Mind Matters — A Berlin Christmas

Consider this a letter from Berlin. When you read this, I will have returned to the US, but I write this as I spend Christmas in Germany. So it goes with time. And time is part of what this letter is about: the past lives on in the present and into the future.

Berlin is a complex city of many surprises: it is a cosmopolitan and cultural center with a turbulent recent history that has included much death and destruction: the rise of Hitler, the persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust, World War II. When Germany was divided into East and West after the war, Berlin sat isolated deep in East Germany, having divided itself into east and west parts. Later, the Cold War intensified the divide with tragic consequences for its residents. Amazing to realize that this was the case until 1989. So who cares about history and what does this matter with regards to mental health? Our collective mental wellbeing depends on understanding our individual family history as well as our human family history.

And actually, I have found this trip to be quite mentally sobering. The past feels very present. Our journey began with a visit to the Käthe Kollwitz museum. Kollwitz was an artist who lived through World Wars I and II and whose son and grandson were killed: her son in the first World War and her grandson in the second. Kollwitz herself was blacklisted by Hitler so that her art could not be displayed. Hers was the art that portrayed mothers valiantly attempting to protect their children from the ravages of war and poverty. Her art speaks out for Life against Death, and her message is universal.

We encountered this message again at the Holocaust Memorial: acres of monolithic slabs stand sentry outside in a labyrinth of stone. Walking silently through this, one can feel the smothering immensity. The interior museum continues the experience with stories told about particular families destroyed in the concentration camps. Germany, like South Africa, appears to have confronted its shadowy past and has not revised history to hide its truth.

Bringing truth home most significantly was the Jewish museum, where the architecture itself has a profound effect psychologically and spiritually. After some time in the exhibits, one enters a space—the void—no light but from a very small slit several stories above—it is cold and black. In that “voided void” you may face your own shadow: how can humans be so cruel to one another? What must I do to own my own shadow? Where is compassion? Hope?

Lingering questions to ponder also at the Memorial Church of Peace and Reconciliation—renamed after it was destroyed by bombs in World War II. The ruins remain as a statement to the horrors of war and to the need for nonviolent means to resolve conflict.

What was formerly West Berlin seems to have a head start in its post-War rebuilding efforts. It was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall that similar efforts for rebuilding structures, particularly churches, as remembrances for the dead and peace were initiated.

We attended Christmas Mass in the newly rebuilt cathedral in what used to be East Berlin. Again a reminder of how long it has taken a city to recover from not only World War II, but also the Cold War.

Despite my own physical discomfort being in cramped standing-room-only circumstances, my heart soared when I heard the choir sing. I think the spiritual power of that music was more than the professional quality of the musicians. There is something to be said for how the human spirit can resiliently build stone upon stone and move step by step with hope for the light to glimmer in the Darkness. Some hope that we as humans can resolve conflict peacefully, can live as one. “Ich bin ein Berliner”, said John F. Kennedy. Perhaps he did not only point to a unified Berlin, and a unified Germany, but to a unified world of no more us versus them.

Postscript: After Berlin we traveled on to Dresden, so firebombed in World War II that massive churches just collapsed from the heat’s intensity. Over 25,000 civilians perished in that bombing alone. It was only in 2005 that the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) was finally reopened as yet another remembrance to the brutality of war and the need for peaceful solutions to world conflicts.