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Horror and hope in Berlin

Berlin calls - our writer discovers a resurgent Jewish community in the German capital, as she explores its past on a visit with her son

Make hummus, not walls. That’s the motto of Berlin’s uber-trendy hangout Hummus & Friends.

Started by Israeli brothers Amir and Eran Yatzkan, the kosher bar and restaurant is invariably packed with people enjoying the “best ever” dip, according to my eldest son Benji, a 13-year-old hummus aficionado.

It’s just one of his highlights on our mother-son city break. We had few requirements — beyond practising his German and sampling some of the authentic German food he’d heard so much about.

But to label our five days a journey of discovery would be an understatement. Away from the routine of daily life, Benji and I discovered a new side to our relationship and a connection with a city neither of us had imagined.

The former nerve centre of the Nazi regime, Berlin was carved up by the Allies in 1945. The city took years to recover, even after reunification in 1989, but has now reinvented itself as a thriving European centre for all things cooler than cool.

I hoped to get a glimpse of this first hand, while simultaneously bonding with my usually screen-obsessed son. There was another reason this trip meant so much: after attending a Jewish primary, Benji has spent the last two years in a local grammar. What he gains there in worldly perspective comes at the cost of Jewish education.

Here, Jewish heritage and the growing resurgence of the Jewish community appear almost hand in hand — Hummus & Friends is testament to the latter, not least due to the huge number of Israelis in Berlin.

Right next door is a reminder of its once glorious past at the New Synagogue with its stunning dome and stained glass windows. Inch closer, and a plaque recalls that this was one of many Jewish buildings targeted on Kristallnacht. Standing in a spot where hatred rampaged sent shivers down my spine. I had to go inside.

Formerly the jewel in the crown of Berlin’s Jewish community, the shul was built to seat 3,200 congregants. Today, however, it is largely a facade with an adjoining museum.

We walked in silence, observing the relics discovered in the ruins of the bombed out shul. Having recently celebrated his bar mitzvah, I noticed Benji moved to tears at evidence of the last pre-war simchahs held here.

Nearby hung a large photograph of a recent wedding at the shul. Until now I struggled to understand Jews who chose to live in Berlin, surrounded by ghosts of our ancestors.

But far from not caring, this reborn Jewish community has returned to prove we survived and continue to thrive.

Old and new brush alongside each other throughout the city. Our first two nights were spent at a youth hostel in a huge old building, formerly a fashion school.

At the more mature end of the clientele, I was apprehensive about noisy nights and dirty dorms, but we shared a clean and spacious private room — although once Benji realised his street cred was compromised by a) his age, and b) his mother, he agreed to trade in the hostel buzz for the luxury of hotel anonymity.

Housed in Berlin’s former Siemens building, the Movenpick is a great base for the city’s key landmarks, and much needed respite for tired heads and feet — marketing itself as the place for a good night’s sleep, something my teenage son finally appreciates. 

Besides its own pillow menu, the room featured mattresses adaptable to your own specification. The experience is rounded off with eye masks, ear plugs, lavender pads and black-out stickers for the red glow of TVs and gadgets.

And clock up those footsteps we did, as we crammed in the best of Berlin. Where once Hitler had paraded his fearsome might, we posed beneath the Brandenburg Gate. Then over to the awe-inspiring Holocaust Memorial, a poignant reminder to all those who perished.

The city is awash with reminders of its past. Outside the Friedrichstrasse station is a bronze memorial entitled Trains to Life – Trains to Death. It commemorates the thousands of Kindertransport children rescued, as well as the 1.6 million who perished.

Opposite our hotel stood another station with a preserved but crumbling gateway. As subway trains rumbled underfoot, we read about the shameful history of the Anhalter Bahnhof, from where thousands of Jews were deported to Theresienstadt.

From here it is a short walk to the imposing Jewish Museum, designed by Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind. Would this be one step too far for my sensitive boy, who had already bawled his eyes out at the sight of a lion confined to a tiny enclosure in Berlin’s world famous zoo?

Fortunately not. This unmissable museum isn’t there to sledgehammer home the Holocaust. Instead, the superb institution dedicates itself to exploring the past, present — and future — of Berlin’s Jewish community.

Benji’s initial trepidation was soon replaced by fascination, as an audio tour led us around the highs and lows of Berlin’s Jewish story.

Beyond the doors of the museum, fast forward several years to the Cold War. East and West were starkly divided at Checkpoint Charlie, but today men dressed as soldiers stand guard and charge for selfies, while nearby vendors sell replica gas marks.

Benji had just enough appetite for one more slice of history, bypassing further monuments in favour of the spy museum, which embraces technology to tell the adrenaline-fuelled story of this once divided city. A shooting umbrella and bra camera held his last bit of attention, as did a slick exhibition on today’s cyber spy threat.

If our trip sounds like educational overload, think again. Berlin has much to offer, especially for young people. The city is plastered in bright and brazen street art, not least along the remnants of the once formidable Berlin Wall. We walked for miles, taking in the magnificent murals, many of which were sadly preserved behind vandal-proof fences.

With almost 300 shops, The Mall of Berlin provided some much-needed retail therapy for my culturally overloaded son.

And Berlin met more than just my expectations — from the hummus onwards.

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