The weather today was absolutely spectacular! Sunny and clear skies – temperatures into the high 60’s. Coats were not necessary today which was wonderful as we spent much of the day outside.
After a leisurely breakfast at the sumptuous breakfast buffet, we climbed aboard our bus and headed for our first stop. On our way Olaf talked about the Holocaust and its relationship to Berlin, but also the present-day Berlin. He told us that the many memorials to the victims of the Holocaust in Germany demonstrated that Germany is thinking about her past and accepting responsibility, but that it was important that Germany and Berlin not just be seen in that light.
Our first stop was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The concept of having a memorial in Berlin to the Jews was one which was promoted in 1987 by a German journalist, Lea Rosh, who had visited Auschwitz and Yad Vashem and felt it was important that Germany create its own memorial to the Jewish victims, in the heart of Berlin, and so proposed and pushed for her idea to be made a reality by the German parliament, the Reichstag. Olaf told us how in the 1950’s, 1960’s and even 1970’s most Germans did not want to talk about the Holocaust and remember that period in their history, but that by the 1980’s there was more of a willingness to reflect and remember the past as the younger generation, not directly connected to those years and events, began to ask questions. In 1995 the Reichstag decided to build a memorial and then the discussion became “Who will build it?”, “What will it look like?” and “Where will it be constructed?” American architect Peter Eisenman won the project and it was built on a city block in the heart of the Government district, across from the American Embassy, by the Brandenburg Gate and very close to the Reichstag which can be seen from the memorial which was dedicated in 2005.
The memorial is a city block on which are placed 2711 grey concrete blocks or ‘stellae”, arranged in a seemingly haphazard manner, on a sloping surface which rises and falls as one walks through the stellae. We walked through the stellae for several minutes to experience the memorial and then came back together for a discussion. Olaf told us that the architect had said nothing about the memorial as a guide, leaving it to the visitor to determine the message. He asked what impressions we had of the memorial and several responses included: “Alone”, “Enclosed”, “Unsteady”. We talked about what the memorial represented to visitors as well as to the residents of Berlin. Olaf mentioned how, to him, the placement of the shorter stellae at the outside of the memorial represented the fact that the Holocaust had begun slowly but that as one progresses towards the middle, the blocks become higher and one is more alone, without even enough space to stand next to someone and proceed together.
Mr. Barmore told us that the architecture of memorials is all about symbolism. We spoke of the difference between the classic memorials in so many cities which honor war heroes and which leave little room for discussion and the modern memorials which seem to challenge the visitors to enter into a discussion about what the memorial stands for. What is the symbolism of the blocks? Why is it so much easier for a nation to build a memorial to victory and events which celebrate a nation’s glory but so difficult to build a memorial to the dark periods in a nation’s history?
We talked about how the United States has struggled to come to terms with events in our past such as the treatment of Native Americans, the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, or the institution of slavery. Mr. Barmore said this could be also be seen in the recent legislation in Poland which criminalized accusing the nation of Poland in complicity of the atrocities carried out by the Nazis on Polish soil, a law currently under constitutional review. America is naïve, we were told, in that It didn’t experience frequent wars in which she was conquered, and therefore is an ‘innocent nation’. Europe’s history is much more complicated and that must be taken into account. It is important that in looking at history we consider actions of nations but also the actions of individuals. And are we brave enough to examine and objectively evaluate our own government’s actions?
Olaf talked about the fact that Germany was one of the first nations in Europe to open its borders to Syrian refugees fleeing a civil war which had devastated their country. “Do we feel guilty about our past?”, he asked. “What was the motivation of Germany?”
Mr. Barmore emphasized that he did not want us to come out of the two weeks studying the Holocaust with simple answers, but rather to complicate our thinking. “I don’t talk about teaching the Holocaust, but I talk about struggling with the Holocaust. I always remember what happened and will take it into consideration. It will be a factor but it will not dictate what I do.” He spoke of a fine line between remembering and not being imprisoned by that memory; not being blinded by that memory.
Walking across the street we next visited the memorial to the homosexual victims of the Holocaust, a small grey concrete structure with a small window through which one could see a film of two men kissing. Olaf told us that 10,000 homosexual men were sent to concentration camps. We learned that the lesbian community today was upset that they were not included in the memorial but that the memorial is historically correct, in that there were no laws passed against lesbianism. It was not the government but society that disallowed it. “This is less a memorial to history than the issue today. The Holocaust is history but homosexuality is still an open issue,” Mr. Barmore said.
On our way to our next memorial we walked past the Brandenburg Gate, a powerful symbol of the Cold War and the division of Berlin into communist East Berlin and democratic West Berlin. Olaf then told us about the events in 1989 and the reaction of the people of Berlin – in the West and the East – to the wall coming down.
The Memorial to the Sinti Roma was dedicated in 2012 commemorating the murder of an estimated 500,00 Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis in what the Roma [Gypsies] call the Porjamos (The Devouring). The memorial was designed by an Israeli artist, Dani Karavan, and has a round reflecting pool around which is written the poem “Auschwitz” by Roma author Santino Spinelli: “Palid face, Dead eyes, Cold lips, Silence. A broken heart, without breath, without words. No tears.” Surrounding the pool are broken stone slabs on which are carved the names of concentration camps and ghettos in which the Sinti Roma were inmates. In the center of the pool is a triangle on which rests a single flower. Each day the platform is lowered below the surface and then is raised with a fresh flower.
Mr. Barmore spoke of the complexity of the Nazi racial ideology and the fact that their application of the ideology had contradictions. He told us that the Roma, originally from India, are actually Aryans, but that didn’t mesh with the Nazi view of Aryan supremacy that they were trying to promote. The Nazi Revolution was basically a struggle for a way of life and the lifestyle of the Gypsies was not consistent with their view of the lifestyle which would exist in the Reich. The Roma were therefore labelled as ‘asocial’ and their persecution was pursued on a sociological rather than racial basis. Mr. Barmore also said that though were places where Roma would be rounded up and sent to camps, a neighboring town with Roma might not be touched. Also, there were also Gypsies who were conscripted and served in the Wehrmacht [Germany Army].
We next drove to the site of the 1933 book burnings in Berlin, in the plaza in front of Humboldt University. The memorial to the book burnings is a glass plate on the plaza through which one should be able to see rows of empty bookshelves. Due to the condition of the glass it was almost impossible to see the bookshelves. We were asked to consider which books were burned and why? The Nazis wanted to destroy books by authors they felt were ‘contaminating’ the German culture.
Because the main section of the Berlin Jewish Museum was closed while the permanent exhibition is undergoing renovation, we walked to the German Historical Museum which we had visited yesterday. We had ended with World War I and Mr. Barmore wanted us to fill in the gap between World War I and the rise to power of the Nazis. Mr. Barmore asked us why the first world war broke out. One answer, we were told, is that Europe was bored with peace. When the war began, most people felt it would be over soon and they would be home before Christmas. Nothing more than this war would demonstrate the crisis of modernity. They would be home before Christmas, but four years later after the biggest war ever and 20 millions dead, a whole generation of young men. In the 19th century people thought modernity would heal everything, we had learned yesterday, with medical and scientific innovations, but that the socioeconomic gap that developed as a result was a negative. However, the other side of modernity was machine guns, submarines, tanks, chemical gas and 20 million dead.
With the Treaty of Versailles, Germany felt unjustly mistreated, an open wound, that contributed to the rise to power of the Nazis. The new government, the Weimar Republic, was a democracy with a constitution, but as a fledgling democracy, hit with economic crises such as hyperinflation, and governmental instability with frequent elections, was unable to
deal with it. The Nazis rose to power democratically. They never received a majority, but did receive 33% of the popular vote which by joining with another party could make a coalition. The rise of the Nazis was the people’s choice. However, Mr. Barmore said that the people didn’t vote as much for the Nazis but against the Weimar regime. People wanted law and order and economic stability. They wanted answers to the rising unemployment, at its height, 6 million.
Once the Nazis were in power they didn’t have a clue as to how to get rid of the Jews. They were in power but with a constitution and court system, they didn’t know how to achieve their goal. Thus began what Mr. Barmore called ‘the twisted road to Auschwitz.’ In 1933 they could not conceive of killing Jews in extermination camps. Rather they would try different things, such as trying to make Jewish life so miserable that they would emigrate and leave Germany, but when that did not work, either because other nations would not allow them in or because Jews in Germany considered themselves German and this was their home and they didn’t want to appear disloyal by leaving, they needed to try a new policy. They had to ‘nazify’ the state which they did over the course of 1933-1939. They promoted the concept of ‘volksgemeinschaft’ or ‘people’s community’ emphasizing the connectedness of the German people. Mr. Barmore used the analogy of a hand: each finger is not equal to the others, but each has a role, and together “the hand can play a violin”. The concept of the whole is better than the sum of its parts.
After lunch we visited the Jewish cemetery in the Mitte district, sometimes referred to as the Jewish quarter, where we visited a statue which had been made in 1957 by an East German artist to commemorate the women, mostly non-Jews, 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 in the age of reason.
We next visited the Rosenstrasse memorial. In February 1943 a group of German Aryan women stood in front of the building at Rosenstrasse 2-4 which served 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 on April 20th and make Berlin ‘Judenrein’ [Jew-clean] 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 This was not the normal course of events in Germany, but a unique event. Mr. Barmore had talked of inconsistencies in Nazi policies earlier in the day. He told us about when a special squad of SS was sent to a Ukrainian village because they had heard of a Jewish baby who had been placed in hiding with a farm family. Germany was fighting a world war, but took a military unit to locate this Jewish baby who would be raised, not Jewish, but Ukrainian, because of the obsession to cleanse the Reich of all Jews. And yet here, at Rosenstrasse, they released more than 1,000 Jewish men who continued to live in Berlin until the end of the war and survived. 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.
Our last memorial today was 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 96, occasionally still visits the museum that she single-handedly established, memorializing the rescue efforts of Otto Weidt.
As we walked to dinner in the Mitte district, Olaf pointed out some bronze squares in the street which were called “stumbling stones” or stolpersteines and were placed before homes where Jews lived and gave their names and what had happened to them. We would be seeing more of these on our tour.
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