The last moments of Berlin, 2016

Pete Kowalczyk
Jan 4, 2017 · 5 min read

I flew out to Berlin a week after the attack.

The first thing I heard when I got off the U7 train at Neukölln was a huge explosion on what felt like the next street. The lady walking in front of me jumped out of her skin. A minute later there was another blast, this time it was meters away.

A bunch of neighborhood kids were setting off fireworks in the street, making their mark on the festive season with little moments of anarchy.

Eight days after an extremist, seduced by ISIS rhetoric, drove an articulated truck into a Christmas market on Breitscheidplatz — killing 12 and injuring 48 — Berlin didn’t feel like a city under assault. The capital was warming up for New Year’s.

I walked another corner to an apartment on Schierkerstraße. A huge green and orange blaze of light fizzled in the middle of the street. Then it exploded like a bomb.

I’d come to Berlin to try to capture something of this moment in Europe, out of desperation, because frankly I feel quite helpless.

Paris, Brussels, Nice, Munich, Ansbach and now Berlin; more people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Europe in the last 15 months than in the previous 12 years. Sometimes it’s too much for words. I came here to take photos.

As a response to the attack, walls are going back up in Berlin. And once again, concrete is the material of choice. Three foot-thick, interlaced with steel girders, these makeshift walls now surround Berlin’s main public spaces.

They’re the same kind of blocks that kept the city divided for 28 years. They’re the same blocks behind which my grandparents were kept in forced labor during the Second World War. The same kind of blocks behind which, in a camp near Stadthagen in 1945, my dad was conceived.

In the shadow of this concrete, life prevails.

On an overcast afternoon on Karl-Marx-Straße in Neukölln, two silver-haired, middle-aged men in Puma tracksuits drank €1 beers and played darts in an off-licence.

In a nearby food market, a tall black gay hipster chatted over coffee to a skinny bedraggled Turkish psych musician in leopard skin lycra pants.

A Roman Catholic nun hobbled down the street, walking through her neighborhood, which is now around 40 percent non-German, and is part of the European Commission’s Intercultural Cities program.

I made my way to Breitscheidplatz, the square where the attack took place.

I walked past cold and irregular blockades of industrial concrete. And past carpets of red candles punctuated with makeshift signs of solidarity written in Polish and Italian.

I walked further in, toward the memorial hall inside the damaged spire of the old Kaiser Wilhelm church, a crumbling shell, badly damaged in a bombing raid in 1943.

When I got inside, the place was crammed, everyone transfixed by a disarmingly intricate mosaic fresco on the ceiling, a series of biblical scenes that seemed to transcend denomination.

There we were stood, shoulder-to-shoulder: There were three young beguiled white teenagers in baseball caps, two young mothers wearing the hijab, pushing strollers, and a backpacker, I think from Indonesia, who didn’t speak a word of English but in this church, in this sober, inclusive crowd, didn’t need to.

After sundown I headed back to Neukölln. On the way, I bedded into a packed-out old deco bar on Ganghoferstraße.

A Canadian musician asked the small crowd to sing along to an unremarkable but somehow nostalgic take on a waltz, and the patrons, a crowd of ‘Berliners’ from all corners of the globe, sang along in chorus. The English lyrics meant nothing at all, but it felt as if wounds were being healed as they sang.

Then the song closed, and the delicate intimacy of the room was interrupted by a huge explosion outside. And some mischievous kids ran past the window.

It was not long now until New Year’s Eve.

Latterly

Independent reporting on social justice

Latterly

Independent reporting on social justice

Pete Kowalczyk

Written by

Studying poetry at Goldsmiths in 2019 // Formerly freelance for the Guardian, CNN, Dazed, Latterly, and Vice // petekowalczyk.com

Latterly

Independent reporting on social justice