As a frequent Tempelhofer Feld jogger, I’ve been watching the archaeological dig there with curiosity all summer. Students are out digging almost every day, and the excavation sites wedged between the beach volleyball court and the baseball diamond have been growing since June. Last Friday I finally made it to the weekly free public tour. The tour group meets up at 3pm at the bright pink information booth between the baseball field and the mosque. The guide introduced herself as one of the grad students working on the dig. She led us up stairs to a lookout platform to start the tour with an overview of the history of Tempelhofer Feld; before she began, she surveyed the group. There were about 15 of us, including two elementary school-aged kids with their grandparents. “We’ve never had children before,” the guide said, seeming a bit stumped by this turn of events. “I’ll try to do the tour in a child-appropriate way, but you do understand it’s a very dark history?” The grandparents nodded amiably.
Tempelhofer Feld, she told us, was a military parade ground zu Kaiserzeiten, and began operation as Germany’s first airport in 1923. In the 20s, the airport was a hub of social life: people came there to hang out at bars and restaurants and watch air shows. The Nazis held their first Berlin mass rally there on May 1, 1933 before a crowd of 1.9 million; within a year a Gestapo prison and one of Germany’s first concentration camps had opened on the airport premises. (At this point in the story the tour guide made what may be the only successful German-language Nazi joke I have ever witnessed: she ticked off a long list of the many groups the Nazis considered undesirable and said “so as you may imagine, they ran out of space in the Gestapo prison pretty fast,” at which – to my surprise – the crowd laughed.)
Forced labor camps at the airport soon followed. Lufthansa began using Jewish forced laborers at Tempelhof in the 1930s. Weserflug, another German company still in existence (it’s now part of EADS), followed with 25 barracks housing thousands of forced laborers building its war planes. After the war began, Poles and French P.O.W.s were added to the barracks, followed by Ukrainians and eventually more than 20 nationalities. Such camps, and slave labor in general, are a recent focus of Holocaust research, and the laborers’ barracks are the subject of the current archaeological digs.
At this point the guide led us into the dig sites. She showed us barrack foundations and plumbing pipes and barbed wire. The excavations, which are funded by the city of Berlin, face various pressures and restrictions: no digging is allowed where there are sports fields or rare wildflowers; the excavations can only remain open until mid-October; the FU professors leading the project feel time pressure from the plans to develop Tempelhofer Feld late in this decade (and, I presume, from the fact that only a few survivors of the camps remain alive). The tour guide was an excellent storyteller. She spoke vividly of the thinness of the barrack walls in cold winters, and the forced laborers’ vulnerability to the Allied bombs that began falling on Berlin in 1943. “Engaging” is, in my experience, generally a quality far more valued in English-language guided tours than their German counterparts. I have been on many a German-language historical tour that dumped information on participants with a near-comical drab precision (und nachdem die Dachziegel der Kirche 1595 teilweise ersetzt wurden, erfolgten 1601 bzw. 1607 bis 1608 weitere Dachziegel-Erneuerungsmaßnahmen). But this tour was totally engaging. Because of its clear, accessible style and the guide’s use of her surroundings as visual aids, I would even recommend the tour to people who feel shaky about their German skills.
Trauma does strange things to memory. Survivors of the forced labor camps, the guide said, have vivid memories of pleasant one-off events: the time there was a dance in the barracks, the time they got better food than usual. But they remember nothing of everyday life in the camp. The digs are intended to unearth objects of everyday life in the hopes that showing these objects to survivors will jog their memories. So far they’ve found dishes and cutlery and buttons and even a lock.
“Did the lock have a key?” the older of the children, a boy of about 10, piped up.
“No,” the guide said. Leider nicht.
“Who has the key?” the boy asked.
“I wish I knew,” the guide said. I wondered how I as a non-fiction writer should deal with bits of dialogue that actually occurred in real life but would sound cheesily over-the-top symbolic if they occurred in fiction.
Then, seeming to sense that a question about human remains impended, the guide said, “We’ve found a few bone fragments but there are no skeletons here. The laborers who died here are presumably buried in an unknown mass grave somewhere else.” At “somewhere else” she waved her arm unsettlingly at the part of Tempelhofer Feld where I go running every day and fly kites with my son.
After the tour everyone chatted about the fact that children had taken part in it. I had to rush off to pick up my son from KiTa, and on the way I passed a memorial to Columbia-Haus, the early concentration camp on Tempelhofer Feld that the guide had mentioned. My son’s preschool group walks past this memorial on their Wednesday trips to the gym for Turnen. One Wednesday last year my son, then four, came home to say the kids had asked the teachers what the statue on the corner was, and the teachers had “explained about the bad police”. One of the many things I didn’t anticipate about raising a child in Berlin is that the (of course good and necessary) ubiquity of plaques and memorials and other objects commemorating the Holocaust means that you are likely to be asked questions at a point when your child is far too young to emotionally handle a thorough answer. The teachers’ answer – I got the impression that learning to answer preschoolers’ questions about the Nazi era in an age-appropriate way had been part of their training as Erzieherinnen – was along the lines of “long ago, even before your grandparents were born, there was a terrible time when the police in Germany were bad and the bad police arrested good people for no reason and sent them to jails where some of them died.” Initially this explanation kind of bothered me – wasn’t calling the Nazi regime “bad police” a bit odd? – but however long I thought about it, I couldn’t think of a better alternative.
German-language tour of archaeological excavations at Tempelhofer Freiheit, every Friday 3-4pm from now until mid-October. Meeting point at the information booth nearest the Columbiadamm entrance. Free.