If I’m honest about it, I was never grabbed by books about history when I was younger. I found it hard to connect personally with what I read in their pages — stories about people long gone, in places with strange names, seeming to exist only in two dimensions. Then, one day during C-block history, we started a new chapter, and suddenly, the words on the page leapt to life. Two dimensions became three, and the story became one I felt myself in the middle of. And that was all because I had traveled to the place where it happened.
It was bitterly cold in Berlin that Sunday. The shops were closed and the late afternoon light was losing its heat, as my family and I trudged around a part of town that most tourists never visit. My grandmother was leading us — my parents, my brother and me — searching for an address she knew by heart but had never been to in person. Every street looked like the one before, lined with three story buildings whose paint was cracking and whose windows looked glued shut.
We turned a corner. My grandmother looked down at the map in her hand and said “we’re here.” An iron fence separated the sidewalk from the apartment building. With a mittened hand my grandmother gave the front gate a gentle push, and stepped forward. She removed the mitten, and pressed the doorbell for the ground floor apartment.
I heard the soft voice of a woman answer in German through the crackling speaker system, and I heard my grandmother explain both simple and momentous: that this had been the house her parents lived in before the Nazis drove her family out. And then the humble woman that I always knew my grandmother to be apologized for the intrusion, but also asked if it would be possible just to step inside the building for a moment, just the front lobby and no more.
That’s how I found myself standing at the foot of a staircase that once echoed to the footsteps of my mother’s mother’s mother. I looked down and saw a stonework floor that had not changed in a century. I aimlessly ran my fingers across a row of mailboxes and let them linger there. I breathed in the smell of the building.
We only stayed a few minutes and then my grandmother thanked the woman. We returned to our hotel and had a good dinner of German food that night.
That journey through Berlin hit me in a way I never expected the day I began studying Nazi Germany three years later at school. Now, when I read the words on the page, I felt as though I was there, because in a real way I had been. More than that, I could see how time had changed things too. I saw that history was the reason a German woman opened her door to a family of strangers. Going there, experiencing that, gave me hope and comfort, and the understanding that stories about people long gone, in places with strange names, are stories about a world that I belong to after all.
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