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Solitary Interactions

After days of rain, I wake up to a blast of sunshine peeking through our hostel blinds, rudely awakening me far before my alarm. I roll out of my bunk, trying to avoid waking the other girls in my room. I stumble into the bathroom and let out a shrill laugh upon looking at my appearance. This is my second day in Berlin but third month abroad and I am worse for the wear. My hair is terribly outgrown, skin burnt from the hot Croatian sun, and every single article of clothing permanently wrinkled from being shoved further and further into my backpack. Nothing left to do but shrug and accept that this is the best it will possibly get.

I head downstairs to the hostel lobby, which is essentially a bar converted into a breakfast nook for the few hours before it is socially acceptable to start drinking. Hoping to get an impossibly rare moment of alone time, I quickly snag some fruit and coffee and head to a tucked away booth. I cannot even take my first sip of coffee before my professor Mike approaches with a hearty smile. I muster a half-smile and make some grudging statement about the soccer game the night before. He saunters off to get breakfast, and before I know it, the entire lobby has been overtaken by our pack of twenty. We are a small but mighty bunch. With a wild mix of personalities magnetically drawn together, we become the resounding source of noise within minutes. I cannot help but to join in the raucous debate about who has the craziest story from the night before.

Vera, our other professor, approaches to gather the troops. In usual fashion, we are already causing her to run late. Walking a mile a minute, we all break into a slow run in an ever-failing need to please our “abroad parents.” We wind through the streets of Berlin, stopping periodically at various monuments and memorials. Mike and Vera eventually lead us through Alexanderplatz to the Fernsehturm Berlin, or the TV Tower. There, we see rows and rows of bikes, each complete with a bumblebee squeakie toy and a corresponding Game of Thrones name for each bike. Having never seen Game of Thrones, I hopped on the “Night King” and took him for a spin. Within minutes it became clear that my “throner” classmates found it abundantly hilarious that I had somehow chosen the most hated and villainous bike option. Sticks and stones I suppose.

So off we go, through the streets of Berlin, Vera leading the charge of our bike brigade. I am relegated to the back for my unfortunate choice in neon windbreakers, which made the end of our lineup easy to spot. Being in the back affords me the luxury of taking my time to observe the beautiful mix of old and new that comprises the Berlin skyline. After visiting the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, we make our way to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

As we park our bikes, and approach the abundance of variably shaped grey blocks, my mind is full of preconceived notions about this memorial. The name “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” has always felt lackluster to me. By failing to mention the Holocaust or the German fault in these murders, the memorial feels impersonal. Trying to push these thoughts away, I focus on the sight in front of me.

Acres and acres of land, thousands and thousands of concrete blocks, and I am terrified to enter this labyrinth. The ground holding these stelaes rippled and waved, making the walk through the blocks incredibly precarious and dizzying. The stones greatly differ in size, starting at only knee-high, and then suddenly towering over you. I walk down the wavy path, unsure of which direction to head first. I wander through the slabs, reflecting on the symbolism, and the people represented by these cubes. I am startled out of this reflective stream of consciousness by the shriek of a child above me, jumping from block to block. I look around and notice that I am smack in the middle of a game of hide-and-go-seek tag. Even mom has joined in the fun.

I entered the memorial knowing full well that this sort of abuse is typical. I expected children to see acres of cement blocks and want to play, but the parents? This is an incredibly famous memorial, so there is no excuse about not knowing what this art installation is for. I shake my head, dismayed by the utter disrespect and disregard for the seriousness of this memorial. I continue on, trying to remind myself to tune out what is going on around me. Determined to have my own experience of the memorial, I wind through more blocks, attempting to ignore the laughter and noises of playing behind me. I round a corner and am faced with a young couple. They are pressed against the blocks, passionately kissing. She moves to kiss his neck, and I make eye contact with this man. I shoot him a look of disgust.

I am walking quickly, practically running with hot tears streaming down my cheeks. I am horrified. This couple must know of the millions murdered, symbolized on this plot of land. I am dizzy and claustrophobic, unable to find my way out of this maze, tripping on the uneven ground. I finally emerge back into the bright sunlight, winded and overwhelmed.

I mount my bike and just as I am pushing off, several of the boys on my program poke fun at me, trying to make me smile off the experience. While I normally appreciate these jests, they were making comments about how the memorial is part of the public, so it is inevitably going to be treated as a park. At this point, I am exhausted. I have lost my usual fighting spirit, and just let their comments slide over me.

I find it challenging to not resent my fellow classmates. There is immense camaraderie among my group, but as one of two Jews, there is also an unaddressed tension. Is it because of my Jewish identity that I am so sensitive to the treatment of this memorial? Is it because I think of names and faces when I see these blocks? What does everyone else see?

This drawing is meant to visually represent my understanding of the memorial. The background features the blocks of the memorials; however, I replaced several of the wall sides with lines from the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew. The Mourner’s Kaddish is a prayer said in Jewish tradition to commemorate the loss of a loved ones. Because these blocks are meant to represent the millions of Jews murdered, it only seemed right to symbolize this memorial with prayer in their memory. Overlapping the memorial is a self-portrait. I purposefully made it abstract and incomplete because of the uncertainty I was left with upon leaving the memorial. I am still working through the anger and sadness, represented through the confused, knotted line which complete the self-portrait.

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