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Lifestyle

What Berlin's flea markets say about the city

People buy pictures of communist leaders and postcards from Nazi Germany. Berlin's flea markets are a recycling center for German history, says columnist Gero Schliess.

I think flea markets in Berlin are like carrying coals to Newcastle. The city, with all the ups and downs it has been through, has already collected enough bric-a-brac.

But Berliners can't seem to get enough. On Google, I manage to find more than 20 kinds, including a "night time flea market" and a "ladies' flea market."

It is an email from a friend that has sparked my interest in the capital's rummage sales: "Do you want to go to the giant flea market at the Ostbahnhof train station on Sunday? (I actually don't like flea markets.)"

Gero Schliess, Berlin 24/7

Gero Schliess shares his insights from the capital in the weekly column, "Berlin 24/7"

Exactly, I thought. And so, we had a date.

The flea and the market

To understand my reservations about flea markets, you just have to ask where they got their name. In the late Middle Ages, the nobility would donate their used clothing to the poor. With each shirt or pair or pants, the resident flea changed his host. Sound appealing?

"I don't like used things," my friend says.

We meet up at Berlin's Ostbahnhof. Once one of the city's two main stations, it has fallen into decline since the new central station has opened a decade ago.

We can't overlook the fact that the "giant flea market" had been properly named, as we find 25,000 square meters (270,000 square feet) of negotiating, bargaining and buying. There are some 50 stands that simply sell stamps, postcards, old photos and coins.

Flea market in Berlin (DW/G. Schließ)

It's the postmark that determines a postcard's value

I'm shocked. This is a flea market? Just stamps and coins? Where is all the useless stuff I'd expected to find - like old furniture and broken appliances?

One stamp seller explains to me that the postcards become more valuable when they bear an original stamp - especially from the Nazi era or communist East Germany. Apparently, the personal messages written on them are less interesting.

Some collectors are sitting on folding chairs in front of the stands so they can more comfortably flip through the countless cards on offer.

Bank notes are also very valuable, I learn, spotting the photo of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk on a 20-million-lira bill. Another note from Zimbabwe bears the number 50 trillion, having witnessed times of severe inflation. 

Looking for my own story

Heading out from the main station building, we take a short break in the sun on the patio. Standing nearby is a man of about our age who is holding an old scooter. The people around us start exclaiming, "I used to have one like that too!" The ice is broken.

Postcards at a flea market in Berlin (DW/G. Schließ)

The postcards reveal idyllic images of Germany

Heading back into the hall, the memories start coming. There are framed photos of weddings, perfect smiling families and shop owners opening their vegetable stores. Many of the images display the pride of achieving a goal, of having dealt with life's hardships.

As I flip through the albums, I realize I am remembering my own family.

Who hangs Honecker over the couch?

It is not just our own personal stories that we encounter, but also the history of our country - though Berlin is very much a unique case.

Everything that lands on history's rubble heap is recycled at Berlin's flea markets. 

Soldier picture at flea market in Berlin (DW/G. Schließ)

What looks like a military celebration at first glance is an image of mourning

Countless photo albums we find contain images of East German leader Erich Honecker. Two top quality frames with pictures of Honecker and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev catch our eye, in particular, and we joke about who would buy such a thing.

Just a few minutes later, we spot a man cheerfully walking away from the stand with that very picture under his arm.

Another framed picture, meant to honor military life, quotes with fervor the national anthem of the former German Empire, "Hail to Thee in Victor's Crown." Pictured is an image of a warrior's victory uniform. Taking a closer look, I realize it depicts an epitaph for a fallen soldier. The victory uniform is, in fact, his burial gown. 

My day at the flea market gets me thinking. Why would someone hang up a picture of Erich Honecker or a fallen soldier in their apartment?

But I realized that at the flea market, it's not just the stuff that has a story. The customers also tell a story when they buy something - whether they want to or not.

After three hours, we ended our expedition with the realization: "Oh, we didn't even buy anything!"

 

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