BERLIN – At the entrance of the family-friendly Christmas market in the neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin, the difference in vibe between tonight and previous nights could already be felt the minute one walked through the brick corridor leading into the large courtyard.
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A sign at the entrance offered condolences to the victims and stated that the market would go on, in consultation with police, but tonight without music, to honor those who died in the car ramming attack the night before, on December 19.
Normally, a market-goer here wouldn’t see any security guards, not because the market doesn’t employ any, but because the guards would go unnoticed in the crowded rush. This place normally gets packed in the hours after work, with friends and families forming long lines at the stands for gluhwein (mulled wine), hot chocolate, Berlin’s famous wursts (sausages) and rides for the children.
The trampoline was still in use, but the merry-go-round in the center of the courtyard was eerily off.
At around 4:30 p.m., with just a few people entering at a time, a private security guard who wished to remain anonymous had time to talk. He said the amount of security at Christmas markets – at least those that are open – had doubled tonight. He pointed to policemen walking by, noting that they only starting carrying machine guns instead of pistols today. Now all backpacks are subject to inspection, a security measure all too common at public places in Israel, as the guard acknowledged.
Initially, the people he stopped to check were taken aback, but then very understanding and cooperative.
If anyone wanted to come to this Christmas market at the Kulterbraueri (named such for being converted into a cultural center from a historic brewery), tonight actually would have been a good night. Normally, it’s difficult just to make it across the courtyard without bumping into other people. Now, people were free to roam; there were no lines for that wurst or karttofelpuffer, Germany’s fried potato pancake. But the good cheer that normally accompanies this market, even amid the crowds, was missing. A few people declined to be interviewed, saying they weren’t in the mood.
“No comment,” said one German woman. “It’s too soon.”
Enjoying a drink with two friends, Sebastian, a Berliner who now lives in Hungary, says he doubted coming here tonight only for a moment.
“I was in the city yesterday evening and using public transportation and I was sitting in the train, and I was thinking about it, but I’m not scared,” he said.
He still feels safer using public transportation than a car, believing that statistically people are more prone to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack.
His friend, Levi, expresses a theme common to the market-goers who agreed to be interviewed: Since the July 15 car ramming at the Bastille Day parade in France, it was only a matter of time until Germany would be hit as well.
“I think everybody has to be afraid, in general, because any country could be a target,” said Levi.
Fabian, entering the market to buy a gift, didn’t think twice about coming tonight.
“Of course, now there is more thinking about all that stuff, but we’ve seen terrorist attacks in France and elsewhere in the world, and it was clear that the big cities, and especially Berlin, were attack points,” he said.
At 5:30 p.m., more people started streaming in, and the friendly security guard was busier checking bags, but the market was still abnormally under capacity. “Germans love Christmas markets,” the guard said, adding that it’s a centuries-old tradition.
“You can’t come in with your beer bottle,” he told one woman, who was surprised. This, too, was a new measure.
A group of gay friends wanted to go to the mass Christmas market at the tourist landmark, Alexanderplatz, at first, but to their surprise, its lights were off. Besides, this market felt safer since it is enclosed; no chance of a truck ramming through it.
Robert, whose partner is Jewish, noticed that the city was more somber, the streets emptier. He, too, thinks terrorist attacks are to be expected, regardless of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s controversial refugee policy.
“One hundred percent safety is not a given and was never a given in the last 2,000 to 3,000 years,” he said. He then struck a defiant tone, to which terrorism-weary Israelis could relate.
“It’s an attack on our security, our community, so I will not give a place to terrorist attacks. I will go to Christmas markets.”
Toward 6 p.m., the loudspeaker announced another new tradition to which Israelis are also familiar: a moment of silence to honor the fallen.
And so, at 6 p.m., at Christmas markets across Germany, the night was silent and still.