Published in Irena Luksic, Cities, Villages, Castles. A guide for literary travellers, Hrvatsko filolosko drustvo and Disput, Zagreb 2012.
“Paris-to-Marrickville shouldn’t be legal,” joked my friend, jetlagged after visiting family in France. Marrickville where she lives, is a former industrial suburb near mine, 25 minutes west of Sydney’s centre. Given the grace of Paris, re-entry past the $2 shops, around the concrete shopping mall and through the industrial backblocks was not likely to charm. You can get your car resprayed, buy party supplies or Halal meat in bulk. New cafes serve fairtrade coffee and honey from their rooftop hives; there’s even a bookstore, not far off. But few signs remind you of the suburb’s deep history, of the Cadigal people who lived here for 7000 years. I knew my friend was talking about more than aesthetics, and culture; that she was mourning the person she becomes in France with its deep connections to family lore. A city’s remembering, after all, is intimately linked to our own.
I’d had a similar feeling travelling to Berlin with my Jewish grandmother some years back. Born there in 1917, she’d fled to Australia in 1939, leaving behind her parents, who were murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. Coming from Sydney, where I was raised, to hover with my grandmother in front of an unremarkable Charlottenburg apartment was a journey of shock and surprise. For her, Berlin was uncannily nostalgic, a scene of horror and deprivation (she queued for butter, her stepfather went into hiding, she saw the Fasanenstrasse synagogue burn). Yet, Berlin was also synonymous with youthful passion (she’d slept with her Gentile boyfriend in Grunewald, at Halensee; she was in love, he was forbidden). Now she stood outside her old apartment, wanting to go inside. She only had photographs to remember it. She knocked and knocked. But noone was home.
Because of this history, and how Berlin has scarred my grandmother, I was disturbed to feel at home in the city; to discover, I loved it. I felt such uncanny belonging, wandering the stone courtyards in the Haekescher Hof while young people—some with mysteriously familiar features—cycled by. From the Reichstag’s glass dome I surveyed a city where architecture collages past and present. In a Kreuzberg cafe, my grandmother stowed a naked, herring sandwich into her bag, “for later”; her love of German food was legendary. Berlin, which had once denied her almost everything—a home, her boyfriend, her friends, her parents—had sharpened her eccentricities. In Sydney she stockpiled food; she collected cameras and recorded, gathering each moment more deeply into her possession; she panicked about our whereabouts; she could be touchy about the mail (which had brought hope and then, the Red Cross telegrams). And so my strange elation in Berlin felt blasphemous. Did my sense of belonging come from those peculiar harmonies that helped me find (without any German) relatives’ names in the Jewish Gemeindehaus, her birth-father’s testimony in the Neue Synagogue? Or was it because this city, so suffused with memorials—Mischa Ullman’s empty, underground bookshelves at Bebelplatz; the “stumblestones” that mark the homes of persecuted Jews among cobblestones; Christian Boltanski’s “Missing House”—reanimated a past I’ve known only through stories and photos?
In Sydney, there are scant references to the deracination and dispossession in the city’s past, though the Lord Mayor is planning a public sculpture by the Harbour and a walking trail to commemorate the first people, the Eora. And there are calls to uncover the Tank Stream, a source of fish and freshwater that once ran through the city until the convicts turned it into an open sewer. Now tours of this stream, which was concreted over in 1860, are so popular you can only win a place on them by ballot.
One evening, on that Berlin trip, I called my grandmother from a phonebox, about an hour later than planned. Her voice was reedy with worry. She thought I’d been “taken”; thank goodness I was okay! I felt my present morph into her past. Outside, stark angles of sunlight, the dusk air still sweetly warm. On Oranienburgerstrasse, below bullet-scarred buildings, people drank coffee as if things were actually normal. Loving Berlin, where the past continually disrupts the present, reminded me of what happens to history when you build right over it. Loving Sydney, where thousands of aboriginal artworks, burial sites and middens are largely unseen, many ‘silently underlying suburbia’, is a murkier feeling because this presence is missing from the city’s visual story. When we’re tied to a place by blood, birth, or tragedy, this desire for empathic connection is a persistent, plaintive haunting. The citizens will still clamour to go underground, searching for signs of what came before.
* Grace Karskens, The Colony. A History of Early Sydney.