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An unexpected encounter with the past, the future.

I was born in 1948. I arrived on this planet, as did the rest of my generation when the world turned from making war to making love after the Second World War. Like most of my friends, I have never fought a war, but I certainly lived with the mark it left on my parents and grandparents.

When I was a teenager and bought a rusted out old Volkswagen beetle as my first car, my mother was outraged. The war had been over for nearly 20 years but buying anything German was not on.

It has taken a long time for me to get to where it began - Berlin.

As I write, I am in former East Berlin with the graffiti, the building cranes, the garish new buildings, the poverty, the riches, the legacy of a bombed-out landscape and 40 years of communist rule, along with a new, less giddy, less naive hope for the future a decade after the fall of the Berlin wall.

I am unprepared for my reaction. I have been queasy from the moment we set foot in the country. Berlin was never on my holiday list. I am here on business.

I feel like I am attending a documentary on the History Channel.

The people are very nice, friendly and welcoming. Mind you I am staying at one of those expensive international hotels that have crowded into East Berlin after the collapse of the wall.

I am too polite, or gutless to ask for directions to Sachenhausen, one of the preserved work/death camps. I remain so horrified at the institutional killing of the Third Reich I can't function logically for the first few days.

I am irritable. Sixty years later I cannot comprehend how this happened. Nothing explains it, and yet it is all old news. I am not learning or seeing anything I do not already know.

Two nights ago I had the pleasure of attending the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester at the newly refurbished Konzert Haus in East Berlin. It is without question one of the most beautiful evenings of music I have experienced in my life.

At intermission, a member of our group who is a distinguished professor from one of Americas top universities, tells us, while we are standing in the foyer, how disgusted he is with a German colleague who was lamenting the horrific effect of Allied bombing on Munich and Berlin during the war. He is outraged. He won't let it go, and the conversation. has come to a halt. A young German woman in our party turns red in the face, but keeps her council. I mention to my learned friend that of course he is right, but how long must the sons and daughters pay the price of the actions of their parents and grand parents. I have stolen this position from my wife who earlier raised the point as I raged about the circumstance of our trip.

Berlin, it seems, is where we must come to witness the extremes of our depravity and our potential. It is where the history is not only written by the winners, but by the losers. It is unnerving. Canada is a sanctuary from the violence of the 20th century. Many of us are economic or religious refugees, but the inhumanity of the last century does not mark us. At least, not where we live. We are lucky.

As I leave Berlin I have a grudging respect for Berliners' willingness to rebuild, for acknowledging the horrors of the past without wallowing in it. I have sympathy for the plight of East Berliners and I wish them well as they try to come to terms with the commercial world that is now be inflicted on them without restraint.

From Hitler to Stalin to Mickey Mouse.

I leave older and wiser.

In today's International Herald Tribune they report on the first reparation payments for slaves captured during the Second World War, the Russians who mark the 61st anniversary of the invasion of their country by Hitler and the Pope who is visiting the monument at Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where the Nazis massacred more than 30,000 Jews in two days.

It has been a very long time, but the final acts of contrition are being offered and accepted. Soon there will be very few left who lived through this ugly period.

Perhaps as we contemplate the trial of Milosevic we can let ourselves believe we have learned from this stain on humanity.

I'm glad I came.

It was time.
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Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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