This week we caught up with Heather Ellis, one of the great guides we work with, to talk about his experience as a private guide in Berlin:
Q: Who is Heather Ellis?
I am originally from central Pennsylvania, but came to Berlin first in 2004 as a tourist, and then in 2005 on a scholarship from the German government to learn German. I immediately felt at home here, and soon started working as a guide. Returning to the United States, I completed a Master’s Degree, but missed Berlin too much, and came back to Germany for good in 2008.
Q: What inspired you to become a guide?
I started learning about the Holocaust and the Nazi regime when I was about 12 years old, and was certain that I wanted to become a university professor. I later discovered that I wasn’t meant to spend time in an archive, but rather to be on the streets of Berlin bringing the past alive for my guests. When I came to Berlin as a tourist, I took a walking tour, and was immediately captivated. I wish I remembered my guide that day, because I would certainly thank him now.
Q: Have many tours have you led?
At least 2,500, likely more.
Q: Which tours do you specialise in?
Q: Can you remember your first tour?
I can’t remember my first walking tour, but I can definitely remember my first shore excursion. Which was about a decade ago. I only knew the city by foot and by public transportation, and assumed that the driver would know the city by car – I didn’t realize that the drivers live in Warnemünde. Which in hindsight, was not so smart. Most drivers do indeed know the city well, but on my first tour, it happened to be the driver’s first tour as well. So neither of us knew how to get around! We muddled through, but it definitely wasn’t my best day. Since then, I have certainly learned my way around, and could perhaps moonlight as a taxi driver.
Q: Can you recall a particularly memorable (positive) experience from your tours?
When I have time, I like to take my guests to the Weissensee Cemetery, which is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Several years ago, I toured with a family who had relatives buried there. We knew approximately where the graves were, but the cemetery is very overgrown, and in some parts like a forest. We carefully walked through the brush, in between big and little headstones, pushing back branches and scratching our legs. After about thirty minutes of searching with no results, we almost gave up, but the family had come so far, and we were so close. So we kept looking, and about ten minutes later I finally found the headstones! It was so meaningful for me to have connected them to a part of their past which had been lost for so long.
Q: If you were to visit Berlin again for the first time what three things would you want to experience again for the first time?
When I first arrived in Berlin, I remember really being struck by Tacheles, an old department store which was taken over by artists soon after the Wall fell. The building was totally falling apart, yet it was still permitted to exist. In what was rapidly becoming a very trendy neighborhood. The contrast of rough and polished structures was something I loved about Berlin. Unfortunately there are fewer and fewer of those spots still left.
I also enjoyed riding the Ring S-Bahn train around the city, to be able to see all the holes that were yet to be developed, and would love to be able to turn back to clock to do that again. Finally, I would like to stand in front of the Brandenburg Gate once more with fresh eyes. Overwhelmed at all the significant and historic moments that have happened there.
Q: Do you have a particular book or movie about Berlin that you like to recommend to clients? Why?
One of my favorite books is “The House by the Lake” by Thomas Harding. It is a masterful tale of a lake house outside of Berlin which changed hands multiple times. Right in step with the history that marched on around it. It weaves the lives of the house’s inhabitants into Berlin’s greater past. Providing not just historical facts, but also the personal tales of the people who lived through that history.
Q: What advice would you give a new guide?
I strongly believe that a tour guide needs to find a balance between providing a historical context, but also creating a story that will captivate your audience. A tour guide is both a teacher but also an entertainer, and neither role should overshadow the other. In my opinion, education should be the goal, but you must have fun along the way. It’s also okay to admit you don’t know something. Even if you’ve spent your whole life studying German history. There will be an occasional obscure question that you will catch you off guard. But that’s okay, because learning about Berlin never gets boring!
Q: Is there a particular aspect of Berlin’s history that you find fascinating?
I find the idea of memory fascinating: what Berlin remembers, what Berlin forgets, and how that changes over time. Each generation remembers the past differently, which happens in every country. But because Germany has experienced such rapid and intense change in a short historical time period, that shifting of memory is especially intense, and reverberates into German society even today.
Q: Say hypothetically that you’re posing for a photo and have the chance to chose one accessory that compliments your personality: what would you choose and why?
This is easy. My dog Klinsi – an adorable wire-haired dachshund. She was born in Berlin, stubborn as heck, and occasionally goes on strike during long walks. She makes my life brighter, and when we’re out and about, she turns even the crabbiest Berliner into a friend.
Q: What’s the best thing about working as a guide in Berlin?
What I love most about being a guide is illuminating a past that I believe to be very important. The lessons of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust are even more necessary now than ever, and there is no better place to learn those lessons than on the streets of Berlin. I’ve had some amazing conversations with my guests, and I love getting into discussions. No question is too simple or too controversial, since all questions lead to a greater understanding.
Heather Ellis is just one of the many great Berlin guides I have come to work with and trust with clients over the years – as with many of the best guides in the city he is a member of the Berlin Guides Association.