This morning was overcast and a little chilly as we boarded the bus to head to our first stop. Along the way, Olaf pointed out some sights, including the hotel where we first met Mohammad and Sanaz last year, the headquarters of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political party, the CDU, Christian Democrats, a museum to the artistic Bauhaus Movement of the 1920’s, and the large number of apartment block buildings which lined the major streets. At the end of the war, 60% of the city had been destroyed, we were told, and housing was an immediate, pressing need, so the rows of apartment buildings were quickly constructed.
Today was a day of making connections between history and the present day. We started in a section of Berlin called the Bavarian Quarter, so named because many of the streets were named after towns and princes in the German state of Bavaria. In this middle class section of the city, once lived an estimated 16,000 assimilated German Jews, most of whom would be murdered by the Nazis. One very famous Jewish resident was physicist, Albert Einstein. He had moved to Berlin in 1914, lived in the Bavarian Quarter and taught at Humboldt University, next to the German Historical Museum that we had visited on our first day, until he emigrated to the United States in 1932. Approximately 70-80% of this residential area was destroyed during the war, so it is now largely comprised of modern apartment buildings and stores.
On the bus, Shalmi told us of a saying: “The Holocaust did not come with a bang; it came with a whimper.” If the Final Solution had been attempted in 1933, he said, German society would have objected. But it didn’t happen overnight; it happened in a very slow process and afterwards people wondered how it could ever have happened. It began with the process of Nazification of Germany. How does a nation that is so civilized – with art, music, literature, architecture – allow itself to become Nazi? One of our students had taken a picture in the German Historical Museum of a teapot with a swastika (posted by the student on Day 1 on our Facebook page) and Shalmi referenced this as an example of the slow, incremental steps by which Germans increasingly became Nazified.
The Bavarian Quarter memorial reflected the first phase of the Nazi policies towards Jews, the legislative phase. This modern memorial is comprised of over 80 signs attached to poles throughout the residential district. On one side of each sign is a city ordinance or statute which had been enacted against the Jews during the period of 1933 to 1943, and on the other side is a picture or symbol which depicts the essence of that rule. These signs are scattered, and we encountered several on our walk around the quarter, noting that they were not in any particular order and not chronological.
At one sign which showed a loaf of bread, the ordinance read ‘Jews are only allowed to buy food between 4 and 5 in the afternoon’ and was dated April 1940. The question was asked, “Who came up with the concept that it was important to make a law which said ‘Jews can’t own pets’, or ‘Jews cannot sing in the city choir’ or ‘Jews can only sit on benches in the public square which are marked specifically for them’?” These were not the Nuremberg Laws passed for all German Jews, but local laws for the Jewish residents of Berlin. These were ordinances passed by their own neighbors. Some rules came from above, but many laws came from below.
Shalmi talked about the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship. One of the primary attributes of a dictatorship, he told us, was the referendum. The government comes with a question to the people, seeking validation of the people and then claiming that the policy is democratic. Democracy is not dictatorship of the majority, but protects the rights of its minorities. Hitler rose to power after a crisis in Germany and became the voice of the people, promising to undo what had been done following WWI, until his government became a dictatorship where you had to fit in. Democracy is vulnerable, and can be manipulated by a charismatic leader, as in the case of Germany.
In the quarter, we went to the Loecknitz Elementary School, which we had visited for the first time last year and which has been engaging in a special project for many years. The school building is 119 years old, built as a school in 1898 for Jewish students because on the school grounds was a synagogue. The synagogue was not destroyed during the war but was torn down in 1956 because there were no Jews left in the Bavarian Quarter. In the 1990’s a book was published about the memorial signs in the area and in the book were also listed 6,069 names sorted by streets and house numbers with the date of birth, and the location and date of death or deportation. Students started asking about the signs on their street and they wanted to look at the list of names in the book, noting that someone who was deported by the Nazis had the same name or birthday, or had lived on their street, or in their apartment building. They wanted to know more about these people and thus was born in 1994 an incredible educational project they call the Memorial for Jewish Citizens. 6th grade students choose the name of a Jewish citizen who lived in this community during the Holocaust and do research on the individual, then memorializing that person by preparing a brick to add to their growing wall in the schoolyard during a ceremony each spring that now receives considerable attention from the Berlin community. On each brick was written the name of a person, the date of birth, and the date and place the place the person died or had been deported. The wall now has more than 1,200 bricks. Last year one of the students had told us of a Jewish saying “If people are forgotten, they die a second time.” The students want to be sure citizens who lived in their neighborhood, are not forgotten; to keep their memory alive. (Below is a picture of a representation of the synagogue in the main entrance hallway that once stood on the school property.)
We were greeted this year by the principal, Ms. Sabine Staron, and teacher Mrs. Miriam Hornauer and several 5thgraders: Victor, Emil, Helena, Dilay and Lia. They told us – in English – about their school project and then they took us outside to the wall where we had time to closely inspect the stones and talk to the students. Also in the schoolyard was a playyard, which we were told was supposed to represent Noah’s Ark. It was the result of collaboration between the school and artists who wanted to build something to commemorate where the synagogue had stood. There are two gates into the structure because there are two entrances into a synagogue, and numerous representations of animals.
This was a wonderful opportunity for our students and we want to thank Mrs. Staron and Mrs. Hornauer for being such inspiring educators and thank them and Lia, Dilay, Helena, Victor and Emil for welcoming us to their school. We so enjoyed our time at your school and believe you truly live your school’s mission: Our school doesn’t forget the past, shapes the present courageously, and prepares the future with responsibility.
Upon leaving the school, we noticed a stolpersteine [stepping stone]. Yesterday Olaf had shown us several stolpersteine in the area around the Old Neue Synagogue and Otto Weidt’s workshop. Stolpersteine are brass plaques placed throughout Berlin and other European cities, where Jews lived before being deported. Each plaque had the name, date of birth, date of deportation and date and place of death.
Our next visit was to the train station in Grunewald, a very wealthy residential area of Berlin. It was from this train station, beginning on October 18, 1941, that most of Berlin’s Jewish residents were to be deported. Olaf showed us three memorials at Grunewald to the deportation. The first memorial was a cross section of railroad ties in front of the entrance to the train station, established by a local group of Lutheran women in 1987, with a plaque commemorating the beginning of the deportations. In 2011 a Polish artist brought birch trees from around Auschwitz to several places in Germany which were part of the Holocaust, planting several here at Grunewald train station as part of this memorial.
The second memorial was a wall which depicted figures as they walked up the hill to the train platform to be deported. The third memorial established by the German Railroad, was two platforms lined by plaques which represented each deportation train from Grunewald, listing the date, the number of Jews and the destination of the train, including Theresienstadt, Lodz, Riga and Auschwitz.
Shalmi talked about how the Nazis had taken so much documentation of Germany’s Jews from various town and sent it to Berlin, and how, after the war, the Russians had taken much of that documentation and shipped it to Moscow. Since the archives of the former Soviet Union opened several years ago, researchers can now use these documents to reconstruct the histories of individual Jews from many communities.
After lunch we traveled to our last stop, the Wannsee House. It was in this house, located on the beautiful waterfront lake, Wannsee, that representatives of the bureaucratic agencies would meet on January 20, 1942 for a luncheon over which they would discuss how to carry out the plan known as the Final Solution. Olaf told us how after the war, though the city owned the Wannsee House, it was a property that was ignored until 1992 when they opened the exhibition about what had occurred here fifty years earlier. “Initially they wanted to forget,” he said. “Now they want to use it to educate.”
Shalmi said that at the Wannsee House we would do two things: (1) learn how the Nazis got to that decision to annihilate 11 million European Jews, and (2) learn about the actual meeting itself: Who was there? What did they talk about? What were their problems in implementing this decision?
Shalmi told us the Nazis were faced with a paradox: they came to power in 1933 and wanted to solve the “Jewish Question”, but did not know how. The Nazi ideology was racist and about the survival of the fittest [the Aryan race], but in the beginning they were more about expulsion of Jews from society rather than their annihilation. On the one hand, they wanted to eliminate Jews from society, but on the other, they didn’t have a clue as to how they were going to accomplish their goal. Yet in nine years, there would be 5 factories of death operating in Poland, with precisely that function. So how did they arrive at 1941, doing exactly what they could not conceive of doing in 1933?
We learned that it was a process which consisted of three phases, 1933-1942. Historians had long struggled to understand this process and they largely fell into two schools of thought. One school believed that there was a straight line between Nazi ideology and the killings. The other school of thought reasoned that if it was a straight line, there should be references to the killings in Nazi documents and writings as early as 1933-1935. Yet historians could not discern anything about annihilation in the reports of early years, and now fifteen years after reviewing the new documentation provided from the opening of the former Soviet archives, with no such documents found, the majority of historians accept the view which holds that Nazi policy evolved, a “Twisted Road to Auschwitz”, due to different circumstances, in three phases. This means, said Shalmi, that if the functionalist view is correct, at every phase of the Holocaust, things could have been done to avert it, which makes individual and national inactions more troubling.
Inside the Wannsee House, which in 1942 was a house used by Nazi leaders for meetings and social gatherings, Shalmi reiterated what he had told us about Nazi racial ideology; namely that the Nazis did not view their desire to eliminate the Jews from German society as emanating from any hatred of them, but from their ‘reasoned’ conclusion that Jews were essentially a destructive virus in the body of Germany and for its survival, they needed to be eliminated. Shalmi said the Nazis placed races in three groups: (1) the superior race or Aryans – superior because they were able to createculture and scientific inventions and discipline; (2) the inferior races who were culture bearing races, and (3) the Jews who were not only inferior but destructive, and like a virus, needed to be eliminated from the body or it would die.
To illustrate this concept, Shalmi showed us a Nazi poster from the 1920’s which depicts the Aryan woman – with Greek features characterized by beauty and symmetry – while in the background is the Nazi depiction of the Jew, with exaggerated stereotypical features.
Phase I [1933-1939] focused on legislation and emigration of Jews. Early in the Nazi years, April 1, 1933, a one day boycott of Jewish businesses occurred. This was not orchestrated from above, by the government, but was an action of the S.A. and was unsuccessful and unsettling for the German people because it represented chaos at a time when they had elected a new government on the promise of law and order. Nazis therefore decided they must not allow mob activity to take over and decided to go about the process differently. They would have the legal state first define who was Jewish, then take away the rights of those individuals and proceed against them in a legal, orderly way to “squeeze them out of Germany”. But when no nations were willing to accept Germany’s 500,000 Jews [less than 1% of the population] and many Jews were unwilling to leave their home, the Nazis realized they would have to go about their goal a different way, and Reinhard Heydrich was placed in charge of a special office to find solutions for the Jewish question.
Shalmi told us of the importance of Kristallnacht for Jews in that the treatment of German Jews became physical: more than 200 Jews were killed and synagogues were burned, while the public watched, often applauding. Jews were in a panic and many tried to emigrate – but the world closed its borders. And many German Jews who felt themselves German, were so assimilated that they could not conceive of not living in Germany. The extreme Jewish reaction to Kristallnacht was about 10,000 cases of suicide, especially among older German Jews. It was as if they were saying, “If I can’t be German, I don’t want to be.”
Phase II [1939-1941] focused on the period of concentration or ghettoization. The Nazis had been unsuccessful in dealing with their own Jews, and now with the invasion of Poland, there were an additional 3 million Jews that Germany needed to deal with. Possible solutions discussed were the concentration of the Jews near Lublin, or shipping them to Madagascar, neither of which was possible. The Jews of Poland were concentrated in the larger cities into ghettos during this period.
Phase III began June 1941 with the German attack on the Soviet Union. The Nazis understood that it would be a special war; one of competing ideologies and they prepared for that special war by establishing special units, called Einsatzgruppen [mobile killing units], prepared for a harsh war with Russian communists, partisans, and Jews who might be aiding the Soviet army. These units from June through December would be responsible for killing more and more Jews outside big cities, often with the help of local citizens, especially in the Ukraine and Lithuania who viewed themselves not as being conquered by the Nazis but as being liberated from the Soviets.
After this happens in the Soviet Union, but only in the Soviet Union, the Nazis needed to decide what to do with the rest of the Jews and they started analyzing their options in October and November of 1941. They reasoned that the mobile killing units were inefficient, and they were especially concerned that 20-30% of the members of the units doing the shootings had suffered mental breakdowns. They needed to design an indirect, impersonal way of killing by industrializing it, so they developed the factories of death in Poland since that nation had the largest concentration of Jews. Instead of sending killing units to find Jews, they would transport Jews from various communities to these death camps as a more efficient means of implementing their decision to annihilate all Jews. They had already experimented with carbon monoxide at Belzec and zyklon B gas at Auschwitz [then a concentration camp], and so they were ready to proceed, but they needed a process of how to proceed. Hitler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich was given that task.
Therefore the three phases in the Twisted Road to Auschwitz, I-Emigration and Legislation, II-Ghettoization, and III-Annihilation were complete. However the Nazis came to be what they could not conceive of when they initially came to power, Heydrich and representatives of the bureaucratic agencies which would be used in the murder of Europe’s Jewish population delineated the process for it here, over lunch, in this house where we now stood.
On our ride back to the hotel, Olaf pointed out the former residences of the wealthy; large expansive apartments in buildings above the fashionable and expensive stores on Kurfurstendamm [Ku’damm to the residents of Berlin]. Olaf also showed us a modern sculpture, called “Berlin Berlin” which depicted the four sectors of Berlin during the Cold War. He showed us many of the embassies located on Tiergartenstrasse, including those of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Austria, Japan and Italy. We had previously seen the American Embassy located next to the Brandenburg Gate. We arrived back at our hotel for a short break before going to dinner at the Augustiner restaurant in the Gendarmenmarkt. Following a wonderful typical German meal, we headed back to the hotel for our debriefing and then packing for tomorrow’s departure for Dresden.
Go to Padlet link Day 3 below for student reflections.