame that we were given so little time to spend here as we had so many other places we needed to see in the space of one day. My limbs went literally numb as I wished I could make the world stop spinning and stand there taking in the lovely peaceful sky gliding over this magnificent grand monument. I wish every Russian had a chance to come here just once to pay tribute to the enormous sacrifice made by our ancestors. I wished the time would stop. With all those birches around, I actually started missing Russia, yet at the same time no matter how many miles we travelled from our home country, a part of it was right there in front of us. Before we had to leave (luckily, we had enough time to actually get to the foot of the main monument which seemed a long way off as we entered the park), I turned back again to capture what to me as a Russian was more than just a magnificent piece of architecture in case I never get to come here again. Such was my first encounter of Berlin.
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Author: Olga

An English teacher and translator, a keen traveller

5 thoughts on “Ich bin ein Berliner (Part 1)”

  1. I love your writing! I am not of German or Russian heritage (Danish Grandparents) and I felt almost a connection to this place. It is such a massive monument to causalities and history that surrounds WWII and German/Russian interaction. We really enjoyed sitting here and reading all the English on the boards as we could and have my German-speaking friend translate a bit for us.

    1. You will love it there if you haven’t visited yet by now! I was there for the secnd time last summer and the place felt just as amazing as it did the first time! It’s a perfect palce to reflect and breathe the Berlin air away from the hustle and bustle of the city. I am Russian and for me this place is an absolute must-see for any Russian visiting Berlin. It’s so touching to see this place being so carefully and lovingly taken care of by Germans.

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