Twin grey-brown block columns stretch up into a marbled sky. Giant Olympic rings are strung regally between the two.
The amphitheatre-style structure remains formidable, despite having been built over 80 years prior, as a testament to the might of an empire predicted to last a thousand years. Berlin’s Olympiastadion, erected by the Nazi government for the 1936 Olympics, stands before me. It is the unlikely site of the day’s greatly anticipated event – Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On The Run II concert.
How is it that I find myself inside a relic of a regime founded on racial hatred, about to witness a performance of two of the most successful and culturally significant black artists of our time?
On my way to a transformative peace building conference in Switzerland, I escaped to a little pre-conference vacation stopover in the capital of my beloved Deutschland.
Germanic culture has long since taken up significant real estate in my heart. I was first introduced in full technicolour stereotype by Rodgers and Hammerstein – singing along with Maria and the Von Trapps about edelweiß and lonely alpine goatherds in the legendary Sound of Musicfilm.
Later I would relive the history of Germany through classes, books and films. I would grow into the language in high school, and eventually move there for one of the nuttiest and most incredible university exchange years of my life. Through all this, one question left an indelible mark: how has Germany reconciled the horrors of the genocide?
Every nation has in some way struggled with the enslavement, oppression and annihilation of groups of its citizens. To me, Germany stands out as having confronted head-on the darkest period in their history.
Throughout their schooling, German children are exposed to the events of the past and given space to reflect upon what happened, on how it happened – and on whether it could happen again. There are countless books, movies, plays and other artistic works that deal with the systematic genocide and events of this era.
Germany is dotted with memorials and museums like the one I find myself at in Berlin. I am here with an assortment of amazing female friends, both new and old. Sheila, Sheshi, Lisa and Wangari – stunning ladies from various corners of the world, all here basking in Beyoncé’s glory and sightseeing together. Being the history nerd that I am, I suggest that we visit the Jewish Museum.
The “Between the Lines” building was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind and combines thought-provoking use of space with carefully curated historical content and arresting works by Jewish artists. The building has three “Axes”, each representing the different paths traversed by the Jews of Germany. Spaces or voids within the building are bare and contain no temperature regulation and very little natural light.
They evoke in a physical sense the absence of Jewish life and culture that resulted from the annihilation of the Shoah.
The first is the Axis of the Holocaust, which ends with one such space, the “Voided Void”; it’s a dank tower with a chill that persists even as the summer sun bakes the streets outside. There is a distinct heaviness – a kind of overwhelming sadness tapered by the smallest of windows high in one corner. A flicker of light in the empty darkness persists – a symbol of hope even the bleakest of circumstances.
The Axis of Exile follows the stories of those who fled the Nazi regime, and leads to a beautiful outdoor space characterized by a maze of large, off-kilter columns sprouting Israeli olive trees – symbols of peace from a distant spiritual homeland. The overall effect is one of travelling uphill, visitors emerging into a space of extraordinary beauty that is equal parts disorienting and a sanctuary – but not the home left behind.
Finally, the Axis of Continuity leads up steep stairs and ends with the “Memory Void”. The installation known as “Shalekhet”, or “Fallen Leaves”, is created by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman. It contains thousands of leaf-like metal faces scattered over the floor, dedicated to all innocent victims of war and violence. Indeed, how do you measure an absence – the potential wasted in lives lost?
I look at our little group, each member a friend with whom I’d shared moments of joy and connection. Incredible women, all full of life and laughter – a vibrant Vietnamese-Australian and three brilliant Kenyans – all of them queens. Each one would have been doomed under the Nazi regime.
As we leave the museum, sombre and reflective, we board a bus across town, only to stop amidst the sound of chanting. A protest march by Black Lives Matter (BLM) fills the street and we spill out of the bus.
There is a celebration of African diaspora culture on this weekend. Sheila smiles widely and says with passion how much it means to encounter the march, here on the other side of the world – to see the determination of her people to be heard so justice prevails.
It occurs to me there is much work still to be done to ensure tyranny does not prevail. Despite such efforts to reconcile and heal collective memory, Germany is by no means an oasis free from racial prejudice. As with every western country, aggression’s at all levels occur to this day. Indeed, this is exactly why, alongside acts of remembrance and confronting the past, the assertions, celebrations, and defiant displays of survival from persecuted groups are so important, here and everywhere.
Back at the concert, we find ourselves bearing witness to this, through a spatial reclamation of sorts. In the same stadium where Jesse Owens won gold in the face of Hitler’s white supremacist ideals, power couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z perform a visual and aural feast of symbolism and storytelling – a celebration of African-American life. There was something arresting about seeing this display in this space. It made the moment truly extraordinary – especially when the Queen herself sang the iconic words of her song “Freedom”:
Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move
Freedom, cut me loose!
Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?
Cause I need freedom too!
I break chains all by myself
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell
Hey! I’ma keep running
Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves