Kate and William visit Berlin's Holocaust Memorial
On a three-day visit to Germany, the royals went to a site devoted to the country's darkest historical chapter. But as DW's Jefferson Chase found out, the somber location didn't prevent the customary royal watching.
In Don DeLillo's novel "White Noise", there's a passage about "The Most Photographed Barn in America," a perfectly normal structure that's a tourist attraction for the sole reason that so many tourists take pictures of it. As I stood with scores of people waiting for the arrival of Britain's Prince William and his wife Kate at Berlin's Holocaust Memorial, I was reminded of that scene. Anticipation was building. Kate and William were coming, and that was important because Kate and William were…well, Kate and William.
For me at least, the afternoon had begun auspiciously. Despite my name being missing from the official list, the accreditation lady had simply handed me a fistful of press tags, and 90 minutes before the royal arrival, the police had let me loiter around the entrance to the Memorial's documentation center in an effort to get into the tiny pool of journalists who would actually accompany Kate and William through the museum. The alternative was a cordoned off press section the cops had semi-affectionately called "the cage."
"If the DPA guy doesn't show, I can put you in the pool," said the head organization guy, who proceeded to lead us through the subterranean museum where William and his wife would soon be taking in tragic facts and heart-breaking images of Nazi Germany's lunatic attempt to eradicate the Jews of Europe. There, they would also meet with a nearly hundred-year-old Auschwitz survivor named Leon Henry Schwarzbaum.
Unfortunately once we were above ground again and had walked through one of the many columns of concrete steles that make up the memorial monument, there was the DPA guy waving press tags far more exalted than mine. No luxuriating in the pool for me. It was back to the cage.
A prince, after all
If I was going to be cast back down amongst the commoners, I thought, so be it. So I forewent the press area and headed for the growing crowd of onlookers on the western edge of the monument. Using the knowledge I'd gained on my walk-through, I helped an elderly woman on holiday find a spot with a good view of the row of concrete slabs the royal couple would soon be striding through.
Some onlookers waited for two hours to see the royals
Why was she sweating in the summer sun to see two people she didn't know do something as mundane as walk, I wanted to know.
"It's such nice weather, and what am I supposed to do, sit at home?" she replied. "And he is a prince, after all."
True enough, although for my money Kate possesses all the couple's pizzazz, while William, solely in terms of physical appearance, has always made me think of the fellow who sold home owners' insurance in the small American town where I grew up.
Were they here to pick up fashion tips from the princess, I asked two young women from Leipzig. On the contrary, they told me, they had turned out because they were politically active. Politically active?
"Yes, my family is Jewish," one of them said. "It means a lot to me that members of the royal family take the message of the Holocaust."
Open mouth, insert foot. It was a reminder that despite all the star power of royal glitz, this is a site that deserves respect.
William and Kate met Holocaust survivor Leon Henry Schwarzbaum
An unclear message
Indeed, why had Kate and William chosen to visit Berlin Holocaust Memorial, especially one day after they went to the Stutthof concentration camp in Gdansk, Poland? Were they trying to send some sort of message?
The royal couple's Europe trip has largely been interpreted in Germany through the lens of Brexit, with pundits speculating that Kate and William's mission was to present a more positive image of Britain. Was visiting two Nazi-related sites a way of recalling Germany's former status as Europe's villain and England's enormous sacrifice in helping create the continent as we know it? Or did they merely feel a duty to acknowledge the immense injustice and suffering of the past? I batted such thoughts back and forth with a British colleague who works for German television, but in the end we agreed that there was really no way to tell.
Then, at long last, the big moment was at hand. To somewhat fewer audible gasps of wonder than I had expected, Kate and William emerged from the underground museum and moved solemnly through the steles, slowly disappearing and reappearing from behind them. Then they posed for photographers, acknowledged the crowd and got into a discretely luxurious armored car. The whole shebang lasted perhaps four minutes.
As they drove off, Kate gave an obligatory wave.
"That was directly at me," said one of the onlookers, but not seriously. We all knew that, on the other side of such dark windows, all her highness likely saw was her own reflection.
I tried to find the people I'd talked to, to ask them whether it was worth the two-hour wait to get a fleeing glimpse of two people famous for being famous. But the show was over, and like most everyone else, the retiree and the politically aware 19-year-old were already gone.