Letters From Minsk: Toward the Polish Corridor

The 7:20 a.m. train to Warsaw. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

This is the third in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

I spent less than 12 hours in Berlin, but had I stayed a week I am not sure I would have seen more. My train the next morning to Poznan, in Poland, was scheduled to leave at 7:20 a.m., so I chose a hotel that would give me the best night-time bike rides to and from the main station, a crystal palace that rises in a plain behind the renovated Reichstag.

I reserved a room in a small hotel (above a lively bar) in a residential section just north of Alexanderplatz, once the heart of East Berlin.

In this way I would get an evening ride past the Reichstag, along Unter den Linden, around Museum Island, and across the vestiges of the Berlin Wall. (Except in a few preserved stretches, the Wall itself has pretty much vanished, sold off to tourists in small plastic gift bags.)

Close to 10:30 p.m. in Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof—an Escher-like creation of many levels and moving stairs—I reassembled my folding bike (it flips open and shut like a jackknife), attached my panniers, and pedaled into the Berlin night—a ride, no matter how many times I do it, I find dramatic.

Berlin After the Wall

My first visit to Berlin (West and East) came a month after the Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989. At the time I was living in New York, but I had frequent work meetings in Europe, which were often arranged at the last minute.

I didn’t mind answering the fire bell and sliding down a corporate firehouse pole, but I never wanted to go to a meeting straight off an overnight flight from New York.

To fly in below the radar, so to speak, I would travel somewhere in Europe and spend 24 hours in a neutral city, before showing up to mean business. In this way, I could get over jet lag and over time discover (if only for a day) new cities across the continent, such as Lyon or, in this case, Berlin.

I picked Berlin for my layover in December 1989 because the Wall had just fallen, and its broken concrete was all over the evening news.

Even more convenient was that around the same time a neighbor in Brooklyn had moved back to Berlin, and she offered to drive me around the city, especially East Berlin.

There was a magic quality that December about being able to drive, unchallenged, through a hole in the Berlin Wall and to wander freely around the once forbidden city in the East.

Cold War Berlin Memories

I was seven years old when the wall went up in August 1961, and for my entire life I had watched grainy television feeds of desperate East Germans trying to escape over or under the wall.

The Wall was the symbol of the Cold War, not to mention the backdrop—so I assumed—to JFK’s famous speech, Ich Bin Ein Berliner (which translates into something that locally sounds like “I am a Danish” – a “Berliner” is a donut). It turns out that Kennedy made his remarks on the front steps of the Berlin City Hall, some distance from the Wall.

On that first trip to Berlin in 1989, I was more taken with East Berlin—a time-warped city with few modern high-rise buildings and many classical museums—than I was with the city in the West, which looked more like the Paramus Mall than a European capital.

In particular, on that first drive (in East Berlin) I saw where Hitler’s bunker had gone up in flames and the imperial majesty of Unter den Linden, Berlin’s Park Avenue, now lined with embassies, universities, and five-star hotels.

On this occasion, on my night bike ride to the Alexanderplatz hotel, I retraced much of my 1989 drive, beginning with a loop around the Reichstag, that which burned a month after Hitler came to power in January 1933, enabling him to declare martial law.

The Reichstag Fire

At the heart of Berlin (no matter what era), the Reichstag sits on a track of land adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate.

During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall snaked its way behind the Reichstag (keeping it in the West) and in front of the Gate, a line that now is edged in ceremonial bricks that weave across Berlin’s streets and sidewalks, to commemorate the scar of the Wall.

In the darkness I circled the Reichstag, which since 1989 has been renovated and serves as the seat of the unified German parliament. Its symbolic glass dome (glowing at night) is open for public tours.

Inside the building there are some panels dealing with the building’s history, including that of the fire, which may, or may not, have been the handiwork of Nazi arsonists (fire was one the party’s main weapons of governance).

I am not an expert on all the Reichstag fire theories, although I have a hard time believing that the Nazis were not playing with matches. But whoever lit the gas rags in the basement, the more salient fact is that Hitler—newly installed as Chancellor—seized on the flames as an act of communist sedition and ended German parliamentary government.

Describing the fire as “like opening the door of an oven,” author Julia Boyd (Travellers in the Third Reich) records this exchange between Daily Express correspondent Sefton Delmer and Hitler, who had rushed to the scene of the fire and was inspecting the damage (with mock horror): “Hitler then turned to him and said, ‘God grant that this be the work of the communists. You are now witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history, Herr Delmer. This fire is the beginning.’”

In his history Germany: 18661945, Stanford historian Gordon Craig writes:

The cause of the fire was, in any case, less important than the result. Hitler and Goering wasted no time in laying the deed at the doorstep of the Communist party and in using this charge to justify a crippling blow at what was left of the democratic system.

Hitler’s Bunker

From the Reichstag, I rolled through the Brandenburg Gate and stopped in front of the Adlon Hotel, which figures (almost literally) in every Cold War spy novel that ever moves through Berlin. For example, shadowy figures in Alan Furst’s and John Le Carré’s novels are endlessly meeting there for drinks.

In the 1930s and 40s, as it was near to the seat of the German government along the Wilhelmstrasse, the Adlon was something of a Nazi guest house. Now it’s a Kempinski five-star hotel, catering to deal-makers who arrive in late-model black sedans (more than, say, a rider on a folding bicycle giving it “a windshield” just before midnight).

Leaving the warm glow of the hotel façade, I turned right on Wilhelmstrasse and pedaled along what was once the corridor of power in the German government, especially when the Nazis were in power.

The Führerbunker was behind the Reich Chancellory (almost underneath it), which allowed Hitler to move undetected between the two locations. Now the bunker is a parking lot, and nearby there’s a take-out Chinese restaurant, part of Germany’s best efforts not to turn the last redoubt into a right-wing shrine.

One of the war’s ironies is that forever afterward Hitler was associated with the city of Berlin, when, in fact, most of his days in power were spent elsewhere.

Emotionally, Hitler was a citizen of Munich, where he had his main residence and where he came to power, and he frequented the lake and mountain district of the Austrian Salzkammergut, where he had the Berghof, his chalet. And during the war he was often in East Prussia, at the Wolf’s Lair, his forward operating base in Masuria, closer to the Russian front.

Only at the end of the war did Hitler spend blocks of time in Berlin, which bore the brunt of the last Russian offensive. Neither the Americans nor the British got there during the fighting, one reason the Cold War lasted so long. (As either Lenin or Marx said: “He who controls Berlin, controls Germany; and who controls Germany, controls Europe”—words the Russian party chairman Josef Stalin took to heart.)

It was a Russian patrol which came across the burnt-out Führerbunker and collected Hitler’s remains. The last of his ashes were flushed down a toilet in the East German city of Magdeburg in 1970.

Madman Theories of History

So did Germans follow Hitler or did Hitler follow Germany? In my readings I have come across both theories of the madman.

Gordon Craig writes: “In his biography of the Führer, Alan Bullock has written that Hitler’s career ‘did not exalt but debased the human condition, and his twelve years of dictatorship was barren of all ideas save one—the further extension of his own power and that of the nation with which he had identified himself’.”

The other Hitler is that of Ian Kershaw’s nearly endless two-volume biography, Hitler, subtitled “Hubris” and “Nemesis” (which ends with the Führer on his way down the drain in Magdeburg).

Kershaw’s Hitler is less a force of history and more someone who is enjoying the ride of German nationalism and xenophobia in the 1930s and 40s. Yes, he’s obsessed with power and hatred, and his anti-semitism dates to the early 1920s, but he’s also a dreamy Bohemian, up half the night boring his guests with endless rants about white supremacy while in the boiler rooms of the Third Reich worker bees and followers (who attribute to him a greatness that he doesn’t possess) are busy creating a vast army and police state according to his dinner-table whims.

Under the Lindens

From the Wilhelmstrasse, I rode back to Unter den Linden. Down the center of the of ceremonial wide boulevard there is a brick pedestrian walkway that doubles as a bicycle path (at least around midnight), and from that perch I took in the splendors of Berlin’s imperial architecture.

The grandest embassy belongs to the Russians—from the time (1945-89) when East Germany was a client state—but there are other Prussian palaces along the way, which now house embassies, insurance companies, banks, museums, and universities.

At the Babelplatz I paused long enough to look down into the illuminated crypts beneath the square that are now lined, symbolically anyway, with books, to memorialize Hitler’s book burning campaigns—a strange reaction for someone whose primary income in life came from the endless reprints of Mein Kampf. Julia Boyd writes:

…Goebbels’ next propaganda stunt must have given even enthusiasts pause for thought. The ceremonial burning of books in Germany’s thirty-odd university towns laid bare Nazi intentions, recalling Heinrich Heine’s famous words: ‘Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen [Where they burn books, they will end by burning people].’

It says something that books were burned beginning in May 1933, after which many “travellers” in Boyd’s account still looked at Germany through rose-colored glasses.

The Outline of German History

I was sorry that a little farther down the boulevard the Museum of German History was closed—to be fair, it was after midnight (although I travel under delusion that things will always be open when I am).

Some of my happiest moments in Berlin have been passed there in the well-organized exhibits that clarify, at least for me, Germany’s recent tortured history, especially the last two hundred and fifty years (from Napoleon to the Berlin Wall).

If you struggle with the outlines of German history (all those frontier wars that Bismarck fought with Denmark, Austria, and France, etc.), spend a few hours in this museum. Or pick up Craig’s history, which is succinct and well written. He explains the period from 1866 to 1945 with these words:

…throughout the short history of united Germany, the emphasis on power at the expense of the spirit had corrupted the values and stunted the political growth of the German people, so that they would tolerate both the irresponsible absolutism of William II and the crimes of the National Socialist regime…

Greek Shadows over Berlin

Just little past the history museum, I rode over a small bridge onto what is called Museum Island—an island in the River Spree—on which there is a collection of fine arts museums, including the Pergamon, a vast treasure of items looted from the empires of Greece, Rome, Persia, and Mesopotamia, among others.

I remember being bowled over with its grandeur when I first saw Museum Island in December 1989, even though it was covered in snow, ice, and slush. I had not expected something so monumental tucked behind the Berlin Wall. It inspired me, a few years later, to explore, along the rim of the Aegean Sea, the ruins in the Greek cities of Pergamon, Miletus, Priene, and Didyma—whose purloined artifacts line the island.

Driving along the Turkish and Greek coastlines, over the course of several trips, I reflected that the presence of so many Greek artifacts on Museum Island hadn’t prevented Germany from its long descent into absolutism—from Wilhelm II to the Stasi. Maybe the inspirational qualities of Greek columns are overblown?

Here’s what the classicist Edith Hamilton (take her books on your next Greek holiday, whenever that might be) wrote about Plato’s Academy:

The Academy did not save Athens. It had a long life, longer than any school there has ever been. When it was closed it had been in existence for nearly nine hundred years, but as far as our scanty knowledge goes it had no effect politically. No great and good leaders came from it, no philosopher-king to banish injustice and establish good government on earth. We do not know even of one who tried to do so. In politics the Academy was a failure and that fact would have condemned it in Plato’s eyes.

No wonder Museum Island didn’t soften the Third Reich.

Good Bye, Lenin!

Alexanderplatz, once at the center of East Berlin, is a cavernous, wind-swept public space of socialist realism that even on a bicycle is tricky to navigate, given the confluence of tram lines, street lights, and speeding cars, and by the time I got there—in the cold of a March night—I was eager to get to my hotel.

I did, however, linger long enough to remember a previous trip to Berlin (in 2013) when I went with my younger son to the former Stasi headquarters nearby (lots of wigs, old trench coats, typewriters, and crude devices to steam open letters) and there bought a copy of Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, an engaging book that well describes the social condition in Germany that is called “Ostalgie”—nostalgia for the old East Germany, not unlike that in the film Good Bye, Lenin!

Of the Stasi Funder writes: “Laid out upright and end to end, the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women would form a line 180 kilometres long.” Sounds like the USA Patriot Act and the National Security Agency.

The Russians Rape Berlin

I didn’t pay much for my Berlin hotel, but I didn’t need much, as all I did was sleep there fitfully until 6:15 a.m. and bike back to the station to catch the 7:20 a.m. train to Poznan, across the River Oder in Poland. There I would lay over for about two hours and catch another train to Wroclaw, formerly Breslau, the Silesian city that was German until the ethnic cleansing that came at the end of World War II (when Poles from the east evicted Germans, who trudged west).

Needless to say, on a weekday in March, the first-class carriage on the morning express from Berlin to Warsaw was empty, although a porter pushing a snacks wagon gave me coffee and a biscuit. (I had actually bolted a quick breakfast at the hotel, which opened its restaurant at 6 a.m..)

On the train ride east, I had my eyes out for the Seelow Heights (the last set-piece battle in 1945, before the Russians swept into Berlin), but the train veered to the south and Frankfurt an der Oder, so all I could see out the train window were clumps of forested land and rolling hills to the north.

In the battle, the Russians attacked straight into the German-defended high ground, which cost them some 100,000 casualties (killed and wounded). Russian infantry tactics varied little from those in World War I, except they had better armor.

After the Seelow Heights were turned, Berlin lay open to the advancing Russians, and if you ever want to read about the Russian occupation in 1945, get a copy of A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary written by “Anonymous,” which is the horrific story of Russian rape and brutality after taking the city and which raises the difficult questions of whether the Germans deserved such treatment or not.

According to one estimate, Russian troops committed 100,000 rapes while they were in Berlin, but I suspect that’s a low figure.

The book was first published anonymously in English in 1954, and five years later in a German edition, which was widely criticized for “dishonoring” German women by describing what they had endured during the Russian occupation.

It turned out that the writer was a German journalist by the name of Marta Hillers.

By the 1960s Hillers had married, left journalism, and moved to Geneva, Switzerland. Tired of the scorn, she refused to allow another edition of her book to be published in her lifetime, which ended in 2001.

In her Berlin diary of summer 1945, she writes of her prewar life as a foreign correspondent and of the Russian occupation (there was little food or water, and many predators ogling the women, of all ages). HIllers survived by taking a senior Russian commander as her lover, just to keep the other “wolves” from her door.

A Woman in Berlin is a description of degradation and violence, and at another level it is a philosophical meditation on the war’s aftermath, in which she writes:

I’ve seen Moscow, Paris, and London, among other cities, and experienced Bolshevism, Parliamentarianism, and Fascism close up, as an ordinary person among ordinary people. Are there differences? Yes, substantial ones. But from what I can tell the distinctions are mostly ones of form and coloration, of the rules of play, not differences in the greater or lesser fortunes of common people, which Candide was so concerned about. And the individuals I encountered who were meek, subservient, and uninterested in any existence other than the one they were born to didn’t seem any unhappier in Moscow than they did in Paris or Berlin—all of them lived by adjusting their souls to the prevailing conditions.

Poznan – The Jerusalem of Poland

From my train compartment I took a picture of the River Oder—one of Europe’s natural frontiers (in school history books it is often called the Oder-Neisse Line)—but the girders on the rail bridge blurred the image, much as, when I was writing my school papers about German history, I blurred the fact that I was unsure where the Oder or the Neisse rivers flowed. (The answer should have been: “In the direction of European conflict…”)

My train left me in Poznan at 10:36 a.m., which was enough time for me to reserve a seat on the Wroclaw train (Polish trains still require reservations) and to bike around Poznan, once billed as the Jerusalem of Poland. Until the Treaty of Versailles, it was the German city of Posen.

As my goal that day was Wroclaw more than Poznan, I had not planned specific stops around town. In a somewhat random way, I biked around the cobblestones that played havoc with the small 14-inch wheels on my folding bicycle.

At the center of Poznan is a rebuilt old town (like that in Warsaw), with faux gingerbread town houses and cathedral spires. Architecturally Poznan is a mixed metaphor: next to classical German-Polish buildings there are empty parking lots and modernist (read ugly) strip malls.

World War II destroyed the old Jewish cemetery, and during the war years the Germans transformed one synagogue into an army rest center and swimming pool (the Nazis called it a “swimagogue”).

At least on the bike, I could not find much that has survived from the Polish Jerusalem other than the New Synagogue, which was renovated in about 2011.

The rest of Jewish Poznan is in what Professor Marysia Galbraith calls “fragments,” a word that might also describe what remains of Jewish culture in Poland (very little and all in pieces).

Poland’s Community of Memory

I listened to Professor Galbraith, from the University of Alabama, that night on my computer, when I googled “Jewish Poznan” and came up with her web site, “Uncovering Jewish Heritage,” on which there is a lecture that she delivered, based on a 2015 Fulbright scholarship, about searching for Jewish cultural roots (including her own) in Poznan.

In describing Poland’s missing Jews, and how they are remembered (or not) these days, Galbraith speaks of “the absence of memory,” to make the point that in cities such as Poznan, those who built over the remains of Jewish culture had very little knowledge of what had been there before.

They, themselves, were often new to the area, having been displaced during the war, which explains how modern Poznan could so easily build parking lots and apartment complexes over the layers of Jewish Poland, which dated to the 13th century.

At the same time Galbraith advances the concept of “postmemory,” to describe the interests of those, one or two generations later (including herself), who are slowly coming back to Poland to search for what might remain of their families, ancestral towns, and cities—a form of social archaeology.

I felt drawn to Galbraith’s “community of memory,” as she calls “the search” in her lecture, even though none of my family came from Poland. There was a warmth to her ideas that otherwise was missing in Poznan on a late winter’s day.

Next: Wroclaw and Warsaw. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.