Call it fate. Call it coincidence – but if something is meant to happen it does. I had been itching to see Berlin ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with the memory of close family murdered during the Holocaust, I could never actually bring myself to purchase a ticket to anywhere in Germany.
But in August, I finally relented when I was invited to Berlin to see what the Israeli-owned company Milestone Real Estate was doing to improve the quality of life for residents of the city while simultaneously making money for Israeli and other investors.
Milestone founder and CEO Avi Shaked who has been living in Berlin for five years, knows the city inside out. Accompanied by his Israeli lawyer Guy Segalovitch who is on a twice-a-month commute between Tel Aviv and Berlin, Shaked piled us into his sleek black van, replete with refreshments and built-in containers for cups and bottles and drove us all over the city, pointing out historic and memorial sites and relating the background to each with the relaxed professionalism of a tour guide.
Berlin has been good to and for Shaked, and showing his guests the beauty of the city is his means of reciprocity. Of course every place we passed or stopped at was en route to one of his properties, but he seemed to be more intent on pitching Berlin than on pitching Milestone.
Schonefeld Airport, which was our introduction to Berlin was somewhat of a disappointment, especially to anyone who has been to the airport in Frankfurt.
On the other hand it was a proud pleasure to be able to see the extent to which it falls short of Ben-Gurion Airport.
What immediately caught our eyes after passing through passport control was a huge illuminated sign advertising the Chabad House in Berlin with centers at 6 Munstersche Street and 34 Karl Liebknecht Street in Alexanderplatz. Chabad provides a Kabbalat Shabbat, a kosher restaurant that is open from 2-10 p.m.
Sunday to Thursday, an information center for travelers and business people, a library and a mikve (ritual bath). In addition, Chabad publishes a guide to Jewish Berlin which is also available on its website and lists other Jewish communities in Berlin, kosher food outlets, Jewish cultural organizations, synagogues, ritual baths, points of interest in Jewish Berlin, memorial sites and Jewish cemeteries.
As is the case in so many other parts of the world, Chabad is a very visible presence in Berlin and even puts up its signature triangular shaped Hanukkiya on the famed Unter den Liden Boulevard, right near the Brandenburg Gate to which tourists flock in droves for souvenir photos.
Just as it is difficult for those who never saw the corrugated iron fence that at one end of Jaffa Road divided east and west Jerusalem, to imagine the capital not geographically united, and with no access to the Western Wall, it is also difficult for visitors to Berlin to imagine that the area near the Brandenburg Gate used to be sealed off.
WE WERE taken to the elegant Swissotel in the very heart of Berlin, where the room rate in peak season was 119 euro per night, which was considerably less than a hotel of similar standard and location would charge in Israel. We were surrounded by beautiful hotels and restaurants, and by streets that stretched out in all directions like spokes in a wheel.
We arrived several hours ahead of check in time, and still had almost two hours at our disposal before meeting Shaked, whose office was less than five minutes walk away on the same street as a synagogue inside a commercial complex, whose entrance is guarded by police, although the only external sign that indicates a Jewish presence on the premises is a large mezuzah. Next door however is a spacious Judaica store that sells books and ritual items.
With a little free time we went down the street on an orientation tour and stopped off at the upscale KaDeWe department store which was founded in 1907 and is one of the most famous trademark stores in Berlin. Tempting as it was to look at the fashions, we gave them only a passing glance as we headed for the sixth floor food hall which is a gastronomic delight with its bars and restaurants on one side, surrounded by counters filled with a mind boggling variety of chocolate truffles and pralines, and beautifully presented displays of every imaginable variety of sausage and cuts of meat, fish, pastas, etc. Then we reached the cake section which my colleagues found irresistible and paid three euros each for large helpings that cost somewhere in the range of NIS 30 in Israel.
It’s not only the price of Milky that draws Israelis to Berlin, but the generally more affordable cost of living. They earn more but pay less for rent, food and entertainment. As attractive as everything else was in the food hall, it was the impeccable fruit and vegetable section which drew me like a magnet. There was not a bruise or a blemish on anything, and everything was marked with its name and the country from which it was imported. There were some expensive items like the black cherries the size of small plums that were 14 euro a kilo, but large, very sweet pineapple was only three Euro.
After we met Shaked, he pointed us in the direction of Berlin’s equivalent of Rami Levi, where international brand name toiletries cost between 50 to 60 per cent less than in Israel. My colleagues bought up more than a year’s supply.
I had come to Berlin with only hand luggage, so I couldn’t buy any due to airplane security restrictions, but it didn’t really bother me.
Berlin’s spacious and beautifully kept Tiergarten is Germany’s equivalent to New York’s Central Park, and just like New York, one can ride around the park in a carriage. But the carriage is no longer drawn by horses, but by a tricycle contraption. There are also taxis of this kind by the Brandenburg Gate.
Berlin has broad streets and sidewalks and a strong bicycle culture – but there are no bicycles on the sidewalk, other than those that are parked. What joy for an Israeli who is constantly dodging not only bicycles, but motor bikes, electric scooters, skate boards – and now even Segways – on the sidewalk. Unlike most places in Israel, Berlin also has a lot of public toilets which are clearly labeled Our hosts told us that Berlin is always bursting with tourists. This was obvious by the number of double deck tour buses, vans and even minicabs for two parked alongside major sidewalks and offering long and short tours of the city at varying prices.
Shaked took us past Checkpoint Charlie which used to be the major crossing point between east and west Berlin. It is now a museum which we didn’t have time to see, but we did see on the wall outside, blown up photographs of US president John Kennedy’s visit to West Berlin in June 1963.
We stopped briefly at the State Opera House on Unter den Linden. The building is currently undergoing extensive renovations and when completed will be one of the most magnificent opera houses in the world.
JEWS COMING TO Berlin cannot ignore the many memorials to their co-religionists who once lived in this city. Guy Segalovitch has a keen interest in the history of German Jewry, especially the period related to the Holocaust. He kept getting Shaked to stop the van so that we could get out to inspect memorials like the 2,711 nameless tombstones of varying heights near the Tiergarten. They represent so many of the victims of the World War II whose names are not remembered by anyone, whose presence in the world remains a blank, but whose deaths are embedded in the most traumatic chapters of contemporary history.
Elsewhere in what used to be a Jewish area of Berlin, Segalovitch took us along a pleasant street and told us to look down on the side at the entrance to one of the buildings on Meinstrasse near Charlottenburg.
Engraved on a tiny metal plaque that few people might notice was the all too brief epitaph signifying that this had been the home of Rosa and Berthold Levin who were deported to Lodz in May, 1942 and murdered in Chelmo.
The plaques at least serve as a reminder that Rosa and Berthold, who have no grave, once existed.
A few blocks further away in Landshuter Street, Segalovitch points to reconstructed signs that were common during the Nazi era. As early as November, 1938, a sign went up stating that Jews could be dismissed from work without reason.
In February 1942, the sign decreed that Jews cannot buy writing implements or newspapers.
Having read and heard a great deal about the Jewish Museum, which was enlarged and redesigned by renowned architect Daniel Liebeskind, I was eager to see it. My colleagues had other plans, and in going alone I was able to inspect the museum at my own pace. Wherever I go in the world, Jewish museums and Holocaust museums are always on my itinerary. Most Holocaust museums are smaller versions of Yad Vashem with certain unique features of their own. The Jewish Museum in Berlin which is part Holocaust, part present and part a projection for the future is nothing like Yad Vashem. Whereas Yad Vashem presents a broad canvas of the Holocaust with exhibits from and about every country that felt its impact, The Jewish Museum in Berlin deals largely with German Jews and its displays are minimalistic, compelling visitors to think about the people whose thumbnail biographies are told against the backdrop of a photograph or a postcard or even a sewing machine. In a mass exhibition, it’s all too overwhelming There are special exhibitions and installations in addition to the permanent exhibition and there is also a learning center.
Museums are among the few places in which one finds anything written in English. Staff in stores, restaurants and hotels speak excellent English, but signs and literature are almost exclusively in German. Even in our luxury hotel with its reading centers stocked with high class glossy magazines on many subjects there was nothing in English other than the International New York Times, although hotel guests who came from many countries had English as a common language.
While service in Berlin is top notch, certainly in comparison to Israel, we found that even though the breakfast in out hotel offered a variety of choices, including plenty of fruit for guests who are vegetarians or who eat only kosher food, it could not compare with the legendary breakfasts provided in Israeli hotels.The writer was a guest of Milestone.