Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz
Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz

Sunshine and shadows

A random slip through the gates of a villa leads me through the halls of villainy.

9 mins read

A certain someone called at 1 a.m. in the morning to wish me good night. I adore you, but this may call for violence. Or at least a ritual spanking that I will try my best not to enjoy …

The sidewalks of Friedrichshain have burst into café tables like a field of wild flowers. It is hard to contain our collective joy, so we don’t. We are a spring overrunning a dry bed, a gurling, bubbling thing; a child just finding his feet and stumbling, rushing headfirst into the sunlight.

There’s a Tex-Mex restaurant on the corner serving nothing akin to Tex-Mex this morning. I make my way to a table, unload my German workbooks and feast like the rest on the buffet of everything from dry cereal to an artichoke and feta salad.

I have planned a long day. Solo, although I issue a spontaneous invitation to Martin. I am relieved when he reveals his own solo-day plans. I consider what I will do between a forkful of smoked salmon and my silent repetition of my German reading. I have my books strewn all across the table, and I am alone on this morning seemingly meant for two. A woman at a nearby table tries unsuccessfully not to stare.

I am fueled and watered. I climb the stairs to my apartment to dump my bulky bag and grab my lighter daypack. I am reminded of one of the questions on a single’s dating site: what three things would you carry with you to a deserted island? Food, water and flares, I replied. (Really, is there any other reasonable answer?)

No deserted island today. So a book, a map and cash for dinner.

There’s construction on what should have been a direct train route to Wannsee, the large western lake. So, instead, I take a train eastbound to transfer to the ring line and another transfer point. It’s a gamble. Twice, my attempts to use the ring lines to and from Potsdam have landed me in some far corner of Berlin on trains I didn’t realize I was catching. And it’s already an hour’s journey.

But I have an anxious grip on the map, checking at every station to make sure I have it right. No trouble at the Shöneberg transfer point to the S1 so I enjoy some quiet reading. This time, book two of Otherland. I will quickly outpace Niels, who lent it to me just days ago.

I pass through Wannsee often, but have seen the lake only from my speedy perch in the train. So it is strange to not step across to the train on the other side of the platform, but to instead climb down into the station. There’s a large fresh fruit stand in the narrow hall. And an automatic French fry machine. Hot and fresh!

Outside and in the cool sunshine, and I am unsure of which way to turn. There’s a nearby group of people and I wonder briefly if they are some kind of tourist group before a city bus rolls up and I, belatedly, notice the bus shelter. There’s another sign on the corner, the typical ones telling nearby points of interest. This one says “The American Academy.” Well, I think, this must be the way to go.

The street to the American Academy of Berlin is quiet and lined with high gates. The appearance is what I imagine of the grounds of an English boarding school. I am curious enough that I make note of it for a late Google search. (Hilton Als on Blacks in Berlin? Sounds intriguing.)

But I am here for the lake, the sunshine and the air, not for exclusive grounds. I return to the Wannsee station and then walk in the other direction, climbing a green slope until, yes, I see the lake.

At this point along the lake, there is a broad plaza which I imagine in the warmer days of summer must be crowded with people. There are smaller boats here, but also larger docks and, no surprise, a ticket kiosk for day cruises. When Steve was here just a couple of weeks ago, we had snatched a beautiful day’s opportunity to be on the water. Just an hour’s cruise (and just a few German words understood) from the Friedrichstrasse terminal, but what a gorgeous day and sights of Berlin that I’d never enjoyed before.

I remember now that Martin had mentioned a three-hour version from Mitte to Wannsee. It’s a must do. But not today.

I am walking along Am Großen Wannsee, a quiet street, or what would be were it not for my iPod selection. Mm. The “Sexing Niels” playlist. A recent favorite with tracks from John Mayer and Petey Pablo to Tori Amos and Gotan Project. The latter has a new album out, by the way: Lunático. Tango and electronica, and just as great as the first.

I see a break in the trees ahead and a lovely little mansion set back from the street behind tall iron posts. I am curious, so slow my pace to peek in. There is a gate up ahead and, at the gate, a sign:

It says the hours that the grounds are open and that it is a public place. But a man and a girl with their bikes have to be buzzed out of the gate. I take that moment to slip in.

The Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz is nestled in a beautiful garden on a stretch of beautiful lake that belies its history. What I read on a sign just inside the gate is that this is the very site where on January 20, 1942, the Nazi leadership hammered out the details of the Final Solution. Here—in this lovely villa of gorgeous wood floors, high ceilings and bountiful light—it was not a question of why are we doing this, but how will we. To where will we deport the Jews? Which Jews will be exempt for our working needs and which will not? What will we do of those born to Jewish and non-Jewish parents?

The inside of the villa carries a permanent exhibit in the very hall where they drank, smoked and ate while they discussed the protocols that would make the German public departments carry this out as efficiently as possible.

I wander through the rooms in a quiet state of shock.

It seems wrong to speak of the rest. Of watching a small fox making his way across the grounds. Of climbing down to a nearby café to enjoy an early lakeside dinner of salad and fish. Of getting lost on the extensive and tree-dense grounds of a clinic farther up the road. Of watching the sunset over Pfaueninsel while my feet dangle over the edge of the pier.

But I do these things and cling fiercely to my beautiful day.

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