Anonymity and remembrance in Berlin

I’d not been in Berlin since 1987 — before the Wall came tumbling down — so I eagerly accepted an invitation to speak at an international conference there this past November. The change is dramatic. Where the dreaded “Vopos” or Volkspolizei once goose-stepped, Starbucks now brews. In 1987, you could walk two blocks to either side of East Berlin’s Fifth Avenue, the Unter den Linden, and find buildings pockmarked by World War II artillery shells; today, the only relics of that period are a few buildings in which addicts have claimed squatter’s rights.

On my first night in town, I walked through the Brandenburg Gate and into the old Soviet zone to see if my 1987 memories still gave me navigational bearings. They did, but barely. No Man’s Land has been replaced by the massive Potsdammerplatz multi-use center; several Christmas Markets were doing a brisk Yuletide business; and the Unter den Linden came to a cheerful end in an amusement park with a colossal ferris wheel, which such hardline East German Stalinists as Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker would have thought unbearably bourgeois.

During my stroll through the former communist sector I was happy to re-discover St. Hedwig’s, Berlin’s Catholic cathedral, which has been considerably restored. It’s a curious structure — the Prussian king, Frederick II, insisted that it be modeled on Rome’s Pantheon — and the circular nave opens down into a large lower church where the altar of repose is built: and from which the main altar in the upper church “grows.” That singular piece of design notwithstanding, I found the undercroft an easy place to pray, as one of its chapels includes the tomb of Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg, the heroic cathedral provost who vehemently protested the Nazi persecution of Jews and who died en route to the Dachau concentration camp in 1943. The same chapel houses a striking bronze memorial to some twenty cathedral parishioners who also paid the ultimate price for their anti-Nazi resistance.

When I got back to my hotel, I plotted a course for the following morning, during which I wanted to see the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” dedicated in 2005. It was only on examining the map closely that I realized that I’d walked right past the memorial a few hours earlier, thinking it a construction site. It didn’t get better when I returned the next day.

The memorial consists of 2,711 concrete pillars of various sizes, all a dull grey, which cover an entire square block two hundred yards or so from the Reichstag. There is no indication what these pillars are, or what this site is meant to commemorate. One critic called it, not inappropriately, “a constructed place, a non-place…a design that can stand for everything and for nothing.” I tried walking through the grid of pillars, an experience that only reconfirmed my initial distaste for this deliberately anonymous “memorial” to those who had died anonymously. The New York Times architecture critic lauded the “quiet abstraction of the memorial;” its “haunting silence and stark physical presence,” he claimed, would “physically weave the Holocaust into our daily existence.” How, pray, does this site do that, when it could just as well be a memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Wehrmacht or the Red Army?

At 6 p.m. Mass in St. Hedwig’s on the Second Sunday of Advent, I found a full cathedral in which at least half the congregants were young people. The grave of Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg and the memorial to the martyred parishioners of the cathedral will, I think, teach those young people far more about radical evil than those 2,711 concrete pillars. In the Lichtenberg chapel, names are named; the dead are not ciphers. Europe’s collapse of faith in the God of the Bible may have made evocative public monuments impossible. Whatever the causation, Berlin has been given a “memorial” constructed as if a petulant giant had strewn an erector set over a field. I can’t help but think of this as a posthumous victory for Hitler – and that, as the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim taught us, violates the 614th Commandment.

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.