At our debriefing and journaling session last night, we continued the discussion of memorials, again using familiar American memorials as a frame of reference. In looking at memorials, Mr. Barmore explained, one needs to be aware of the various perspectives surrounding them. One perspective is the essence of the memorial (whether it be to an individual or an event), but another significant perspective is that of the individuals, group, or nation which established the memorial. It represents the personal or historical story yet also reflects the perspective of how those who created the memorial see that story, and as such, reflects who they are and how they see themselves in the context of that event. Memorials are therefore subjective representations.
We ended our evening discussion with some observations and a question – to further complicate our thinking. Memorials are about memory, but a concise, pointed, powerful image. They can be provocative, though, and impact our intellectual thinking and foster discussion about the topic of the memorial. Mr. Barmore lastly posed the following question as food for thought: History is complex….can a memorial be complex?
After breakfast, we began our day on our bus where Mr. Barmore gave a lecture which began with a question. Inasmuch as Germany had a rich history and was an important international cultural center by the 20th century, “Why did the Holocaust happen here?” This question, he told us, was both a specific, particular question relative to the Nazis, but also a universal question, because it could potentially happen anywhere given certain circumstances. The Holocaust, therefore had been studied by psychologists to determine if it was something in the German character which had allowed this to happen; by historians to find out the incremental steps which had led to the Nazi dictatorship; by sociologists who checked things like children’s stories —all in an attempt to understand ‘why.’
Mr. Barmore told us that our first stop today would be the German Historical Museum where he would show us some highlights of German history in an attempt to provide a framework that would contextualize the Holocaust. That, in and of itself, he said, was difficult because if one accepts the assumption that German history defines the German people, how does a museum present that history as something which led up to what that society did? And, he noted, German society does take responsibility for its history and the Holocaust. The Holocaust is not the only thing that defines Germany, but is a part of her history that she is not afraid to confront and examine.
Mr. Barmore then posed a second question: “Why the Jews?” As less than 1% of German society, how did German Jews become the primary target of the Nazis? He said that one explanation was that it resulted from the collision of two special histories and that though Jews were less than 1% of the population, they were visible and important in German society. We would be viewing historical events in German history in the museum, not to in any way justify what the Nazis did, but to try to understand the crisis in Germany created by World War I and understand the message that the Nazis brought to the German people which led to their rise to power, despite the fact that Hitler was looked down upon by the German people. In order to understand the complexity of Holocaust history, we would need to examine the rise of nationalism in Germany and the role of the Jews in that society.
At the German Historical Museum, Mr. Barmore again used the United States as he had yesterday, to explain some of the differences between the concept of nationalism as it developed in Europe and what we would call ‘American nationalism’. America, he said, is a civil state — the Founding Fathers laid out in the U.S. Constitution the structure and role of the government which was created in the name of the people. The purpose of the state is to guard the civil rights of the citizens and the government officials in America are our civil servants; there to serve the interests of the people. In contrast, in the European historical evolution of the context of ‘nation’, it is something greater than its people, something vague and difficult to define. The nation will be personified by a symbol in order to simplify it . France would be symbolized by the female statue, Marianne, Britain by Britannia, and Germany by the statue, Germania. And under fascism, the state would become an absolute; the role of the individual in that society was to serve the state.
As we continued through the museum we learned that during the Romantic Period, many aspects that gave identity to a people, such as language, literature and music, would become specific to that nation. In this way, Shakespeare’s plays became not just literature, but English literature, and Beethoven’s music would become German music. While Germans were lacking in terms of geographic unification, they developed a sense of cultural unity which defined them.
Later, when the Nazis came to power, a spiritual component to nationalistic pride was added, so that Germans became superior not just physically but spiritually, which manifested itself in creativity. For the Nazis this superior creativity would be attributed to race. If a German lost, it was not that another individual won, it was that the German had not lived up to the criteria of racial superiority. And when Jews became emancipated they entered the middle class, became economically successful and fell in love with German culture — what Mr. Barmore called a “one-sided love affair”. While Jews felt assimilated, eventually German racism would hold that Jewish contributions to German culture were not creativity, but a vulgarization, cheapening or copy of that culture.
As we went through the museum, Shalmi pointed out the importance of Versailles for the Germans. Following their victory in the Franco Prussian War of 1871 the emperor of Prussia (Germany) was crowned. However, after the fall of the empire, immediately after World War I, Versailles has a new meaning for the German people. This became the place where they received the official recognition of their defeat, and were punished by the Versailles Treaty. Before World War I, the military consisted of officers who were from the upper classes. After the trench warfare of World War I, the soldiers who emerged from the trenches entered a new society in which all were equal, war equalized them under the flag and for the first time you have a combination of socialism and nationalism.
Our time at the museum ended as our day had begun, with a question posed by Mr. Barmore. Nazi racial ideology claimed that not only was there a superior race [Germans] and inferior races [such as Poles and Slavs], but a third race, Jews, which had penetrated German society and was actually a destructive element in German society which would cause the German race to become extinct. Nazis then reasoned that this group had to be eliminated from Germany in order for the German race to survive, but the paradox was: What did it mean to eliminate the Jews? In 1933 there was no question of killing the Jews, so what led them to that process?
From the museum we went to the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind. In this factory, students heard about the blind and deaf employees who made brooms and brushes from horse hair and pig hair. Otto Weidt also employed Jews, and used the Berlin Work Act to legally keep employing his Jewish workers during the war. Otto protected his Jewish employees as well as a Jewish family of four which hid in a secret room built behind a secret wardrobe closet. After eight months of hiding, the family was betrayed and deported to Auschwitz, where they were all murdered. Our guide explained how Otto Weidt helped an employee, Inge Deutschkron, who is the survivor who returned to Berlin after the war and preserved and documented his rescue efforts as a tribute to the memory of this heroic man. Inge still lives in Berlin and at age 92, occasionally teaches about this important history at the museum that she single-handedly established, memorializing the rescue efforts of Otto Weidt.
After lunch we continued learning as we walked to the Old Neue Synagogue, which was built over a six year period and consecrated in 1866. The beautiful Moorish building style and the large Schwedler Dome of gold, shaped the silhouette of Central Berlin, and was a symbol visible to all of the self-confidence of the Jewish community. During Kristallnacht, in November of 1938, most of Berlin’s 14 synagogues were burned, but Wilhelm Kratzfeld, the Berlin police officer responsible for the district, was able to preserve the synagogue from major damage by chasing away the arsonists and calling the fire department. The synagogue was able to resume services in April of 1939 and the last services took place in March of 1940 at which time the synagogue became a storage place for documents and records. Allied bombs severely damaged the synagogue in 1943 and in 1958 the main synagogue was blasted in what was then East Berlin. Nine of ten synagogues in West Berlin were blasted and three of four in East Berlin were also blasted. In 1988 a seven year reconstruction project was undertaken and the synagogue opened as a museum in 1995.
Our Berlin guide, Olaf, told us about the first female rabbi, Regina Jonas, associated with the synagogue. During the war she was deported to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz where she was murdered at the age of 42.
Following our learning about assimilation of the German Jews, Olaf also showed us two Torah curtains. The writing was in Hebrew but had been used to write a Psalm in German, Psalm 89:15 “Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne and mercy and truth shall go before thy face.”
We lastly learned that at the end of the war, less than 7,000 of the 160,000 Jews who had lived in Berlin were alive. Today there are 10 synagogues and about 10,500 Jews in Berlin, primarily from Israel, Russia and Poland.
It was bitterly cold so our bus took us to our final stop of today, the memorial at Rosenstrasse. In February 1943 a group of German Aryan women stood in front of the building at Rosenstrasse 2-4 which had been a Jewish Welfare Office but now serviced as a detention center for Jews who were to be deported east. These women were all married to Jewish men who had been rounded up under Joseph Goebbels’ orders. Goebbels wanted to clear Berlin of all Jews in time for Hitler’s birthday and make Berlin ‘Judenrein’ as a gift for the Fuhrer. For one week these women stood in front of the building and chanted “We want our husbands back!” The Germans set up machine guns and threatened to fire upon them, but the women would not relent. Finally, the Nazis released all of their husbands, even bringing back two of them who had earlier been sent to Auschwitz. The memorial depicts the events of this week in February and the heroic efforts of these women to have their husbands released. These Jewish men were able to live out the remainder of the war in their homes in Berlin. The students reflected that the memorial depicted camaraderie, strength, the women’s support of each other, their common cause, the separation of their families — another concise, powerful image of an important event. Mr. Barmore made one final observation to us: There were many non-Jewish women across Europe married to Jewish men; this type of resistance only took place here, adding to our sense of complexity of the history surrounding the Holocaust.
Though this day has been surreal to me, and the magnitude of being in Germany has yet to grip me, I have realized an uncomfortable truth. This being that when a group of people have nothing, they may often look to blame another for their strife. This concept has been a personal internal struggle for me. Today, I have come to the realization that the consequences of scapegoating can be destructive.
The one thing that really caught my attention today was Otto Weidt`s Workshop for the Blind in Berlin. When on the tour of the museum I felt very emotional when learning about the effect that one German man had in saving the lives of so many Jewish people. It made me realize that even though society has taught us, for the most part, that all Germans were passive during this time, there were Germans that were against the mistreatment of the Jewish people and it was truly touching.
Today when we were at the German Historical Museum we talked about how many Jews tried to assimilate beyond their German past. It made me think about being Jewish in America and even though I am not trying to erase my personal history I am just like any other American teenager, I do not go out of my way to associate only with Jewish families. Some of my best friends are Catholic and we do not think twice about the fact that we are different religions. Today just made me think that assimilation was the goal for many German Jews, but because of the societal attitudes of the times, they were never able to achieve full assimilation as my family and I have done in America.
It really stunned me how the Jews were not accepted into German society once the Nazis came to power even though many of them were at the top of their fields in music, business and highly assimilated in German culture. During the period of the Holocaust they wanted to be accepted as they had been before, but Nazi ideology kept this from happening. They truly wanted to be German. As Olaf said “They, the Jews, were never really invited to 5:00 o’clock tea.”
Many subgroups in modern society are criticized for not putting enough effort into assimilation. Immigrants are often considered leeches in their new countries. At the German Historical Museum we learned that the Jews took an approach which strongly subverted that stereotype by being fluent in German by the second generation, changing their names, and being active participants in German commerce and culture. No matter how assimilated they became, they always remained a part of “a one-sided love affair” in that they were not accepted based on race. Coming from a nation of immigrants it is hard for me to truly understand why people who attempted to German society would be rejected. The issue we face in learning about the Holocaust, is that it is as much about assimilation as it is about acceptance.
At Otto Weidt`s Workshop there was more than just the aspect of hidden Jews that was touching. Otto not only housed Jews he even sent packages to a Jewish friend who was sent to Theresienstadt. Otto was well aware of the consequences for hiding and aiding Jews, and yet he did not stop his actions.