Bullet holes still dot the walls outside the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. My hands grazed the indentations in the columned exterior of the museum. Closing my eyes, I could almost hear the cries of guns as their lethal projectiles hurtled through the air. I wondered why the Germans had left one of their most renowned museums covered in reminders of their past. Only twenty-five years ago Berlin stood divided by a wall, and after demolishing it, the Berliners placed bricks into the streets where the Berlin Wall stood to remember their partitioned city. In America, we tend to overlook the less admirable parts of our relatively short history. I felt baffled as to why the Germans, with their perturbed 20th century history, preserve their troubled past.
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Led by Kevin, a local guide, our group weaved its way past the Reichstag, the scene of a battle at the end of World War Two during which thousands of soldiers gave their lives for their countries. My greatest surprise occurred at the site where Adolf Hitler spent his final days before killing himself. I thought no German would want anything to do with it and that they would feel too embarrassed to even go near it. In fact, Kevin informed us that hundreds of Germans live in apartments not one hundred feet from where Hitler died.
In Germany, history builds on itself; I felt suffocated by stories about the awful and beautiful things that occurred in the same place at different times. For example, the Brandenburg Gate once stood as a monument to the Prussians, was claimed by the French, used in Hitler’s propaganda, stood meters away from the wall that divided Berlin, and currently stands a symbol of a reunified Germany. History contains complicated stories with fascinating elements, but we cannot forget the more tarnished part of our story.
After Berlin we drove to Dresden, which the Allies firebombed in World War Two and killed thousands of people. Buildings retain the dark shadows of fire, either awaiting repair or standing as a reminder of the darker days of war. While my friend and I walked through the sleepy town through the cleansing smell of lightly falling rain, my history teacher met a woman who talked to him about the bombing. He apologized for the devastation and death our country caused hers. She simply replied, “You had to.”
Waiting in the bus to go to Poland, our group let out a communal moan as a boy announced he had lost his backpack in a gift shop. We stayed in Dresden on that bus for over forty minutes, late for our arrival in Krakow. While sitting there, I noticed a car pull up with streamers and cans on the ground in back of it. Five minutes later, a bride and groom walked out arm in arm and drove away in their car. Hearing the church bells ring, I thought about the changes time brings. Seventy years ago Berlin and Dresden barely existed after World War Two; today they stand like a phoenix that has risen from the ashes. As our bus finally pulled away, I closed my eyes and smelled the clean, fresh German air we were leaving behind.
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