I place the camera in my lap so that its lens is pointing towards the ground, before I press the recessed button and pull up the lever. Like a door being unlocked, the back of the camera swings open to reveal a secret compartment. I peer inside at the two cylindrical spaces, one to store the film not yet exposed and the other for the film after its brief meeting with the light. I look but I don’t touch, and I begin to remember how it all works.
Earlier this month I came to Berlin to study German, and the first week of my course is interrupted by a public holiday, the Tag der Einheit commemorating the re-unification of Germany in 1990. On my day off it feels appropriate to do something relating to the history of this once-divided city, so I’ve made a plan to walk the route of the Berlin Wall. I want to record this journey using my old film camera given to me in the summer of 1989, just a few months before the Wall came down. For many years this camera has sat unused and almost forgotten in my bedside cabinet, and now the edges of the case are worn and the winding mechanism is a little stickier than I’d like, but I load a roll of film and hope for the best.
Of course the Wall itself is nearly all torn down, apart from a few sections left here and there as monuments in situ. But the entire length is now commemorated by a thin and anonymous ribbon of bricks set into the tarmac of the equally anonymous streets that once found themselves on opposing sides of Europe.
The German word most frequently used to refer to the events of 1989-90 is die Wende, meaning ‘turning point’. The reason I’m here on the course and learning words like this is due to my own, more recent Wende; I’ve become German. Because my Jewish grandfather’s citizenship was stripped from him by the Nazi regime, the modern German constitution gives me the legal right to reclaim it for myself. My grandfather died many years before I was born, and my one memory of him is a photograph of a young man wearing a First World War army uniform. This paradoxical image of my grandfather, a Jewish man forced to flee his home, showing him as a German soldier fighting for the Fatherland.
I spent my twenties gazing at images of the night sky. I became an astronomer at a time just before the ubiquity of digital photography when the discipline still relied on the nineteenth century technology of glass plates; thin translucent squares speckled by stars in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, as well as more distant galaxies. I was trained to handle each fragile plate by its edges, holding it up to the windows of the astronomical observatory in Edinburgh where I was doing my PhD.
On the morning of 10 November 1989 I was wandering along the high-ceilinged corridor towards the coffee machine in the canteen, when one of the senior academics approached me, running out of the gloom as if propelled by a source of energy beyond his control. When he caught up with me, he seized my hand and shook it in a curiously formal way, saying loudly ‘The Berlin Wall has fallen down!’ and without waiting for my reaction he was off again, down the corridor and back into the shadows. I remained standing, motionless. The Wall was older than I was and its abrupt fall, announced in this nursery-rhyme manner, seemed as difficult to understand as the far-off objects I was expected to study.
Now in Berlin I decide to start my walk at Potsdamer Platz; a vast open space with nothing remaining of its pre-war existence after it was bombed and left for years as a ruin. Since die Wende it has been developed and now it’s all angled steel, cantilevered buildings, cinemas, and chain restaurants. The almost complete absence of anything older than about ten years is an uncanny reminder of what has been lost.
I should be heading along Stresemannstraße, south-east from the Platz and facing towards the mid-morning sun, but it’s cloudy now and I immediately get lost. The mirrored buildings borrowing each other’s light look the same in every direction, and each street junction is unhelpfully labelled ‘Potsdamer Platz’. After about ten infuriating minutes of wandering around in a circle, I give up and resort to Google Maps.
When I finally get going, I keep an eye on the brick ribbon. Straightaway it disappears under a building as if burrowing its way into the foundations, and I have to search for its re-emergence. I find myself constantly looking at the line of brick, my gaze flickering towards it every few seconds.
I walk past crowds of tourists at Checkpoint Charlie, pausing only to take photos with the camera. Its weight in my hands feels so familiar, and I realise I have never held anything else in my life the way I cup it gently against my face. I could use a telescope again, I think, as I adjust the lens back and forth. I could remember how to do it.
Sections of the brick ribbon are missing where it’s been dug up by newer building works and not replaced. Sometimes it feels ominous because it won’t go away, and I have to remind myself that I am following it and not the other way round. At other times there is a comfort in its presence, keeping me company in a city I’m not yet at home in. I realise I’m still thinking of it as the Wall, as the entity it once was.
The brick ribbon does not have long stretches of straight lines, it goes around corners, kinks itself and frequently changes direction. I don’t know where I’m going in this city, I don’t really know where to start but the brick ribbon gives me a way forward, a route to follow. It takes me along streets, across waste land, it makes me look at the ordinary parts of the city. Nobody else that I encounter pays much attention to it, it’s not a showy or obvious memorial. Unlike the large black and white signs at Checkpoint Charlie, it’s anonymous about what it commemorates. Perhaps that’s why I feel the urge to get to know it because I have something in common; nothing about me gives any indication of my changed status. There’s no sign attached to me to announce that, since last autumn, I’m now German. I’m not a tourist, but neither am I a local because I’m still a stranger in this place. My status is straightforward to explain from a legal point of view but psychologically rather challenging; I used to have one nationality and now I have two. Who exactly am I?
When I applied for citizenship I discovered another photograph of my grandfather that I’d never seen before, in his last German passport issued in 1936. The very act of peering closely at his face in this photo made me feel uneasy, was I mirroring the actions of various Nazi officials who would have scrutinised this image as he stood opposite them? Although a quarter of my DNA is his, I don’t want to view him as a collection of characteristics to be identified and quantified. I’d prefer a less tangible connection, something that evades bureaucratic and scientific measurement.
The two photos of my grandfather are separated by about twenty years in time and I have nothing to fill that gap but a few scant facts and a lot of speculation. He fought in the First World War, surviving the trenches on the Western Front and a bout of typhoid to be subsequently awarded the Iron Cross, second class. He must have studied law at university because he became a lawyer in Frankfurt. He was classified by the authorities as a citizen of Hessen and Prussia, and as a Jew.
Despite my own unease I feel compelled to return to the photo of him. I’m used to analysing this sort of photo; when I was an astronomer I worked on objects so far away there was never any prospect of getting physical samples from them; images are all we will ever know of them. Such distant galaxies that the stars in them died long ago and what remains is this ghost-like light that has travelled to us, taking billions of years to do so. There is no ‘now’ that I can share with these objects.
The astronomical glass plates and the film in my camera both use silver atoms embedded in an emulsion, because silver has a tendency to oxidise and blacken when exposed to certain common elements in air. A sort of creation myth exists for these atoms of silver, formed in the explosions of heavy stars at the end of their lives, before being expelled into interstellar space and moving through the galaxy until they arrived here at Earth. This could be a metaphor for the tendency of everything in the Universe to travel, and to end a long way from where it started.
About six or seven years ago, when the glass plates were finally declared technologically obsolete by the observatory and surplus to requirements, I returned there to collect a few of them. But these glass plates are weighty, and lugging a box of them to the bus stop was enough to make my hands cramp with pain. Now I keep them in a cupboard at home, never quite sure what to do with them, or even why I wanted them. But important facts can be revealed through waiting. The telescope is more patient than the human eye, it doesn’t blink. It accumulates light in a way that the eye can’t, revealing objects too faint to be seen by us. Perhaps the plates will be useful in the future, to me or to someone else.
On that walk across Berlin I shot an entire roll of film, and afterwards I left it spiralled in the camera for several weeks while I completed my language course and returned to Edinburgh. Film that has been exposed to light but not yet developed is said to be latent, its images are hidden from view, they exist in the realm of possibilities and not yet certainties.
Eventually I sent the film off to be developed, and after I received the processed and printed images I spread them out in front of me. Each image was taken at a different time and now I was able to trace the brick ribbon from one rectangle of film to the next, right through the heart of the city. The individual photos of parked cars, bicycles, pavements and cafés say very little, appear random. The only real meaning lies in the collection of thirty-six photos as a whole, in which the brick ribbon is always there and yet never obviously ‘the subject’ – the narrative is constructed by the images in relation to each other.
So far in this essay I’ve referred to the memorial of the Wall as a ribbon, but perhaps a more appropriate word for this still-visible join between the two parts of Berlin is simply ‘scar’. Scars are reminders both of division and of subsequent healing, and it was only when I considered the sequence of photos that I realised how the brick ribbon both knitted together the two halves of the city, while at the same time bearing witness to its previous schism. Following the ribbon showed me how two formerly separated entities can grow together over time, just as I hope I’ll learn how to adapt to my new status and become both British and German.
When I applied for German citizenship, I submitted my grandfather’s passport as evidence that he’d been classified as a Jew by the Nazis. How the passport has survived for so many years after his death in 1963 is a mystery. I don’t know if my grandmother or my father made a conscious decision to keep it, or if it was simply too small an object to be noticed in the many house moves it has undergone. Perhaps it was tucked away in a cupboard, like the glass plates.
As part of my application I sent a copy of the passport to an office in Berlin, where I imagined it being examined and used as evidence to help correct a past injustice, heal an old division. My grandfather was German and became British, I have made the reverse journey. We are always on the move, travelling in the Universe just like every other atom, star and galaxy.
Pippa Goldschmidt is a fiction and essay writer based in Edinburgh and Frankfurt. She has a PhD in astronomy and likes writing about science. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in a variety of places including recently Litro, Mslexia, Fiction Pool and The Drouth. Her latest project was co-editing (with Dr Gill Haddow and Dr Fadhila Mazanderani) Uncanny Bodies, an academic-creative mash-up of an anthology inspired by Freud, cities, cyborgs and medicine, published by Luna Press in August 2020. Please visit at www.pippagoldschmidt.co.uk.