Our busy day began at a section of the Berlin Wall. Here Olaf explained what it was like before 1989 growing up in East Berlin, thinking that the wall was as much a part of life as any bridge or street in Berlin. He never imagined a time when the wall would be torn down, and certainly never imagined that he would one day be a guide bringing visitors to the wall to explain what it once was.
Our next stop was the Book Burning Memorial near Humbolt University. Here, in 1933, students burned books written by Jews, socialists and political dissidents. The memorial is not visible from the street, in fact, one has to almost walk over it to even see it. Under the ground, beneath clear plexiglass, is a room lined with empty, white bookshelves. What an unexpected place to burn books and to be threatened by ideas: in a city square adjacent to Humbolt University. Engraved in the plaque near the memorial is the Heinrich Heine quote “There where they burn books, they will be one day burning people.” Ironically, and perhaps prophetically, Heine wrote this in 1820.
Our last stop in Berlin would be to the Jewish Museum Berlin. On Wednesday we had visited the German Historical Museum which had given us an overview of German history. The Jewish Museum Berlin, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, which opened in 2001, focuses on two thousand years of German-Jewish history.
Entering the Museum’s basement brought us to three axes. Two of them – the “Axis of Exile” and the “Axis of the Holocaust” focus on the Nazi era. The third axis, the “Axis of Continuity” leads up several flights of stairs to the permanent exhibition which takes visitors through two floors of German Jewish history, beginning with the first Jewish communities in the Middle Ages, through Moses Mendelssohn’s contributions to the Enlightenment, the process of assimilation of Jewish citizens, the Holocaust and rebuilding of the Jewish community in Germany after 1945 to the present day.
Olaf began our tour with the Axis of the Holocaust. In this section we could see personal documents and objects that told of Nazi persecution. The museum is rich in symbolism, with many empty spaces, so-called ‘voids’ that rise vertically from the basement to the roof inside the building. Mr. Libeskind has said of these ‘voids’, that he could not deny the Holocaust in his design of the building, but needed to make it visible and part of the museum. One such void we were taken to by Olaf was the “Holocaust Tower,” an empty 24 meter high space, unheated, lit by natural light falling through a diagonal opening in the wall. Sounds are audible from outside the building. This space has been interpreted as a commemorative space for victims of the Holocaust, but visitors are invited to make their own, personal interpretation of the spaces.
In another section called “Memory Void,” one exhibit has 10,000 faces punched of steel. Entitled “Fallen Leaves,” Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman dedicated this artwork to the memory of the Jews killed in the Holocaust. Visitors are invited to enter the void and walk on the faces, listening to the sounds that are created by the faces clanging against one another.
In the Garden of Exile, 49 titled columns stand on sloping ground. Olaf told us that exile meant rescue and safety, but arrival in a foreign country also caused feelings of disorientation. Refugees often had difficulty gaining a solid foothold in their new homes, hence the uneven and dizzying path visitors must walk as they wander through the columns.
We left the museum and drove to the new train station where we said goodbye to our Berlin guide, Olaf, and boarded our train for Prague. We spent the rest of the day traveling on a five hour train ride through the beautiful countryside, arriving in Prague at 7:30 p.m. where we were met by our Prague guide, Kamila, who took us to our hotel and then to dinner at the Municipal House.