Restoring Schönholz


A few weeks ago I finally went to visit the Soviet Memorial in the Schönholzer Heide in the northeast of Berlin. I first saw the landmark in the film “The Lives of Others” during the scene where the main character and his dissident friend seek out a spot to stroll and talk unobserved. I’ve been wanting to visit ever since.

Approaching the snow-covered obelisk and mourning Mother Russia statue on that gray winter afternoon proved every bit as cinematic as the scene in the film. Unfortunately you couldn’t get closer than 100 yards of the memorial because of the construction fences all around it. Stacks of tiles and scattered port-a-potties stood guard around Mother Russia, and the sign said restoration would be taking place until 2012.

Even from that distance, the Schönholzer memorial has a completely different atmosphere than the tank in the Tiergarten or the mighty monument in Treptow, which features a giant statue of a soldier crushing a swastika under a sword while rescuing an orphan child. The main statue at Schönholz is of a kneeling woman cradling her fallen son on her lap. It expresses loss and solemnity — intimations only amplified by the vacant, snow-covered surroundings that afternoon.

We walked around the perimeter but could see very little over the foreboding border wall, which still had the hooks for the banners and flags that must have once decorated it on ceremonious occasions. I wanted to sneak in, but since there are over 1,000 soldiers buried there, one must enter the place with a level of respect that is difficult to achieve when trespassing.

Still, I’d come a long way, and I didn’t think getting a closer look would cause any real harm as long as I was careful. Just outside the marble gates I found a gap in the fence wide enough to step through. I took a few steps and looked around before beating a hasty retreat, like a mouse scurrying back into its hole after getting the sudden sensation it isn’t safe. I peeked back around the construction trailer into the center courtyard. Now or never. I started back in only to look up and see this…

…a definite sign I should go no further.

So I went home. Like everyone else, I’ll just have to come back after the restoration is finished.

I suspect some of the drab, overgrown quality that attracts me to the place will be scrubbed away in the restoration process. Still, the Schönholzer Heide has been through a lot in the last 100 years, serving as a forest grounds, amusement park, internment camp, and today, a sled-friendly park sprinkled with monuments like the Soviet Memorial. It deserves to be seen in a new light.

Oranienstraße im Flammen

Here in Germany, they call New Year’s Eve “Silvester,” named after Sylvester I, who was Pope from 31 January 314 to 31 December 335. Each December 31 they celebrate the old Roman’s legacy — and the new year — by blowing up everything in sight (see my post from two weeks ago).

Below is yet another fireworks video, this time depicting a Silvester street scene on Oranienstraße, near Oranienplatz. We narrowly dodged a few rockets fired from the Kreuzberg Sportwettenbruecke, and thankfully managed to steer clear of the Mercedes that caught on fire over on Koepenickerstraße.

At midnight, under the relative shelter of the awning at the Santa Maria Mexican Diner, we sipped our beers and watched the city spark itself into a jubilant chaos. Rockets, flare guns, and sparklers, shot off by people on the streets and leaning out of upper-story windows. Quite noisy and fantastic. The only thing more impressive was the mess it left the next day.

‘Like hell comin’ out of the pavement’

I don’t upload a lot of things to YouTube, but it seems like when I do it’s always something about fireworks. Like this pyramid-of-snakes burning ritual in the parking lot at Herbert’s Mart strip mall, located squarely in the middle of Wayne County, Mississippi. While working in the fireworks stand there, Brian and I befriended a local high school graduate named Tom. Due to his athletic and amorous pursuits in and Waynesboro — most specifically that very strip mall parking lot in which we sat and drank beer — Tom had been dubbed “The King of Herbert’s Mart” by his peers. A widely recruited placekicker who was injured early in his senior season, Tom spent most of his time drinking beer, getting in fights, cruising the strip and fixing cars at WalMart. He was a welcoming and friendly guy, and told some amazing stories about life in Wayne County, which he called “The Land of Dreams.” I’ll share more about him another time. For now, some footage of the aforementioned smoldering snakepile, with commentary by the King of Herbet’s Mart himself…

Reichenberger Gasbeleuchtung

Walking down Reichenberger Straße, Adam and Rasto fall into a debate about whether the lamps are gas or electric. Adam says they are gas, and Rasto doesn’t believe him.

“Gaslamps have a certain sound,” Rasto says. He stops next to one of them to listen. “It sounds like gas,” he says skeptically.

We walk another block.

“If it’s gas, you should be able to make them turn on or off by kicking them,” Rasto says. He kicks a dark lamppost and watches it come on. He kicks another one and nothing happens. “It could be gas,” he says.

We keep on walking.

Adam then points out that gas lamps give off a warmer, more amber color. Rasto agrees and goes in for a closer look, stepping on top of a snow-covered bicycle to hoist himself halfway up the lamppost. He shakes the pole and watches the lamp-light flicker, his eyes lighting up with this brightness of his discovery.

And he yells:

“It’s fucking GAS!

(photo of the Gaslaternen Freilichtmuseum in the Tiergarten, which we visited last week. More Berliner gaslamp history here.)

The nutcracker and the virgin

At dusk on the outskirts of the makeshift ghost village that was the Leipziger Christmas Market, three workmen hoist a life-sized nativity statue of the Virgin Mary onto the back of a truck, right next to a giant grinning nutcracker encased in what looks like a plywood gingerbread coffin. The men struggle with the wobbling nutcracker, and though I’m tempted to yell “Sei vorsichtig mit dem heiligen Mutter!”* I can see that even if Mary’s co-passenger falters, her arms are stretched out as if ready to catch him.

(* “Be careful with the Holy Mother”)

Schneeballkerzenlicht

For some reason yesterday I decided to carry a snowball with me onto the U-Bahn on my one-stop ride from Bülowstraße to Gleisdreieck. There were security agents in the neighboring car, and though at least one of them noticed that I was packing cold (so to speak), she probably saw I was wearing dress pants and with a lady and decided I didn’t pose any serious threat. After we got off I threw the snowball at the tail end of the U-Bahn as it sped down the tracks, but I missed.

The inspiration, I suspect, was watching San Diego’s Philip Rivers torch the Kansas City Chiefs the week before. He has a really fluid, unusual release, more like a freestyle swim stroke than the traditional QB chop. If you could throw a snowball like Philip Rivers throws touchdowns I bet you could do a lot of damage in a snowball fight.

Speaking of snowball fights, there is an unusually large one looming on the New Years horizon here in Kreuzberg. Each year the districts of Kreuzberg and Neukölln face off in an epic snow-down in Görlitzer Park, just a few blocks from where we are staying. You can see a great video of it below.

The coming battle may help explain why I’ve seen so many youths walking around lobbing snowballs at unarmed and unsuspecting motorists and cyclists. They are just training for the big showdown.

Adding to the martial ambience, an early-arriving pallet of New Years feuerwerk must have fallen into the wrong hands, because the Turkish kids around Adalbertstrasse have been blowing these things up at all hours of the night. The piled-up snow and apartment buildings muffle and reflect the sound so that it sounds more like heavy artillery than the bang of a firecracker. Once in a while our heater chimes in with a clicking noise that sounds almost like the rattle of distant machine gun fire.

In short, anyone who thinks Berlin is still a demilitarized city probably either isn’t paying attention or does not live in and around SO-36.

But amid the darkness and violence of the German winter there is also light.

Last week at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Jenn and I were walking around the courtyard when a man asked for a light. He didn’t look like the type who usually asks for such things, and sure enough he carried my lighter over to the staircase where his son was waiting. Together they had erected a pyramid of snowballs on the concrete bannister of the steps. The man removed the top snowball, lit a tea light, and put the lid back on. The snowball lantern gave off a nice glow, and we all stood around it and stared at it for a while. The light probably only accounts for half a percent of the ambient light you see in this photo.

But, a little bit of Schneeballkerzenlicht goes a long way.

The drunken postcard

I made this at a print-your-own-postcard booth at Berlin’s Museum for Communication. The other available stamps were something like butterflies or flaming skulls, so there was little artistic decision involved except to keep inserting the card over and over, like a carnival punch card totaling up a few too many. I like the way the bottlenecks look almost like slanted steeples with a little cross on the top, somewhere between a hangover and morning mass. Reminds me of a line from Kerouac’s “Windblown World”: ”no one has consciously realized the tremendous significance of American weekends, from proud sartorial Saturday night with its millions of premonitions of triumph and happiness, to dark Sunday night with its sweet and terrified loneliness.”

Maybe not, Jack. But they would if they tried my new line of postcards. With Drunken Postcards, you can write anyone you want exactly what you’ve been wanting to say to them, without fear of reprobation. How? Easy. They’re written in disappearing ink, and never delivered. Like the opposite of Facebook, with the same exact color scheme. Old-fashioned and untraceable except for that stack of empties next to your notebook.

Not convinced? I can hardly blame you. I do, however, have an experiment which you are welcome to try at home — something I hit on entirely by accident last month while writing a stack of postcards that I’ve yet to buy postage for. If you want to dream about someone, write them a (real) postcard just before you go to sleep. Does it work? It did for me, but I’m curious what kind of results others come up with.