Berlin: Wall, monuments size up history

Fourth in a series about travel in Germany. The majority of Wisconsin residents, a higher percentage than any other state, trace their roots to a German-speaking country.

Imagine 2,711 plain, rectangular, concrete slabs that are identical in width and length but not height. At least 300 exceed 13 feet. More than 100 are at ground level. Others fall somewhere between the extremes.

These tomblike monuments are lined in a tidy field of rows, near Brandenburg Gate and the core of Berlin. There is no right way to inspect the array; any entry point is a path to mental immersion. Sacred or eerie? That depends upon your mood and point of view.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a powerful reminder of how many, how different and how alike these 6 million Holocaust victims were under Hitler’s reign. It’s easy to lose track of your surroundings and feel a tinge of panic. It’s easy to turn a corner and feel totally alone in a city of 3.4 million people.

Underneath the memorial, an information center presents stories of Jewish fate in more personal ways. Follow an individual family’s journey; search the database of victims; study how and where the genocide spread. Explanations and artifacts are graphic.

Visitors also stand at the memorial’s elevated edge, to watch others peacefully roam, temporarily disappear and struggle to stay oriented. Our tour guide notes that this work by architect Peter Eisenman is Germany’s way to help younger generations show responsibility while shedding guilt for the atrocities of World War II.

Berlin, one of the country’s most historically dynamic and divided cities, shares several other scars from its painful past. A short walk from the memorial is the Topography of Terror, a museum at the site of Gestapo and Nazi headquarters, which documents the history of the site with explicit photographs, facts and relics.

Just outside is a 650-foot section of the concrete Berlin Wall, which began 50 years ago as a 96-mile barbed wire fence. What remains is an art installation that mixes historic explanations with graffiti. Two parallel walls actually divided the city for 28 years; between them was the 100-yard-wide “death strip” where people bicycle or walk today.

Also seek out the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, devoted to methods of escape – underground and over it – from East to West Germany during the Cold War. The amazing exhibits include suitcases to vehicles that actually carried escapees.

Outside, a copy of the checkpoint’s guardhouse – the crossing point between East and West Berlin – panders to tourists with actor-guards in uniform and nearby sales of kitschy souvenirs, which include military hats, badges and pieces of the wall that are likely are fake.

Lodging: We were content at Hotel Henriette, a property with friendly and accommodating staff, near city trains and the pleasant restaurants of Alexanderplatz. www.deraghotels.de

Dining: It’s street fare, but Berlin takes pride in being the birthplace of currywurst – chunks of sausage or hot dogs that are doused with a tomato sauce spiced with paprika and other seasonings. Food carts serve them everywhere, or go to the Deutsches Currywurst Museum for the story behind this quick lunch. www.currywurstmuseum.de

For more about travel in Berlin: www.visitberlin.de. Meander on your own or consider an English-speaking tour through Original Berlin Walks, www.berlinwalks.de.

Trains smoothly link many cities in Germany. The hauptbahnof (main train station) typically is within a walk of the center of activity.

For more about travel in Germany: www.cometogermany.com, 212-661-7200.

Oktoberfest celebrations begin this month in Wisconsin. For example:

The United Donauschwaben of Milwaukee, the state’s largest nonprofit German ethnic organization, hosts its festivities Aug. 27-28 and Sept. 3-5 at N56 W14750 Silver Spring Rd., Menomonee Falls. www.facebook.com/donauschwaben, 262-252-4100

Organizers of Glendale’s four-weekend event at Heidelberg Park, 700 W. Lexington Blvd., call it the oldest and most authentic Oktoberfest in Wisconsin. The dates are Sept. 9-10, 16-17, 23-24, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. www.oktoberfestmilwaukee.com, 262-646-8048

The Gemutlichkeit Foundation on Sept. 23 to Oct. 1 presents the 51st annual Oktoberfest at the Festgrounds, near Riverside Park in downtown La Crosse. www.oktoberfestusa.com, 608-784-3378

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.