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Now that some spectacular Fall weather has returned to Melbourne, it is difficult to imagine that not long ago we were walking across a lake in Hamburg, Germany. The ice is gone now, of course, and Spring is happening. Thanks to the staff at the Gasthaus, I have seen a photo of crocuses. I suspect that with all the wet weather this winter, Spring and Summer are going to be wonderful and we are going to miss it.

But I am glad to be back in my own bed, with my own kitchen and our lovely attic study up among the birds. I can look at the airplanes coming and going from Tullamarine Airport without the feeling of dread that I get when I know that one day soon I will be clambering aboard yet another fifteen or sixteen hour flight, followed by the “short” haul to our destination.

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It is impossible for me to imagine what it was like for the millions of Europeans to pull up stakes and leave everything they knew for a new life on the North American continent, South America or Australia. From the middle of the nineteenth century until the beginning of the Second World War, Hamburg was the gateway to the world for five million emigrants. They streamed into the City to board ships that would take them to new lands and new lives. Our Gasthaus home in Hamburg was around the corner from the house of Albert Ballin, which had a suite of rooms for the Kaiser’s use when he was in Hamburg.

Albert Ballin’s father was Jewish. He was part-owner of an emigration agency that arranged passages to the United States. When he died in 1874, young Albert took over the business. He developed it into an independent shipping line, saving costs by carrying cargo on the return trip. This brought him to the attention of the Hamburg America Line, (HAPAG) who hired him in 1886, and made him general director in 1899.

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In 1901 Ballin had Emigration Halls constructed on the Hamburg island of Veddel to accommodate the many thousands of people who arrived at the Port of Hamburg every week to emigrate to North and South America on his company’s ships. The original “city” comprised 30 simple, one-story buildings and included a synagogue, church, hospital, and cafeterias as well as a playground.

Eastern European Jews fleeing economic and religious hardship were especially attracted to Hamburg. The halls are the setting of the Emigration Museum, appropriately called Ballinstadt. For many emigrants, the end of the trip was an island in the harbour of New York City, — Ellis Island. I was astonished to see a map of the USA midwest with the names of German cities peppered all over it like crackerjacks. Every fifth American has a German ancestor. Balinstadt’s passenger lists are a treasure trove for genealogical research.

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My own personal journey compelled me to head for the Reeperbahn one wet and rainy afternoon. In a misguided attempt to recapture a feeling for the magic of the Beatles, I made the pilgrimage to a museum dedicated to their early sojourn in Hamburg. Beatlemania doesn’t stint on display space, but whatever it was about the Fab Four that turned me into a convert failed to materialize for me on that miserable afternoon.

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It may be time to put “Backbeat” in my DVD queue and watch the story unfold up on the screen. Or simply let go of the Beatles infatuation. The sixties have been over for half a century, and the two remaining members of the group are not doing much of interest anymore. The Yellow Submarine may putter along in the back of my brain, but the magic of “A Hard Day’s Night” is no more.

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If you really took the time to read it properly, it might take three days just to digest the new Lonely Planet guidebook to Germany’s capital city. We had given ourselves that amount of time to see the place, and it simply wasn’t enough. So. we now have one monumental reason to return as well as 174 unseen museums and any number of other attractions. I had planned to see the Reichstag, but sometimes our best-laid plans need to take a back seat to simple exhaustion.

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Berlin is a place that has resonance for many of us, having been a dramatic backdrop to the rise and fall of the Third Reich, followed by its pivotal role as a pawn and flashpoint in the Cold War.  On the evening of October 2, 1961, ten American and the same number of Russian tanks went face-to-face, literally a stone’s throw from one another, revved-up and loaded, their crews awaiting orders from their commanding officers, who were in voice contact with Kennedy and Krushchev. Some five hundred bystanders and news men waited in the rain, hoping someone would blink. 

That night we may have come closer to nuclear war than we did a year later during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The building of the wall, the airlift, the shootings of escapees and the dismantling of the wall in 1989– all images from Berlin that kept us glued to our TV sets.

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If you are a member of my generation, you see Berlin in black and white, thanks to the early days of television. For three short few months following my birth, there was only one Germany– the Third Reich under Hitler. This was followed by the end of the European war and the seismic split into East and West Germany. The separation seemed to grow in size and strength for nearly forty years until the wall became more than a barrier, it became a symbolic representation of two distinct forces– capitalism versus communism. A battle of powerful ideologies.

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Then, in one miraculous year, 1989, the two halves joined again. Bonn took a back seat to the vibrant new center– Berlin. It is astonishing that the current leader of Germany is a female chemist who was born in Hamburg, the daughter of a pastor who took a post in what became East Germany. Angela Merkel has been thrust into the limelight by recent events; she seems to be the most forceful politician in Europe today.

We began with museums, of course, since I’m a museum junkie. The Neus Museum on Museum Island has had a makeover by a British architect named David Chipperfield. It is home to a collection of Egyptian artifacts, including a stunning bust of Nerfertiti that the museum authorities prefer not to have photographed. In the presence of such ancient celebrities, you feel less a papparazo and more like the photographer.

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To really see Schloss Charlottenburg, a baroque castle that was the creation and the summer residence of Electress Sophie Charlotte, takes a good half day, and should not be rushed. It is Berlin’s version of Versailles, and is all the more astonishing since much of it has been rebuilt from rubble to its former palatial splendor.

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Sophie had a colorful history for a lady who died at the age of thirty-six. She studied under Leibniz, spoke German, Italian, English and French, and lived an entirely independent life from her husband, Frederich I. He was so enchanted with Sophie that he never took advantage of the services of his mistress (who seemed to have been engaged because French kings maintained mistresses). Frederick was only allowed to visit Schloss Charlottenburg at Sophie’s invitation.

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We arrived at the tail end of the Berlin Film Festival, so we could have seen Angelina Jolie if we had been staying at the right hotel or been invited to the right party, but I was quite happy keeping company with such glamorous creatures as Sophie Charlotte, Duchess Luise (who lived for at time at Schloss Charlottenburg and really was a beauty), and my wife, who puts up admirably well with my inveterate museum going and picture taking.

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We did manage to visit the Pergamon, yet another museum of antiquities, as well as the Brandenburg Gate, the Hakeseche Hofe and the Holocaust Memorial. This is a deceptively simple square of some 2700 large, stylized concrete plinths of different heights, criss-crossed by thirteen undulating pathways, enabling visitors to traverse and recross the giant grid. It is an odd, haunting installation.

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We may not have done the city justice, but we have made her acquaintance and paid our respects. There is plenty left to see and do on a return journey.

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