DAY TWO – BERLIN
This morning after breakfast, on another beautiful day, we boarded our bus for a fully packed itinerary. Today was a half-marathon in the city of Berlin so we would be navigating through many closed streets in the center of town.
Our first stop was 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, created by a Soviet artist, 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. This was not the normal course of events in Germany, but a unique event. Olaf also told us stories of two women survivors he had met, children of a mixed Christian-Jewish marriage, who had been abandoned by their mothers and asked us to consider how a mother could abandon her child. Olaf 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.
We next walked 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 in hiding, the family was betrayed and deported to Auschwitz, where they were all murdered. Olaf 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 95, occasionally still visits the museum that she single-handedly established, memorializing the rescue efforts of Otto Weidt.
Our next stop was the Jewish cemetery in the neighborhood, where we visited a statue which had been made in 1957 by an East German artist to commemorate the women, mostly non-Jews, but Communists and political dissidents, who had been deported to the concentration camp north of Berlin, Ravensbruck. Next to the statue was the Jewish cemetery, the oldest in Berlin, in use from 1672 until 1828, where we visited the tombstone of Moses Mendelssohn, who had begun the movement of Jewish enlightenment about which we would hear more.
We continued walking 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, 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.” He also 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. 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.
After a quick lunch, our next stop would be the Jewish Museum of Berlin, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, which focused on 2,000 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 took us into the Garden of Exiles where 49 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 home, hence the uncertain path visitors must walk as they wander through the columns.
Shalmi took us through the permanent exhibition. First, he talked to us about the Jewish perspective until modernity. Jews, he said, lived in Erez Israel until they were exiled by God [the Romans being merely a tool of God] for their sins. Jews would then be dealing with God, keeping the law, living according to the Torah, until God saw fit to return them to their home. Thus there developed a pattern of life, grounded in the Torah, an open account with God, which kept the Jews separate from the Christian society around them. On the practical side, they needed to earn a living, often engaging in commerce. The Christians were also ambivalent towards the Jews, at best they were tolerated. They had often been invited by the king to collect taxes or maintain records, were property of a king, and as such, were given certain privileges and were protected by him. Another important and enduring feature of Jewish civilization is that Jews were literate and had always been literate. From the age of 3, Jewish boys began to learn to read so that they could study the Torah. Every Jewish male was literate and many Jewish women. In contrast, the average European citizen began to be literate from the beginning of the 20th century when education began to be mandated.
We stopped before two marble statues – images traditionally found outside churches in medieval times, such as Notre Dame in Paris. The statue on the left, beautiful and sighted, represented the Church and the blindfolded statue on the right represented the synagogue, which was unable to see the truth. He said that no one can understand the Holocaust without understanding the roots of Christian antisemitism. Nazi ideology cannot be disconnected from Christian antisemitism , and yet Christian antisemitism would never have committed genocide on the Jews.
We continued through the museum as Shalmi discussed the rise of the German Jewish community into the middle class, their desire to become assimilated into German society. German Jews had what Shalmi called a “one-sided love affair.” They wanted to be German, but the outside world would never accept them as such; to most Germans, Jews could never be German.
From the Jewish museum we drove to the Reichstag, the German parliament, where we had an appointment to visit the impressive dome. Walking into the dome, we could see wonderful panoramic views of the city of Berlin and we able to identify many landmarks we had already visited.
After leaving the Reichstag, we hurried back to the Moevenpick Hotel where we were scheduled to meet some very special guests. Last year during the Holocaust Study Tour, Shalmi had met a German film producer, Mathias Schwerbrock, who had been working with refugees, and he arranged for us to meet with two of them, now living in a converted hotel for refugee families in Berlin. This is how we met two very special young people, Mohammad (16) and Sanaz (15). For over an hour they shared their story of the harrowing trip they had made with their parents and younger sister, fleeing Afghanistan and the Taliban which had threatened the family, and walking through Iran and Turkey, riding in a small, overcrowded and flimsy plastic boat from Turkey to Greece, and then continuing to walk through Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, before reaching Munich, Germany, 50 days later. Here they were helped by a German relief agency and moved to Berlin. Their journey was about 3,000 miles, or the distance between our two states of New Jersey and California. They told us how they had been separated on their trek from their father who had been taken by authorities in Iran and sent back to Afghanistan, and how the German agency had been able to locate him and that he would be arriving in a month to rejoin them in Berlin. Originally housed with thousands of other refugees from multiple nations, in a converted gymnasium with cots for beds and families separated by curtains (as one would find in an ER between hospital beds) but no walls, families were moved after about 3 months into converted hotels where they were assisted by German aid agencies.
Mohammad and Sanaz relayed their story to us in English, assisted occasionally by an interpreter and we all felt an immediate connection to these brave and wonderful teenagers. We remained in contact with Mohammad and Sanaz throughout the year and this afternoon they were coming to our hotel to meet with a new group of students, and we would be able to hear of what had happened during the past year and how they were doing. They were accompanied by their teacher, Mrs. Kirsten Richter, who had worked with them over the past year in school, teaching them German. Mrs. Richter told us how she had a classroom of about 12 students, recently arrived from countries including Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey, and it was her job to help these young people, speaking multiple languages, begin to make the transition to living in Germany by learning the language. She had been Mohammad and Sanaz’ teacher over the past year.
Our first indication of the success of their transition into their new life in Berlin, was that this year they felt more comfortable speaking to us in German, aided in translation by Olaf. They briefly told the HST17 students about their trip and then focused on what had happened to them in the past year. We learned that their father had indeed been able to rejoin them shortly after we left them last year and the family was now together. They both told us of having been in Mrs. Richter’s class and how she had not only taught them the language, but had become, in Sanaz’ words, “like a second mother and a good friend.” Mohammad had been making contacts with real estate agents as soon as he was able to communicate in German, and had been able to secure an apartment for the family, and then worked with the German relief agencies to obtain the funding for the apartment. They told us how they had applied for asylum status and we learned of the complicated process of bureaucratic paperwork, interviews and waiting for the decision of the government. Much of the process needed to be taken care of by Mohammad and Sanaz on behalf of their parents, who had not yet learned German. We were thrilled to learn that their application for asylum had been approved and that they had been issued a ‘green card’ to remain in Germany, which needed to be renewed on an annual basis. Last year we met two wonderful teenagers, recent refugees to Germany, and this year we met two normal, confident teenagers, living in Berlin. It was wonderful and so heartwarming to see the change! After a Q&A session, we boarded the bus to go to dinner at the Hackesher Hof for a great dinner. While Mohammad and Sanaz were intermingling with our students during dinner, the teachers had the opportunity to learn more about the process they had gone through, speaking with their incredible educator, Mrs. Richter. After dinner we said goodbye to Mohammad and Sanaz and Mrs. Richter and headed back to the hotel for a debriefing from a very long but fulfilling and inspiring day.
Please go to the link below on Padlet for student reflections on day 2.