So… by Harriet Jernigan
So I’m hitting on this guy at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin when I realize I’m hitting on a guy at a Holocaust memorial! My cheeks heat up, even though it’s 20 degrees out and snowing, a silent deluge of powder catching in my hat, coat, eyelashes. I like to think of it as God’s dandruff.
And we’re not standing in just any old run-of-the-mill Holocaust memorial, either. This is the Grand Slam of memorials, the one with the best Kung Fu. It’s das Denkmal für die ermorderten Juden Europas. It’s the trippiest Holocaust memorial I’ve seen, and I’ve seen most of them. I’m a black woman with a Ph.D. in German Studies, which means that I spend a lot of time in therapy. I try to reconcile my love for a country most well known for its deadly racism in part by seeing as many Holocaust memorials as possible. You could say I’m an aficionado. I‘ve been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (a real tear-jerker), the Holocaust Memorial in Boston (nice, but nothing really to write home about), The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center in Florida (more for school-age kids than adults), the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center (has a sort of ashram feel to it), the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the Museum of Tolerance, also in L.A. I went for a double-header that weekend. I’ll never do that again. I ate two gallons of Haagen-Dazs the next week. Put on 7 pounds. Then I went and found more in St. Petersburg, Skokie, Albuquerque, Richmond, San Francisco, Dallas. I cried my way across the country, racked up a huge number of frequent flyer miles, which have paid for some pretty flashy hotel rooms. Ever since L.A., I book hotels with fitness rooms.
After a while, though, I needed more. I branched out, went abroad. I squeeze in a few trips a year, going from place to place, site to site, camp to camp. I stood transfixed in front of the sculpture at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I wept at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, shed tears at the Russian Holocaust Foundation. I howled at Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbruck, Birkenau, Mauthausen, Auschwitz, sobbed at Treblinka, Sobibor, Lublin Majdanek. I spent so much time in Poland I started taking Polish lessons, spending hours upon hours trying to pronounce, Czy moge skorzystac z telefonu? I finally gave up. I didn’t feel like I was making any progress in the way of salvation, anyway. After a while, Holocaust memorials start to blend together, the withered shoes piled mile-high in a Plexiglas case, the portraits of families that were completely wiped out, the eyewitness accounts, the stories of Kristallnacht, The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the plumes of smoke from the crematoriums, the letters, postcards, pictures, pictures, pictures. It just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I think I stopped crying after my 20th memorial. But I kept going, searching for the memorial, the one that would blow my socks off, the one that would be the mother of all Holocaust memorials, the one that would atone for my lifestyle choice. For a while, I thought I was going to have to go to The Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre in Sydney, the Museo del Holocausto in Buenos Aires or the Fukuyama Holocaust Education Center to get what I needed. It was getting to be an expensive habit.
But I found it before having to mortgage my first born. At first I thought I’d found it in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, bawling buckets for more than an hour afterwards. I blubbered again for almost as long when I went again a year later. But the third visit didn’t leave me with red eyes for the rest of the day; I dried up after a mere 15 minutes. What a gyp! I had a Eurail Pass and a few extra days, so I decided to go to Berlin, and see if the memorial they’d just erected there could do anything for me.
The pictures didn’t promise much, just some blocks plunked down in the ground in a grid, stretching out over an entire city block. Slightly crooked, the granite slabs just lay there, grey, non-descript. They looked better suited for skaters than a Germanist of color with an identity crisis. But it was a Holocaust memorial, and maybe the blocks had something inscribed on them. Besides, it was relatively close by. So I got on a night train and headed to Berlin.
I stumbled on it earlier than I’d planned, while taking a late-night stroll through the former East Berlin. I was wondering what the line of plain grey blocks about knee-high were when I looked out over the expanse and realized that was it. “Sonofabitch!” I hissed. “I took a 12-hour train trip for this?” It really was just a bunch of blocks, Legos assembled by a child who probably got Fs in art class. Since it was open, being nothing more than a bunch of blocks, I decided to walk through it. At least I wouldn’t have to waste daylight on it. I could go back to where the July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler took place instead.
And then it happened, a sensation I’d never had at any other Holocaust memorial. The blocks suddenly towered above me. I’d only moved 20 or 30 feet but the thing had swallowed me. As I wondered how that had happened so quickly, I turned a corner and almost ran into someone else, scaring the shit out of myself. I did the same thing again 30 seconds later, yelping when I bumped into a teenager who was shouting between columns to a friend. The place was crawling with people. I could hear them, even ran over them at times, but I never really knew how close or far away anyone was. They kept taking me by surprise. My heart started pounding as I made my way slowly through the maze, checking the corners before turning around them. The blocks, silent, dark, imposing, needed no inscriptions, no words, no tour guide, no explanation. They overwhelmed, consumed, terrified. My heart hammered inside my rib cage as I made a beeline for the edge of the memorial. I could swear someone was following me, chasing me. I walked faster, then trotted, and almost started running when I finally made it to a part where I could see above the blocks again.
I emerged from the memorial, fresh air washing over me, a weight lifting off my shoulders. I took a long, cleansing breath and looked back over the innocuous surface, the surprising absence of noise mingling with the blood roaring in my ears. This was it. This was the place. I couldn’t wait to come back again. I wanted to marry the designer and have his babies. I wouldn’t have cared if he was a drooling quadriplegic with halitosis. The man was a genius. I swore I’d come back as soon as possible.
It had taken two years, but I was finally back. This time I went in January, during the day, to get a different impression, to see how the snow would change it. I went to the visitor center first, to compare it with the others. I felt like a girl on a first date, butterflies in my stomach, the anticipation turning my legs to jelly. Although it initially looked the same as the others, it was everything I’d hoped for and more, the first room yanking at my tear ducts almost immediately. Each room was more devastating than the last, rendering me a total mess by the time I got to the final room, pitch black except for one wall, on which names of victims materialized, one after another, with their date of birth and death, slowly, regularly, never repeating. This finished me off, forcing me to pull out the Kleenex. After another 20 minutes I was drained, sitting spent on the uncomfortable bench. Finally, I’d found a memorial that could deliver. I felt more grounded than I had in years, since I’d finished the dissertation.
Still dabbing at my eyes, I left the visitor center and walked back through the memorial, moving towards the far edge so I could take some pictures. I hadn’t noticed before that from that side, the memorial has a hill-like shape, peaking softly in the center, a view you don’t get from the other side. I started taking pictures with my iPhone, standing next to this guy who had set up a tripod. I didn’t care too much about pictures, but they had to go into the album I kept. The pictures would never do the experience justice, so I didn’t really care about the quality. It was strictly record-keeping.
“Do you speak English?” I heard someone ask behind me. I turned around. It was the guy with the tripod.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I took some pictures of you earlier. I was trying to catch up with you, but you disappeared.”
“Uh huh.” Freak, I thought, looking him up and down.
“Your coat makes this really awesome contrast, with the snow and everything.” I was wearing a calf-length Crayola-red coat, a matching cap. “It makes a really good picture.”
“Thanks!” I’d never gotten a compliment before on my attire at Holocaust memorials, but I’d always been mindful of what to wear on those days. Nothing too mournful, nothing too light-hearted. It had to be just right.
“I wanted to ask if I could get a couple more shots, though,” he said. “You were a little far away.”
“Sure, be glad to help.”
“If you could just walk down that aisle there, that would be great.”
“Ok.” I start marching down the corridor of blocks as though on my way to work.
“Slower!” the guy shouts. “Like you were before.”
I slow down to a saunter, wondering what my ass looks like. It must be huge. I’ve got to start working out again.
“Okay! Got it!”
I head back to where he is. We start talking. I realize he has the most lovely eyes, blue with flecks of silver, long eyelashes. He’s got a great smile. I can’t place his accent. He sounds like a British transplant who’s been in the States forever. Maybe he’s from new England and he has one of those Ivy League accents. I love men with accents, will almost immediately drop trou for an accent. I want that voice to whisper nasty things in my ear. I check the gaydar briefly—nope, not a single blip. No glint of a wedding ring. I flash my smile. “Where are you from?” I check out the size of his hands.
“Really?” His lips are plump, but not too full. I wonder what kind of kisser he is.
“I live in New York now, though.”
“Oh. So what brought you to Berlin?” An image of him mounting me from behind flashes in my head.
“I’m visiting a friend.”
“Oh,” No business trip or conference, no footloose and fancy-free. Fuck.
“But he left yesterday.”
“Oh.” Fuck yeah.
“I’m trying to get as many shots in today as I can. I have to leave tomorrow.”
“Uh huh.” I can’t really participate in the conversation, because I’m too busy thinking how soft and warm his skin must be, how I’d like to be pressed against him under some sheets. I’m trying to figure out a way to ask him out that doesn’t involve me humping his leg. But right as I’m getting ready to suggest we retire to a bar somewhere nearby, I start to feel a little crass. I wonder what the 6 million Jews who made this whole thing possible would think. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ask. I feel my body start to flush. “So is this your first time in Berlin?” I try to think of dead puppies, but end up imagining myself licking his nether parts.
“Yeah, I….” His voice drifts off into the ether. I can’t stay focused. I want to know what he’s like in bed, want to touch that salt-and-pepper beard, make those blue eyes roll into the back of his head. I keep wondering what he’d think of me if I asked him out. Would he have casual sex with someone who’s insane enough to ask someone out at a Holocaust memorial? Does he even do casual sex? Was he Jewish? Would he be offended? Was he into that kind of thing? Was it so bad to be attracted to someone in the middle of a Holocaust memorial? Was that a good sign? Irresistible chemistry? At least I wouldn’t just do him right there, on one of the blocks. It was too cold for that.
“…go get a drink.”
“I’m sorry,” I say dopily, coming out of my fog. “I missed that last part.”
“I was wondering if you wanted to get a drink,” he says, smiling. “If you don’t mind my asking, well, you know, here.”
“It is sort of weird.” I try not to tongue him right there.
“I know. I totally understand if—“
“No!” I bleat. “Don’t sweat it.” I hear the future unwrapping of condoms. I calm down. “I know a good place close to here.”
“Cool, let’s go.”
I lead the way, then turn around. “By the way, what’s your name?”
Harriett Jernigan is an English and German lecturer at City College of San Francisco and University of California, Davis. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in German Studies and Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and her Ph.D. in German Studies from Stanford University. She spends a lot of time trying to figure out how that happened. She usually does this while living in Germany or Austria. Harriett works as a freelance editor and translator in her spare time, and bakes copious amounts of pastries.