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Our Berlin

As we left the apartment, Ted was telling Tommy and Nicholas about the "street polo" games he and his brother had played decades before, with bicycles and croquet mallets in the park outside. The big event of 1936 was the Olympic Games, when Hitler wanted to show the world the greatness of the Third Reich. Each morning, Ted and his friends would run to the Heerstrasse, the triumphal boulevard laid out by Albert Speer, to see Hitler's motorcade racing to the games. "When he appeared in an open convertible, we cheered like mad," Ted remembered, "and everyone was shouting 'Heil Hitler!' Our parents knew about Hitler's hatred of the Jews, but they didn't want to scare us." Ted's father took his children to see the Olympic field hockey and polo matches (hence the street polo), and sneaked the kids into the Olympic Pool, even though Jews were forbidden to swim there.

We visited the Olympic Stadium—now undergoing a face-lift—where the soccer World Cup is to be held in four years. Tommy and Nicholas swam in the outdoor pool, and while they toweled off Ted regaled them with stories of runner Jesse Owens's triumphs at the games, and Hitler's fury that the four-time gold medalist was African-American. I stared up at the diving boards, playing over in my mind Leni Riefenstahl's great film Olympia, with its divers gliding through the air. Amid the happy scene of children swimming on a summer day, I again had that sense of mourning, though for exactly what I couldn't say. Perhaps it had something to do with the sheer richness of Berlin's history, with beauty and horror so consistently interwoven.

That sense of unreality was compounded when we stopped at the massive dark-granite court building where my grandfather had presided as chief justice, and where the Nazis had later conducted show trials to convict political prisoners. The main door was slightly ajar, so we walked right in. Strewn about was the apparatus of a pre-war office building: manual typewriters, ancient black filing cabinets, stenographers' Dictaphones. It was as though a time machine had transported us back to 1936. A stylish young woman briskly approached to explain that we were standing in a movie set. They were filming a 1930's crime thriller.

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