But this is above all a city of cozy neighborhoods—a local will swear foremost allegiance to his Kiez—and some of the best restaurants are little places that serve food, often from the south and west of Germany, to people from up and down the block. I’m thinking of a fairly new spot called Lebensmittel in Mitte, a grocery store with a shock of fresh green vegetables laid out in front, along with cans of tasty homemade cherry preserves. A typical night could find its back room full of nursing middle-aged mothers (“I’ve never seen people who love their children so much,” a visiting American tells me), their husbands dividing their time between the hollering tots and a soccer match on the television—as close as Berlin will ever get to feeling like Naples. Highlights include the occasional appetizer of homemade lard with plums and bacon, a tender goose with a glistening layer of fat, and a plate of spaetzle egg noodles smothered with cheese and perfect for brunching.
A civilization can often be judged by the quality of its chicken, and Kreuzberg’s legendary Henne offers the moistest, crispiest milk-roasted bird to be found in Mitteleuropa, along with a décor that’s a celebration of Berlin as a working-class city, with its wooden ceilings, tartan tablecloths, and dingy, nicotine-stained walls. A draught of golden Landbier from the northern part of Bavaria and the occasional drag of a forbidden cigarette (Berlin has just enacted a shocking smoking ban) will help you feel as drunk and rheumatic as the rest of the clientele.
In another part of Kreuzberg, on the relatively posh Bergmannstrasse, I swear by the restaurant Austria, which I love for more than its monstrously sized schnitzel perched atop a tangy potato salad made with onion and vinegar. In this folksy, low-ceilinged, crimson setting, former Berlin resident Jeffrey Eugenides celebrated the completion of one of the best novels of the new century, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Middlesex. In fact, the hero(ine) of his novel, Calliope Stephanides, goes on an important date at Austria and is taken with the many sets of deer antlers that line the restaurant’s walls, which are described as “comically small, as though they come from animals you could kill with your bare hands.” During my last meal at Austria, I watch yet another young Berlin mother cutting a schnitzel with an optician’s precision for her brood of three. Two children are reaching up for the crusty bits of veal like newborn chicks, but one little fellow is too engrossed to eat: he is…reading a book. “The restaurant is dark, warm, woody and comfortable,” Eugenides writes. “Anybody who wouldn’t like it is somebody I wouldn’t like.”
One chilly morning, after consuming our body weight in schnitzel, a short Jewish friend and I cross the lake to the House of the Wannsee Conference, where on January 20, 1942, the head of the Reich Security Main Office, Reinhard Heydrich, invited a group of gentlemen for “a meeting to be followed by breakfast.” The gentlemen in question were high-ranking members of the S.S. and other Nazi entities; the meeting was a plan to murder all European Jews; and the breakfast must have been a traditionally healthy German one, with lots of small talk and gales of morning laughter. As with all German historical sites, the documentation in this thoroughly pleasant lakeside villa is meticulous. After learning of the Nazi plan to deport the country’s Jews to Madagascar (if only!), my friend and I realize that most of the conference involved the so-called Mischling question—in other words, what to do with Germans of mixed Jewish-Aryan blood. After deliberating the semantics of the question for an hour and a half, the gentlemen decided that if an individual looks, “feels, and behaves” like a Jew, then he “should be classed with the Jews”—in other words, gassed. As I’m stroking my dense, near-rabbinical beard and my friend is playing with her Sephardic curls, the inevitable older German woman quickly gravitates to us and says, apologetically, “It was a dark time in our history.” And I’m torn between sadness and revulsion, an appreciation of the sentiment, and the impotent feeling that I do not have the power to absolve.
The visual artist Thomas Demand is, in my opinion, the finest artist in Germany today. Some of his work re-creates life-size models of recent historical events—for example, the lectern used by Serbian dictator Slobodan Miloševic in 1989 to declare open season on Yugoslavia’s other ethnic groups (Podium). The models, constructed of colored paper and cardboard, are photographed and then destroyed. Whatever the subject matter, these works, to my mind, accurately and honestly capture what it means to be born under the canopy of history in a perennially overcast part of the world. Demand is able to tease out a paper-thin beauty from his often mundane subjects, while in a work like Podium we are left with a brief, if stylized, visual portrait of what history looks like during the tremulous instant, that last exhale of breath, before the slaughter begins. Which is to say that unlike that of other contemporary artists, Demand’s vision frightens me. He works from a 15,000-square-foot storage building behind the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, a place that in any other “world city” would house 800 graphic designers and an overpriced Thai-Mexican restaurant. Part of Demand’s factory space is cantilevered over a garden that used to be taken up with train tracks, a potent Berlin symbol, while his studio building runs right up to the frontier of the former Berlin Wall. “Can’t do anything about it,” Demand says, one finger on his thick dark frames. “History is everywhere.”
He’s right. As of 2008, Berlin’s guilt infrastructure is almost completely in place. Tributes to its tragic past have been cropping up recently, including the thousands of concrete slabs that form the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate and the adjacent bunker that will be the new U.S. Embassy. The most impressive memorial, however, does not aspire to architectural glory or to strenuous interpretation. I take the S-Bahn west for 20 minutes to the tiny suburban train station of quiet, leafy Grunewald. Between 1941 and 1945, more than 55,000 Jewish Berliners were deported to extermination camps from what is now a disused track labeled Gleis 17. The dates of deportation and the destinations of the trains are carved onto the edge of the platform. But on the day I come to the memorial, my last day in Berlin, a fresh snow has obscured everything. Only the lights of nearby cottages blink in the gloom. And all I can see are snow-covered boughs gently arching across the tracks. And there, in the far distance, some young trees, sturdy and short, have found a foothold.