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In Berlin, Building a Future on a Troubled Past

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009; Page F02

"All right, who is interested in touring the nuclear fallout shelter?" asked the young, bespectacled museum guide. It was 4:30, the last tour of the day, and she had been on her feet for hours. With a little luck, no hands would go up.

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Every hand went up. The woman uttered a deep, vaguely melodramatic sigh.

"All right. Follow me. Please."

We tiptoed behind her, all 25 of us, out the doors of the Story of Berlin -- the museum with the on-the-nose title -- and onto the Kurfurstendamm, once a bastion of louche bars and Sally Bowles-ready night life, later a bastion of Berlin capitalism when its first name was West, now a bastion of Japanese tour groups and general ho-hum-ness. (At least by comparison with a real fallout shelter, that is.)

Undaunted by our leader's ennui, the group crowded into a stairwell off the adjacent parking garage and descended several flights, our skin growing clammier with every step. At last we were herded into a small, dimly lit room. "Please undress completely and then shower," read a large sign on the wall, in English. We appealed to our guide.

"The German sign fell down," she said languidly, returning to her spiel. "The car park above your heads was built in 1974. As part of the deal, the owner was given financial incentives to build this shelter. It was designed to hold an absolute maximum of 3,600 people for a maximum amount of time of 14 days."

"This would be used if there was a nuclear war?" asked an Italian man in heavily accented English.

"Uh-huh," said the guide.

"But what if you came in when the attack had already started? Would they let you in?" he continued.

The group did a collective pan left to the guide, who uttered another deep sigh. She seemed to be struggling to stifle a sarcastic response. Then, quietly:

"Yes, but you would need to shower first."

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