One year later. The Christmas Attack in Berlin on December 19 th , 2016 *

 

 

By Peter Kamber (translated by Carrie Asman)

 

We met in a tango class. A few years back. She always had a witty reply on the tip of her tongue. I knew she also danced flamenco, that she worked in fashion design and had a daughter. Since then birthday greetings appeared twice on Facebook. Then, out of nowhere, came a call early one morning. I bolted from my bed after the first ring, reaching the phone just in time. At first there was only the sound of a voice choked by tears. She was saying that her father was one of the victims hit by the truck on Breitscheid Square two nights before. The Christmas Market Attack, so it was called throughout the world after news came in from Berlin on the eve of December 19 th , 2016. She said she had just read my Facebook post describing the aftermath and decided to call.
I first heard about the bloodbath through a call from Paris two hours after it happened. Yes, I’m fine, I answer, a little perplexed by the concern, I live 10 minutes away. Just before the break of day I ride my bike to Breitscheid Square in the heart of downtown West Berlin, where the massacre has taken place. On the way, I pass a young guide at a school-crossing wearing a neon yellow jacket, deftly slicing the cold thick air with fore- and backhand strokes as if the signal disc in his hand were a tennis racket.
The area around the square has been cordoned off and traffic is blocked. Relay trucks stand in front of the Aquarium at the Zoological Garden. I take a detour. The Christmas Market rubble is flanked by the fragmented spire of the Memorial Church that rises up in the early morning sky. Severely hit by allied bombs during the Second World War, it is an emblematic icon for Berlin reminding inhabitants and visitors of the need for peaceful co-existence.

Red and white plastic police tape encircling the uniform wooden stands of the market corresponds oddly with the brightly painted red and white striped roofs of the wooden shacks. In front stands a police car with a flickering blue light. Aside from the intermittent stuttering diesel motor of an emergency service truck, there is only silence. A kiosk opens and a man says excuse me as he rolls out his rack filled with picture postcards, I am standing in the way. The electricity still functions at the empty Christmas market – “Mulled Wine here” continues t o glow in crystalline letters over a striped roof while two reindeer pull a sleigh wrapped in a violet colored chain of lights.
A passerby carrying flowers in his hands looks for a place to put them down in front of the Memorial Church. The narrow traffic island at the beginning of Kurfürstendamm, where some candles are already burning, offers itself as a possibility. Walking on foot to the left up Kurfürstendamm and then turning twice to the right, I reach the narrow street used by the assailant behind the high-rise hotel. The right lane is blocked by a two-story row of gray construction barracks covered with advertising that probably forced the driver to change lanes. From there it is only a hundred feet to the square now blocked by portable walls with a plastic cover obstructing the view. Even so, the narrow path of destruction is easy to discern – wooden roofs torn asunder, roof coverings hanging down into nothingness. The skewed semitrailer with the long, deep black loading space points in an acute angle to Budapester Street. The tailgate is silver. The driver lost control of the vehicle as soon as it hit the sidewalk. “A blessing in disguise,“ was the thoughtful comment of a subdued man in white jogging pants who was from the press but had come unofficially.
Candles and flowers begin to collect in front of the Zoo Palast as well, if only just a few. A female news reporter stands in the light of a camera. Another one shivers without a coat as she waits before going on the air. I hesitate to light my square white candle in front of the cameras waiting to capture everything immediately on film. I want to come back. As I turn around, I see a shivering hurdy-gurdy man standing on the street grinding out a tune, a little dog tucked into the front opening of his coat keeps both of them warm. On my way back I notice the flowers have already been moved from the traffic island and placed around an outdoor advertising pillar on Kurfürstendamm. The new arrangement is less personal and besides, someone has stained the sidewalk with spilled coffee. Soon, another field of flickering lights will appear on the doorstep of the church. On a large empty envelope I write a note to place under the candle with a black felt-tipped pen, “Only peace can stop the insane spiral of revenge and hate,” but on this cold morning amidst the ghostly scenery, no one is in the mood for messages like this.
Instead I later write a note on Facebook, and return that evening around 11 p.m. There are only a few cameras left. Behind the Memorial Church the Square with the Christmas Market is partly accessible again. A third field of candles covering roughly 5 square meters has grown next to the entrance gate of the market covered with silver Christmas tree balls. Police guards stand as a deterrent behind the blocked area ready to shoot. The wick of my candle with the text beneath has sunken deep into the wax protecting the flame from the wind. It’s now possible to walk along some of the closed Christmas market stands. Surveying the scene it appears that if the truck had not careened out of control, it would most likely have decimated dozens more of the wooden stands, eventually reaching the polyp-shaped children’s carrousel with arms that raise and lower the helicopters, baldachin-covered fantasy boats while twirling them in a circle. The glass windows of the skewed truck are covered by a fine web of cracks that probably prevented the attacker from seeing much of his own destruction. The memorial candles at this location are all red or white except for one that is blue. Taken as a whole, the three flickering fields of lights now form a triangle, outlining an area that is already packed with history. The first field of lights near the Zoo Palast, located only 50 meters away from the destroyed Christmas Market, is also where Goebbels once premiered his propaganda films, and the second field of lights located on the steps of the Memorial Church is also the place where countless soldiers rushed into marriage, not knowing whether they would return from the front.
The next day I post something short on facebook again. Why not, if I am living in Berlin, I thought, it’s only words. She reads the text I am sharing with others three days later, early in the morning of the 22 nd ,... A the end of our long conversation she ends by saying, “I am going to hang up now.” I write her a poem in response – Sound of Sorrow / Klang der Trauer. She answers the same day. I am happy that despite her grief she still has the presence of mind to correct my spelling. She adds, “The state has left us alone since Monday night.“ I write back and she answers on the 30th of December: “The authorities are a catastrophe – I have a choice of three numbers to call if there is a problem.“ I respond asking for permission to come to the memorial ceremony, assuring her to be discreet. She doesn’t want any media. “We want to first bury everyone in PEACE.“
Three weeks later she asks if I still want to come. “It will be a difficult day for me,“ she says, “I have a moderator because I’m not sure I can do it.“ When the colored memorial invitation arrives, I see him for the first time. On vacation, wearing sunglasses on a hill high above the ocean. His face is turned towards the camera, and framed by a shock of thick white hair and full of wrinkles from laughter. Wearing a tank top with wide red and white stripes, he is sitting in a dry white bathtub once used by grazing animals as a drinking trough. To the right of the photo four lines from Eric Clapton are printed in smokey blue, “Beyond the door/ there’s peace for sure /and I know there’ll be no more/ tears in heaven.“

As I open the door of the memorial hall, I am freezing cold and a little late. It’s a long way to go by bike from West Berlin to the Southeastern edge of he City. I hear a woman say: “...by profession he taught chemistry which he studied in Dresden. After the reunification he got a job in a branch office for a company that manufactured construction materials.” The woman leading the ceremony from the funeral home is as serious and empathetic as a pastor and quotes from verse devoid of any theology. Born in Görlitz, as a child he was given a red roller with inflatable tires, a so-called air roller. Mine was red too, I think. Finally Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven“ is played. The partner of the deceased man, who gazes over at us from a colored poster on the wall next to the flower wreaths, is not the only one who cries, without losing composure as she walks down the center aisle. Only now do I see the dance partner and facebook friend who follows wearing a broad-brimmed black hat and is accompanied by her school-aged daughter.

After the urn has been buried we warm ourselves up in the foyer of a nearby theater with coffee and soup. Images are projected onto the wall in slow succession that show him, one of the victims of that “twelve-fold murder on Breitscheid Square“, to put it in the words of his nephew, who has just sat down with me at a table. His uncle must have died immediately – he stood with his back to the small passage between the stands not far from the rear glass brick wall of the new Memorial Church. “His spinal column was hit full on, he did not feel any pain.“

Now the daughter sits behind at the microphone. “The shock went deeper, the circle of traumatized people includes not only the wounded, the rescue team, but also the police as well as innocent bystanders.“ A brother-in-law describes softly how she, as daughter of the victim, was informed by telephone the next morning. He then drove with his wife, the sister of the deceased to Berlin where they together told the granddaughter when she came home from school.

We hear about the plan to join together with the other mourners of victims until those responsible for the failure on the part of the authorities have been named. She talks about the anger that sporadically overcomes her. This is the only reference to the perpetrator. Next to her at the table under the broad wall with the changing pictures, her father’s partner takes a seat wearing a red wool dress similar to the one worn by Natalie Portman on the poster of the film “Jackie“ which opened in the cinemas a week before.

The daughter asks everyone personally to share how they know her father – at this point her father’s partner goes back to the tables. When my turn comes toward the end, I confess that I’m meeting him now for the first time through these pictures, but that I believe I have a feeling for how he was. One of the pictures shows him sitting in midst of dandelions in a field that slightly slopes upwards behind him. “That was in Southern Tyrol last year,” his partner tells me a few hours later after all the meatballs, eggplant and Paprika as well as the dessert have long been finished. In the background, the color images continue to change in such a measured rhythm that despite the numerous repetitions an atmosphere of inner peace slowly begins to spread throughout the room bringing everyone just a little bit closer.

I ask her where the picture on the obituary card came from – the one with him in the empty bathtub and the blue ocean below that keeps appearing enlarged on the wall. “I took it in the Azores,” she said. He always played along whenever she raised her camera. He would stick his head in a branch of thick red blossoms so that it looked as if he were wearing a wig of flowers, or he would pose in front of a palm or a cactus-like plant, placing the garland in his hair so that it seemed as if prickly antennae were growing out of his head. He had a predilection for theatricality, imitating figures on posters and statues in moss covered gardens or sprayed pictures on the wall.

They had already booked a flight for late December – which would have been a few days after their visit to the Christmas Market. “He loved to travel.” He was born in 1951 and had only just retired. They were standing at a tall bistro table just before it happened. He said, ‘come stand across from me so that I can look into your eyes.’ He liked this so much. Without realizing it, he saved my life.” She has recovered from all the minor injuries, “but not from the mental ones.” She is a nurse herself and has no illusions. “I felt like I was where I wanted to be, with him, and hoped it would continue this way forever.”

The tables are moved together, so that everyone can talk. The conversation shifts, reflecting also on how a world history that has gone awry plays itself out in private everyday lives. Now, as the evening draws to an end, only relatives and close friends remain and I sense that it is time for me to leave.

 

 

 

For a German version see post before / Deutsche Version im vorigen Post.

 

 

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