Historical Memory at a Christmas Market in Berlin

When I go to Berlin for work, in my spare time I like to visit the historical sites of the 20th century: the Holocaust Memorial, sometimes the Stasi museum, the Wannsee villa where the conference on the annihilation of the European Jews was held. But what I never fail to visit is the book burning memorial on Bebelplatz.

On a cold, sunny day earlier this winter, I walked from the Holocaust Memorial along the centrally located Unter den Linden avenue. Along the way I stopped at a stand with Ukrainian flags and folklore items; from there you could send money to support various causes in that war-torn country. Before reaching the Bebelplatz, on my left I spotted the building of the Humboldt University, formerly the 1945 Friedrich Wilhelm University, from where – on May 10, 1933 -students and professors came out to burn books on the small square across the avenue. Some 20,000 books were burned that day, among them works by Thomas Mann, Heinrich Heine, Erich Maria Remarque, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

As I approached the Bebelplatz, somewhat hidden behind the Opera House, I remembered Heinrich Heine’s quote from his play Almansor, engraved on a nearby memorial plaque: “This was only the prelude. Where books are burned, people end up being burned.”

As I arrived at my destination I thought I had lost my way. In place of the cobblestone square that is usually empty, allowing the subterranean monument stand out, there was a Christmas market. I wanted to enter, but some guards blocked my way claiming that the market was not yet open to the public. I explained that I was going to see the monument and these men, who by the looks of them came from different parts of the world, shrugged. I insisted that I wished to see the monument and then they called over a colleague who, at last, accompanied me to the center of the square, circumventing the stalls with Santa Claus hats and Christmas sweets. I didn’t understand why he left me in front of a gigantic multicolored bear with a coat of shiny lacquer. Only when I looked closely beyond the bear, I discovered the underground monument I was looking for, one square meter covered with transparent glass, installed by Israeli artist Micha Ullmann. It was protected by fences to keep the influx from the street market from stepping on it, which made it look like a sewer under construction. Vendors at nearby stalls were arranging the gold and red decorations, preparing the mulled wine, frying the spicy pork skewers for when the flea market would open, while through the glass of the monument, I strained to make out the sunken library with its empty shelves.

Several questions assailed me: perhaps the present always imposes itself and irremediably sweeps away the past? Should we forget history and surrender ourselves to the happy moments of our current experience? But then, how could we keep our memory, that irreplaceable asset?

The custodian interrupted my thoughts with another question: “Did you like it?” I hesitated: the chilling emptiness of the library brought many different thoughts to mind. But the young man then accompanied his question with an all-encompassing arm gesture that embraced the entire market: “I’m Turkish but I love Christmas.”

I smiled at him, and as I walked away from the monument with mixed feelings, a cotton candy vendor thrust a thin stick with a big sweet pink cloud on it, into my hand.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)