Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Everybody loves a holiday. For most people Christmas seems to be when their year “peaks” – it is their favourite time of all seasons. I belong to a much smaller fraction of those who could easily forgo the tree, the food and the presents (but do not quote me on the last one) but are dead unhappy if deprived of a chance properly to celebrate All Saints Day. I look forward to November 1st and rejoice in looking at burning cemetery candles more than I do in Santa’s coming to town.
This year, to my great despair, it was not possible to go to Poland and celebrate the day the way I used to in all these “formative years”: donning proper winter clothes (outfit laid out by my mum several days before that and completed by winter boots freshly polished to perfection – courtesy of my dad), getting on the train to travel fifteen miles to my little home town (the place where I was born but sadly could not grow up in), walking to the cemetery and entering what to me was short of paradise.
An old burial ground inherited by Polish town council from its pre-WW2 German equivalent and still full of dark corners with tombstones bearing inscriptions of foreign-sounding names carved out in exotic-looking fonts. Nearly all of the graves were overgrown and clearly abandoned. Some of them were open and anyone reckless and curious enough (like a certain kid I knew) could look inside them. You just had to be careful not to fall in. Or to trip over pieces of broken tombstones strewn around the grounds in the dark.
Or to be caught being curious by grown-ups who came to light tiny lights on the abandoned graves of those whose families had to leave them behind when the last frosty, bloody wave of war had swept over this town. The Germans from Schlawe, today’s Sławno (the place where I was born twenty seven years later) vanished without a trace – or with none but for the pieces of stone that to me still whispered their oddly hard-sounding names: Irrrrmgarrrrd, Rrrrreinhard, GOTTlieb, Trrrrraudel. Back then I had no idea that the same whispers could be heard in so many other places, in so many other tongues, reminding the living – with their ghostly eerie persistence – of the evil unleashed by people upon people.
I did not fear them. I was afraid of the dark and of what could have lurked inside it but I think that instinctively I was not afraid of the dead but of the living (I didn’t know back then that a small boy was abducted and vanished forever just 100 metres away from where I usually went).
Exploring this abandoned cemetery while only a stone’s throw away from me hundreds, maybe thousands of people were singing in unison their hymns during the Catholic mass celebrated on Polish burial grounds that day, is a priceless childhood memory. Mingling among the gathered crowds, being so small that I basically went unnoticed and remained undisturbed, taught me the pleasure of observation. Uninvolved and invisible like a ghost yet curious and with need to learn and understand like a human. Until today my favourite way of interacting with the world.
Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go where all of us should go today (especially in Berlin with its 220 cemeteries, 181 of which are still in use): to light a candle on somebody’s grave and to mingle with the dead.