Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Luck of the Irish in Potsdam

Potsdam III: The Hitler Conspiracy and Einstein's Tower

I did what I usually do in a strange city before breakfast--I cruised the surroundings for interesting architecture. At 26 Karl Mendel Strasse, I stopped with a gasp. It was a Jugendstil manor house, badly abused by those crude old occupying powers, but sporting new high-gloss signage which signified that privatization had taken place there already. An advertising agency, for example.

I asked a custodian if I could take a gander inside. Holy Moses. A ceiling-to-floor window illuminated a grand staircase. When I realized how superb it was, I pulled my usual time-saving research ploy: I asked the custodian if they had a pamphlet or feature article summarizing the history of the structure.

He misunderstood what I meant by history. "Follow me," he said, leading me downstairs, "and I'll show you some history." He then opened the door to the toilet. I thought my German must really be getting bad. (What sounds like "Geschichte" that happens in a toilet? I wondered.)

But, no, he wasn't showing me where to go. He was showing me where some really big history had--almost--transpired. This was where Count von Stauffenberg prepared the briefcase bomb that was meant to kill Hitler in the summer of 1944.

I was speechless. Even my English failed me. Not the least surprising thing about this historical john was the world-class art collection that graced its walls. I mean Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, among others. Dumb Irish luck, eh?

I went to the City Art Gallery to come down from this peak experience. Had a good cup of coffee and a couple of kuchen. I noticed a couple of retired old geezers like me sipping away, so I went over and asked them what the don't-misses of their city were, culturally speaking.

They rattled them off: The Film Museum. The History Museum. The Einsteinturm. "The Einsteinturm!" I gasped. "You mean the place designed by Erich Mendelsohn so Einstein could test his theory of relativity?" The same. It was on the top of Telegraph Hill a brisk quarter of an hour walk from the train station I was planning to use to get back to Berlin.

But first, those two museums. Trouble was, it was Monday. Dark day for museums in Potsdam. It has taken me almost 50 years to reach Potsdam for my first visit. Kohl only knows when I'd get back. So I decided to try my Philadelphia Police Pass. If it could get me past a fire line in Philly, why not use it to open a few museums in Potsdam?

At the History Museum, the pass apparently looked so formidable that that guard took me to the only person with the authority to let me in--the director. And was she ever in a good mood. A few minutes before my arrival, the postman had delivered the first copy of her just-published coffee-table book on the stained glass in Marlburg Cathedral.

I was literally the second person to fondle this marvelous volume. She extemporized an illuminating lecture on the stained glass itself and on its patron Saint Elizabeth, who became kind of a role model for social workers, since she had walked away from a rich life to succor the poor and the sick. Was I having a run of luck, or what?

She was a Wessie and had just been appointed to reorganize the city's museums, leading them out of their heavily propagandized past into the kind of sprightly venues Wessies have devised in their museums since World War II. She showered me with books and brochures. And told me how to get to the Film Museum.

When film buffs think Potsdam, their minds say Babelsberg--the sector east across the Havel River--because the legendary movie studios of the golden age of German cinema were there. Since my visit, a French conglomerate has taken over the task of rejuvenating the complex, and the Film Museum was already in the throes of doing a renewal that would keep it up with the renewed Babelsberg.

The old Film Museum (recycled Royal Stables) was fabulous enough for me, but I can imagine from the intelligence the curators displayed in their guided tour that the renewed museum will be as fascinating as the Babelsberg will be.

Now it was Einstein Time, relatively speaking. I parked my luggage in a locker at the train station, and headed for the hills--by walking South across the Lange Brucke. When I reached the Einsteinturm, a young French photojournalist was doing a shoot. His gear was almost as impressive as the Erich Mendelsohn building, and he showed me a swatch he had shot for an architecture magazine on an earlier assignment. World-class stuff.

But he was firm in his opinion that I'd never get anyone to let me look inside. I prowled around--squinting into windows, picturing the genius seated at this chair or that table. The photographer packed up his gear and drove away. I circled the sweetly bizarre structure one more time, dratting that luck had finally run out.

Just as I started to begin my dejected return to the train station, I noticed a scientist-looking man shambling up the walk. Bingo. I assumed my best Boy Scout posture and pretty-pleased him to let me just look inside for a few minutes, given that it was a world-class building and all.

He must have had a satisfying lunch or nooner because he said, "Why not?" It turned out that he was the director, and an excellent popularizer of science to boot. I left an hour later, even thinking I understood the theory of relativity--he was that luminous a tutor.

We went over the building and its history with a fine-tooth comb. All floors. Every cubbyhole. It was glorious. He even told me how the Allies had bombed Telegraph Hill because it was the center of radio communications.

A bomb had landed near enough to the Einsteinturm to shatter some of the cement and induce an interior rot because the patch work repair wasn't effective. In fact, if some American philanthropist would like to honor two geniuses--Albert and Erich--I'm sure the director would like to get the money to make the proper repairs.

As he left me glowing near the door, I asked him what such a nondescript stone was doing on the sculptural pedestal next to the entrance. "Ein stein," he smiled, and left me in state of cruelly unusual punishment as I walked on air back to the train station. Relatively speaking.

Planning a Visit: The Potdsam Tourist Centre was exceedingly helpful, telling me they were gearing up for a massive publicity effort to attract people to their Millennial Celebration. Friedrich-Ebert-Strasse 5, Postal Code O-1561 Potsdam. For faster if less complete service, contact the German Tourist Office in Manhattan--118 E 42nd St, 52nd fl, New York, NY 10168, (212) 661-7200. Lufthansa has various deals, Kennedy to Berlin/Tegel Airport, depending on when you go and how long you want to stay. 1-800-645-3880.

Reprinted from Welcomat: Hazard at Large.

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