Near Berlin’s once bombed-out city center, smoke still rises from Tempelhofer Flugfeldes, Tempelhof Field, adjacent the old hangars where the greatest architectural symbol of the Nazi regime was to perch in the shape an eagle — traditional symbol of empire. But the smoke is from family dinners grilling on picnic blankets, by boys playing ball in the Indian summer sun and babies learning to bicycle, as Germany’s capital opens its largest public park to at least 1,200 refugees as an emergency shelter.
It’s an ironic place of peace and refuge for Muslim refugees in particular, Tempelhof. Set on former Crusader land named for its medieval owners — the Knights Templar — the site is run-down, for a military airport. Over a former runway, the setting sun kisses kites and tykes on bikes. A nearby sign reads “Fahrbahnschäden” warning about the uneven surface. The tarmacs built beginning in the 1920s haven’t been maintained for warplanes. Instead, community outcry has repeatedly saved the site from commercial redevelopment, keeping it a green space filled with flowers, light, and air. Hitler’s airfield of flowers — meant to house his behemoth flying-eagle airport, its wings spread “like the brazen giant of Greek fame” — now welcomes:
your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…
the homeless, tempest-tossed…
— Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” as inscribed on the Statue of Liberty
We have come to Germany. I hear there are another one or two hundred Americans in somewhat similar straits in Berlin alone, among the luckiest of informal asylees — people like Jacob Appelbaum, maybe people like me. I don’t know where to sit down long enough to finish my next book. But compared to the vast majority of Berlin’s 40,000-person share of Germany’s expected 800,000 migrants arriving this year alone in the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, we’re too lucky to seek asylum and too confused to try, although I can only speak for myself. If nothing else, the feeling of skydiving into the world without stable bonds of country, family, or human love gives me a deeper well of empathy with the people living now in Tempelhof and still in tents nearby. It’s getting too cold already to be in a tent in Berlin overnight. Efforts are still underway to speed and improve insulation of the unused hangars. Shelter is a process, home a state of mind in a world reset to roam.
But the ongoing efforts inspire my faith in the goodness of people, and I’m grateful. Just last week, Berliners threw a welcome picnic for the refugees in the park. In a city that was once the capital of institutionalized racism, xenophobia, and war crimes, today little brown boys play with little white boys. No one notices. The grown-ups are mostly too busy with their own games — courtship, cooking, and kites. On one side, I see a squirrel kite laughing in the wind, reminding me to wonder what’s really distraction — and what’s really our most important work in life. On another, a grown man trying clumsily to control a butterfly kite with her own ideas. And far off in the distance, a strange bird of a multi-colored kite rising high into unknown, changing winds.
Leading the way to the exit, a tired child leans out the back of his bicycle wagon, dragging sandy sine waves in his wake. Around the corner, by the sign pointing the way to the park, Berliners visit McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts for dinner. But they have lots of other options.