"and the room comes to life only when it is entered"
Near our hostel, tangles of children squeal and laugh in playgrounds that look more like punk squats, seductive webs of graffiti-painted wood, spindly metal and frayed rope. The sidewalk cafes teem vivaciously as patrons converse over vast breakfasts washed down with cup after cup of coffee or tall glasses of amber beer. During early evenings burnished peach, Niva and I stroll bare-armed, past nightclubs, dimly lit, verdant parks and landmarks whose shapes become indistinct as darkness approaches. It is August 2001: Berlin is beautiful-lively.
In a predominantly Turkish neighborhood, Niva and I encounter hospitality, Kurdish-style. After a late lunch, we are treated to espresso, then mint tea served in tiny gilt-embossed glasses, honey-sticky dessert, and finally more tea, vielen Danken, as the chef, the chef's brother, and the waiter converse with us, haltingly in stubs of German and English thrown out unto the table between leisurely swallows of cigarette smoke.
There's a photograph of us; snapped in poor lighting, we are blurry impressions of a moment that is irrecoverably history....
Later that night, Niva describes the grandfather who, as a young man, fled Berlin a few days after being brutally beaten; the family he left behind would soon be consigned to the death camps.
Wandering around in the Jewish Quarter, I think, It was in these streets where they labored and loved and lived.
Here, we stumble upon the Missing House, an installation dramatizing the absence of place by French artist Christian Boltanski. Created on the site of a bombed-out house, it is an empty space between houses, a sudden abscess in an otherwise serene cityscape, an abyss in history made apparent by plaques inscribed with the names and occupations of its former inhabitants, all of whom were Jewish.
Around the corner, grass grows spiky in the shadows of oaks, on a plot of earth that used to be a cemetery. Zealously intent on accomplishing the directive to get rid of all the Jews--including dead ones--within the capital of the Third Reich, the Gestapo had all the bodies dug out and discarded elsewhere. Our guide tells us that during warm months, hapless visitors loll and picnic here, incognizant of its grotesque history.
Later, on the plaza where the Nazis had burned thousands of books, we look down, past our shoes, into the Empty Library: under a square of clear plate-glass, barren shelves glow luminescent. It's so eerie, especially as tourists, speaking in a confusion of tongues, point and snap shots....
Do ghosts exist? In Berlin, I was so often reminded of the missing, all these absent places and bodies and stories. Maybe that's why closed eyes and shuttered windows in photographs creep me out so much; I don't know what lies behind them.
Niva's grandfather never returned. Who could bear the awareness of space no longer lived in, of a geography haunted by the total destiny of an extremist ideology? The words safety and home had been permanently destroyed. Stories and bodies had been burned and gassed, forcibly removed from the body of a nation, leaving behind ephemeral traces, photographs and newspaper articles yellow with age, the recorded voice of a survivor crackling lonely in a barrack at Schoenhausen.
That voice, belonging to an unknown woman in an unknown language, followed me out of the concentration camp, into the surrounding suburbs, and unto the U-Bahn. It persisted to haunt me on the plane, above the Atlantic Ocean, seeping into my dreams, to entangle itself with the voices of my parents, who had left Cambodia in the early 1970s, before genocide blossomed virulently under Khmer Rouge rule. Although I had joined the living again, in the lively cities of late summer, the sounds my ears filtered seemed less sure, even hesitant; the voice assured me that this, the sounds of the living, could not last.
Certainly after the World Trade Center fell and hysteric militant discourse bloomed wildly, I thought about what I had witnessed in Berlin, the living and the missing, both existing, uneasily, together. Then and now, I knew: despite a multitude of testaments--memorials, the warnings repeated in paper and film, shoes without owners, voices searching for final resting places--such horror could surely thrive again.