The Kaiser Wilhelm Church Christmas Market

Monday, December 26, 2016

(Note: In December 2016 the Kaiser Wilhelm Church Christmarkt has been much in the news because of the terrorist act of driving a truck into the crowd of holiday shoppers and revelers, killing at least 12 persons and injuring dozens of others. This grim report harkened back a time for me -- a much happier time -- when I was privileged to visit the Berlin Christmarkt during Advent, in 1985.)

In December, 1985 my wife, Jean, and I consulted with a German Oncologist and stayed for some 20 days with relatives in Hannover, Germany. For two of those days, while Jean had her appointments, I chose to visit Berlin. The German system of railroads makes it very easy to visit in various parts of the country, quickly and efficiently. (The whole of Germany is about the size of Nebraska.) I had spent most of one day visiting East Berlin. One of the highlights for me was visiting the Pergamon Museum and the Middle East archeology treasures that German Archaeologists have brought back to Berlin, including the reconstruction of a large portion of a walled, 15th century Syrian city. Surprising to me were the original colors. The huge gate to the city was bright blue with yellow symbols, and the Aleppo Room, a rich Aleppo merchant's reception room, had brightly colored walls of multiple colors. (As sad as it is that so much of the treasures of the Middle East have been confiscated and taken out of those countries, truth is that the Aleppo room would certainly have been destroyed by the ISIS terrorists by 2016.)

Going into East Berlin in 1985 was itself something of an adventure. Our bus crossed into East Berlin through the notorious Checkpoint Charlie, where we were stopped two times while stern, armed guards meticulously examined our passports, and compared those photos with our faces. Everyone had to take off his hat so the guards could get a good look. The whole ritual was conducted with great gravity, by unsmiling guards. We didn't laugh much either.

Even though it was Christmas time, East Berlin was bleak -- grey houses, grey automobiles, somber faces. By late afternoon, when we headed back to West Berlin it had begun to get dark -- and seemed really dark, with absolutely no Christmas lights -- and very few people. Only now and then would we see a lonely Christmas wreath hung on the front door of a house.

Instead of a festive, Christmas time, in East Berlin it seemed more of a time where people retreated to their own homes. What a contrast, when we again came into West Berlin. Here, the lights were bright, of all colors. There were gaily decorated Christmas trees, and outdoor nativity displays -- and people everywhere. The stores were ablaze with color, show windows crammed with gift ideas, and moving displays of electric trains, automobiles and Kris Kringle.

My hotel was right on the Kurfurstendamm -- one of Berlin's busiest and interesting avenues, with retail shops, hotels, restaurants, upscale car dealerships and fashion design houses, showing the latest in women's apparel. For someone from a small rural community in Western Nebraska, it was really something to behold. I was thrilled to be able to walk that mile and take in all that excitement of Christmas time in West Berlin.

I had been walking and gawking for about an hour when I came to the Kaiser Wilhelm Church -- or rather Churches. The original Protestant Church, had been built in 1890s by the ruling monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II, as a memorial to his grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I. A grand structure, it became an important symbol for Berliners, in the very heart of the city,

In 1943 the Kaiser Wilhelm Church was badly damaged in an air raid, during WW II. Rather than rebuild the old church, it was decided to save just the front part, as a War Memorial. The rest of the church was torn down, and a new, ultra-modern church was constructed on the site. The remaining portion of the old church, "Der hohle Zahn", or the Hollow Tooth, is preserved as a reminder of the devastation that war brings, a cherished symbol for the Germans.

Each year, at Christmas time, there springs up in the courtyard in front of the two churches, the Kaiser Wilhelm Christmarkt, a remarkable assemblage of outdoor booths, selling food, carved figures, and crafts of every description. The area takes on the air of a giant celebration, with strolling musicians and singers, offering carols and folk songs of the season. It was fun to hear my favorite carols sung in German. I'm sure the festive mood was heightened by the many stalls, which sold a mulled wine (with or without an extra shot of brandy. It was strange to see little old ladies come up to a stall, order a shot of schnapps or vodka, and knock it down in one gulp, even ignoring the offered water chaser, then continue on with their shopping.) Though alcohol flowed freely there did not seem to be any policemen patrolling the area -- just everyone having a good time -- an act of terrorism the farthest thing from their minds.

Numerous stalls sold Christmas cookies and cakes, but what intrigued me were the huge vats of sour kraut and sausages, which were everywhere. The kraut was served on a plate, but there were no buns for the sausages -- just a piece of cardboard, which one wrapped around the sausage, to keep the fingers clean and free of burns. However served, they were delicious.

I must have spent an hour or more just roaming among the various stalls and taking in the happy crowds in the market place. Finally, ready for a little rest, I headed across the street and up the stairs to a very nice restaurant, for a little veal cutlet -- the specialty of the house. It was here that I had the encounter, which has caused the whole day to stick firmly in my memory.

As I entered the restaurant the Maitre d' at the front desk started to say something to me, then suddenly stopped and called a waitress to show me to my table. She looked at me strangely, and began to whisper to another waitress, who also began to look at me strangely. I wondered if I had done something wrong, or spilled something on my coat.

When my waitress left me, she collared another waitress and then those two began whispering, glancing back at me furtively. I was beginning to get uncomfortable.

I had just started on my veal cutlet when a fellow in an apron, about my age and size, came to the front desk and engaged in conversation with the Maitre d', then looked over at me like the others had done. He began to walk over to my table -- now maybe I'd find out what was up. As he approached my table he said something to me -- in German. I spoke a little German but had no idea of what this fellow had said to me. We stared at one another for a long moment. When he saw that I had not understood, he stopped, pushed his glasses up from his nose, turned abruptly and headed back to the kitchen (Later I learned that the guttural dialect that Berliners speak is even difficult for German speakers in other parts of the country to understand.).

Even though our encounter had only lasted a few seconds, I now knew why everyone in that restaurant had treated me so strangely.

Seeing that fellow was like looking in the mirror when I shave each morning. He looked just like me -- even to his mannerisms, like pushing up his glasses, and the way he walked. I had always heard that somewhere in the world everyone has a double, but I had never had such an experience. I guess I was in something of a shock. I attempted to ask one of the waitresses about the fellow, but she did not speak English, and the Maitre d', who did speak English, was not around when I left.

My heritage is German. This was Germany, so it was possible that this fellow might have been a long lost relative. I pondered the possibilities at length during my train ride back to Hannover. I decided that I would go back to the restaurant and try to make a second contact with the fellow. Unfortunately, I've never been back to Berlin, so I'll never know, but our brief encounter surely did have the effect of making my trip to Berlin, to the Kaiser Wilhelm Christ Market, and all the rest, an experience that I guess I'll never forget.

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