By the afternoon of his suicide, Adolf Hitler hadn’t seen the sun in ten days. He had been living in a concrete bunker 28 feet below the ruins of Berlin for months. There was a time when the dictator was able to walk his German Shepherd, Blondi, in the Chancellery gardens above, but during those last days, the advancing Soviet artillery had made that impossible. Anyway, Blondi was dead—fed cyanide on his master’s orders the night before. Hitler shot himself with a pistol the following afternoon. In accordance with his wishes, his corpse was doused with gasoline and cremated in a shell-crater just outside the bunker exit.
Sixty-eight years later, Berlin is almost unrecognizable. The Chancellery has been replaced by a kindergarten and a Chinese restaurant. The bunker, now half demolished is sealed beneath the parking lot of a beige apartment block. And, the cremation site lies under a weird, polychromatic children’s slide that the modern-art-hating Hitler would have abhorred—which is exactly the reason my translator Gaïa Maniquant-Rogozyk, who is Jewish, likes it. She came along to help me interview the local residents about how it feels to live alongside this dark part of their history. We took turns surfing down the slide as we waited for passersby.
“I don’t think I would have come here if the bunker was still existing,” Gaïa mentioned.
“Why?” I asked.
“When you grow up in a Jewish family,” she replied, “and when half of that family has been exterminated, you have a duty of memory. I went to Auschwitz on a school trip and I finally understood what happened. It’s so big that it’s easy for it to be abstract—just like a story—but in Auschwitz, there’s those big rooms with all the bowls that they found, and another one with all the prosthetics, and there’s a room with all the hair shaved from the heads of prisoners. I saw the hair and I had to leave. At that point, I understood what happened and I didn’t need to see anything more. I had fulfilled my duty.”