Saturday, 14 April 2018


A sculpture close to
 As regular readers of the blog might know, travel and new experiences are what refills my creative well and so during the Easter break I set off with my family to visit the German capital, Berlin. It’s a magnificent city steeped in both pre- and post-war history that makes for a thought-provoking visit. We spent time in quiet reflection at both the Holocaust Memorial and at sites where it’s still possible to see parts of the Berlin wall. During the few days we spent there, we saw and learnt so much, however, given this is a blog mostly about books and writing, there are two standout memories I wish to share.


The Bebelplatz Memorial
The first was our trip to Bebelplatz, an imposing open square flanked by the grand stately buildings of Humboldt University, whose former professors include Albert Einstein and The Brothers Grimm. Beneath the square, visible through a glass panel, lies an empty library. Row upon row of stark white marble shelving. Enough to hold the 20,000 books, including works by Einstein, that were considered forbidden by the Nazis and burnt there, during the infamous book burning ceremonies that took place on the evening of 10th May 1933 in university cities across the country. 


It’s an incident highlighted in Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief, and also a chilling scene in the movie of the same name.

Beside the Bebelplatz memorial is a plaque with a quotation in German, written by poet and
The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
journalist, Heinrich Heine in 1821 that reads…
That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people. As we now know, the bonfire of books was only the beginning of the terrors to follow.


Nowadays, however, on the 10th May each year, the students of Humboldt University hold an annual book sale, where cushions are provided so the public can enjoy reading in the open air.


Next we travelled by tram, forty-five minutes east from the city centre, for a fascinating visit to the
Outside & Inside the Former Stasi Prison
fortified former Stasi (East GermanState Security Service) Jail. We saw the cramped cells and heard of the appalling conditions endured by political prisoners made up of journalists, authors, lecturers, politicians, writers and more, who were interrogated then forced to sign fake confessions, before being subjected to dummy trials.

Former inmates lead tours conducted in German. Whilst our excellent English speaking guide reminded us that although Berlin’s jail is now a museum piece, such institutions are still used in numerous countries around the world. A sobering thought.


After the Wall
by Jana Hensel
Whilst browsing in the museum bookshop I came across a memoir by Jana Hensel entitled After the Wall. Hensel was born in Leipzig, GDR (East Germany) in 1976 and is now a journalist for Der Spiegel. She was thirteen years old on 9th November 1989 when the Berlin wall fell and the foundations of the society she’d grown up in crumbled beneath her feet. After the Wall is a short account of what that meant, not only for Hensel’s generation, born under a Communist regime then having to learn the unwritten rules of how to live in the West, but also for her parents’ generation and the rifts/problems caused by the change.

So why was stumbling across this little book so special to me? – A fifty-year old Scottish woman?


Well during the mid-eighties, I took part in a school exchange visit and spent a week living with a
A remaining section
of the Berlin Wall
wonderful Bavarian family, at a time when Germany was still divided into East and West. One of my strongest memories of that trip, along with knocking back a tankard of beer at the local beer festival (an experience I opted not to share with my mum!), was an organised trip into nearby woods, to witness the wire fencing and young grim-faced East German armed guards who protected the border. Alongside the rifles, I remember a stillness only broken by bird song as I stared at trees on the other side, wondering what life was like for a teenager, like me, over there. Now, all these years later, because the Berlin wall toppled and politics moved on, Hensel’s writing and others like her, provide an insight and understanding. Surely that’s what gives books, whether fiction or non-fiction, their real strength?

Visiting Bebelplatz and the Stasi prison were both reminders of the power (and fear) of writing, as well as of authors who are driven by the desire to share their thoughts and stories.

Berlin Cathedral in the sunshine
Whilst Berlin’s turbulent past is horrendously sad, today it’s a beautiful city that is interesting to visit and that my family hopes to return to again soon.


Further reading :

The Iron Curtain Kid by Oliver Fritz

Stasiland by Anna Funder


  1. This post brought back memories of my school exchange trip to Germany during the time when it was divided. It was an experience I will never forget. We travelled for miles through No Man's Land before reaching Berlin. I have memories of Checkpoint Charlie, the wall, guards with guns (I had never seen a gun before) and very old cars on the Eastern side. Even though I was a teenager at the time, there was a stark contrast between East and West. Thank you, Rae, for taking me down memory land. :)

  2. My youngest son visited Berlin on a school trip too, Victoria and loved it so much that he persuaded us to visit! Glad the post brought back such interesting memories. Xx

  3. What a heart-felt and poignant post, so relevant to my story telling. Thank you for this one, Rae. As I read, I kept thinking, "Never forget!"

    1. Thanks, Terry. There is so much more I could’ve shared about Berlin but these were the moments that felt right to share with writing friends. Xx

  4. I very much enjoyed reading this account of your visit, Rae. I know parts of Germany, but have never yet visited Berlin. I must do so some day. This description of your experience was most interesting. :-)

    1. Thanks so much for dropping by, Liz. I hope you make it to Berlin one day, as it's an amazing city. We spent five days there and only scratched the surface of all there is to see!

  5. Love your post, Rae (and the piled up books construction). Another place for the bucket list!

    1. Hope you make it one day, Kate. It's a wonderful city. x

  6. Fascinating as always, Rae. Thanks for sharing your insights. Berlin hadn't been high on my list of places to visit but now it is!

    1. Hello Gill, Berlin has so much to offer. They have done an amazing job rebuilding the city after the fall of the wall. Go for it!

  7. We visited Berlin briefly in 2016 and I would love to go back. I feel like we barely scratched the surface. That's cool that you were over there before the wall came down and were able to go again afterward.

    1. Hello Lissa, thanks so much for reading. We spent five days in the city and there was still so much to see, which is a lovely excuse to return one day. : )