Terror and a Latte
On a recent trip to Amsterdam I took a detour to Berlin, which happened to fall on my birthday. Years ago I never would have set foot in that town because of certain past German crimes, but I’ve learned a few things since then: not only did Germany truly apologize for the Holocaust—unlike some culpable countries—but they’ve paid reparations, they’re one of Israel’s staunchest allies, and they continue to be pretty sorry. At least as a polity, Germany is pretty contrite and cool about the whole Nazi thing. And really, if Israeli Jews are going to drive around in Volkswagens, BMWs, and Mercedes—and that’s just the taxis—you can’t hold a grudge against all Germans for past crimes. Though admittedly, I do utter “Arbeit macht frei” on special occasions.
Anyway, for my Berliner birthday I wanted to visit some Holocausty sites. Everybody visits the famous and controversial Holocaust Memorial, performing headstands and leaving their cigarette butts on the concrete slabs. But what else is there? Everywhere you go there are vestiges of the Cold War, such as the ubiquitous remnants of The Berlin Wall, or the actors at Checkpoint Charlie dressed as American and Soviet soldiers with whom you can pose for a photograph. Maybe there’s a special place where you can take a picture with a Nazi Stormtrooper? Eh, that’s probably illegal in Germany. And it’s the height of bad taste. (NB: Posing with fake Cold War-era Soviet soldiers in the former East Berlin is in pretty bad taste, too.)
I did, however, find the apartment complex built on top of Hitler’s bunker where he shot himself. That must be some prime real estate. Pretty disappointing that the bunker’s gone—unless it’s now the basement? At least I seemed to annoy the residents when I stood there sneering and taking pictures; you’d think they’d be used to it by now. Serves them right for living on top of horror.
I was even more excited to learn about the Topography of Terror, the former Gestapo headquarters. How disturbingly cool is that—and what an awesome name! An immersive slice of history in the offices of some of the most horrible people on earth—the nucleus of cruelty. Cramped, airless rooms full of organized wooden desks covered in fountain pens, notebooks, forms, meticulous notes, etc. All the tools needed to impose a state of terror and fear on a subdued population. The headquarters of evil, preserved in all its banality!
Sadly, no such luck. To my disappointment—that’s two—the buildings were razed long ago, and in their place stands a modern museum. No preservations of former offices. Instead, the place is full of bland descriptions of the history of the Gestapo, SS, Nazi Germany in general, how they treated their victims, etc., etc. Lots of photographs and text. Nothing that I haven’t read about or seen in countless History Channel documentaries. I know this stuff. I’ve seen it before. This is all history that we must know and never forget, but no need to repeat it so blandly in this format in this place.
What a wasted opportunity!
I started speeding through the museum as I often do when I lose interest. But something was gnawing at me: the solemn way people treated this place. The visitors were reading so slowly and walking so quietly, barely talking, hardly even whispering. They were behaving so reverently, as if the people who used to work and breathe here deserved any respect. Where’s the anger? Where’s the outrage?
I found it deep inside, and it needed to be expressed. I slowed down and started to peruse the exhibit. With great care, whenever I saw a picture of a Gestapo agent, I gave him the finger. Thoughtfully and gently, whenever the name of an SS official came up, I muttered “Fuck you.” Finger, fuck you. Finger, fuck you. I scrupulously walked along the displays in the center and along the walls, delivering “fucks” and raising fingers, occasionally adding a crossed-armed bras d’honneur, the Italian salute as mock Nazi gesticulation. No stopping to read about troop movements or truces; this was the trampling of war criminals with epithets. So that’s why this is a modern and plain museum—it’s a sterile mausoleum, and it gives us the chance to spit on the tombs of the evil dead, repaying them with the contempt they deserve. Catharsis by post-mortem disdain.
When I was done disrespecting, I sat down at the museum cafe—the Coffeeshop of Terror—and ordered a chai latte. I drank many of these on my trip, enjoying the sweetness of the tea. I asked the barista what the secret was—how was the tea so sweet? “Honey,” she said. Damn—I don’t like adding sugar to my drinks. My third disappointment. I would have to give these up. I slowly savored the final sweet drink of my trip, satisfied that at least I got to dance on the graves of the wicked.