After a whole day of gobbling up scientific content in Berlin, I ordered an Uber to my hotel, exhausted, more mentally than physically.
This mundane interaction with an app on my phone would trigger a series of events that educated me on the relevance of the date November 9, and how art preserves a nation’s most traumatic events.
As I waited, I stood near the window on the third floor of Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) looking down an open space against which a large red banner identifying the name of the conference I was attending — Falling Walls — was etched.
The driver texted: “Come to the Brandenburg Gate”.
I walked down to the open space that I had been admiring, and in broken German that I had painstakingly memorised after a few lessons from the hotel staff, I asked an elderly man where the Gate was.
He seemed visibly offended by the question, or perhaps by my asking it. After an awkward 30 seconds, he pointed me towards the Gate.
Thoughts flooded my mind in the drive back to the hotel. Was I experiencing racism for the first time in these European lands that had also given me my education? Did I say something insulting in German?
My questions were answered the next day, on November 9, when Sebastian Turner, the founder of the Falling Walls Foundation that had organised the heavily attended scientific conference, choked with emotions and cried as he addressed a doctor who had lost her father to the holocaust.
The holocaust, a small word that, as I would learn from literature and brief conversations with Germans, details one of the cruellest crimes against humankind in the 20th Century. Also called Shoah, it refers to the systematic slaughter of more than six million Jewish people and other minorities in Europe during the Second World War (1941-1945), that also began on a November 9. Adolf Hitler, then Chancellor of Germany, marshalled all resources to exterminate the Jewish population in Europe to create room for “the pure ethnic Germans”.
The German forces raided Austria, Poland, Kiev and Czechoslovakia, rounding up and killing the Jews, attacking their businesses and in synagogues, placing them in death camps where they would die of starvation and the unhygienic conditions. In 1941 in Kiev, according to the BBC’s historical archives, about 33,771 Jews were killed in just two days.
South of the Brandenburg Gate, a few minutes’ walk, is the holocaust Memorial. Here, more than 2,000 grey rectangular slabs are arranged in rows spread in about five acres. Closer to the entrance is a writing, Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas, German for “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”.
One is engulfed by the cloying scent of death as you walk through the slabs. However, this is also a work of art that has concretised memories, and makes visitors actively reflect on making the world a better place. This depressing place, so creatively arranged, is beneficial to the present.
But the Brandenburg Gate is much more than just a locus for tracing the memorial site, and perhaps the reason why the man giving me the direction was angry that I did not know it. How could I not, if I was human?
On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall that separated the Communist East Germany and the capitalistic West Germany was brought down by the people who saw each side as their brother. So, with hammers and bare hands, they cracked the wall, climbed over it, happy that this time they were not getting shot at by the East German regime. The Brandenburg Gate — standing 213 feet wide and 66 high — was part of this wall. Germany has spent millions of dollars to maintain it, using technology like lasers to remove grime and seal cracks in it as it reminds us of a tumultuous time past World War II.
Yet, Berlin has built its creative and academic identity around these two disturbing events. They safely and creatively bring the memories of man at his worst form back to people’s recollection.
In the conference, scientists introduce themselves with statements such as “through this innovation, I am falling walls in neurology, environmental conservation”, in the spirit and the name of the conference.
Interestingly, more than the 3,000 experts who gathered for the Falling Walls conference are still solving the problems that the holocaust and the wall left behind or helped create.
On August 30, German newspapers reported that sympathisers of the Nazi, the ideology that motivated the killing of the Jews, chased immigrants in Chemnitz and overpowered the police. The fuel for such is always false information, much like the Propagandist Goebbels in the 1940 who spread word about the superiority of the Germans … or the supposed impurity of the Jewish race.
This is modern day fake news, which has been the diesel that has caused the explosions of many ethnic tensions in Africa and dissuaded people from embracing lifesaving vaccines.
Just like Germany, Kenya has experienced this trauma, often carefully labelled as ethnic clashes, where there are sometimes systematic killings targeted at certain communities: the 1984 Wagalla massacre; 1992 clashes in Molo; 1997 Likoni skirmishes; 2000 in Mt Elgon, and the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
These traumatic events often leave residues of pain in people and, years after they have died down, they rear their heads in murders, poverty and tensions.
Unfortunately, even politicians don’t have a grasp of the extent of the hurt these caused and perpetuate the pain in discriminatory policies and careless statements thrown at survivors.
Without a safe place for recalling and vicariously experiencing what other Kenyans went through, such as music, art or museums, Kenyans — just like the British who watched the killings in apathy of the Jews — don’t stand up for their brothers.
Verah Okeyo is a Global Health Reporter at Daily Nation. Reach her at [email protected]