Today we were once again greeted with fantastic weather as we headed out on Day 2 of the Holocaust Study Tour in Berlin. This morning there was a half-marathon in Berlin and our hotel is near the starting point, so it was challenging for Bettina to get us on our way to our first stop: the German Historical Museum which we had seen yesterday on our general tour of Berlin, near the Book Burning Memorial on the Unter den Linden avenue. As our bus maneuvered around the street closures, Mr. Barmore told us that today he wanted to provide some background for our study of the Holocaust. We would be examining why it happened and how it happened, but when we studied these topics, he told us our examination would always be framed by three perspectives: the perpetrators, the victims, and the bystanders.
Today, we were told, we would be focusing on why the Holocaust happened in Germany, beginning with the history of modern Germany. Nations are not unlike human beings =. Why does a person do something at a certain time? Why does a nation take a certain action as a particular time?
Is the Holocaust a specific story about a certain nation? That would be easy, because then the it is not about us. However, if what happened is not unique but universal – at a time of crisis, could it happen to us? This is more difficult to consider because it brings the Holocaust to us; and it is something that we should be mindful of because it could happen to anyone anywhere.
Mr. Barmore talked about the concept of nationalism and how European nationalism differs from American nationalism. Nationalism, we were told, is a modern concept from the 19th century when cultural national identities began to be created. American nationalism is based in the Constitution. “Anybody can become an American” we were told, “if they live in the United States for 5 years, agree to uphold the Constitution and pass a test.”
In contrast, we were told, European nationalism is based in history. In the European historical evolution of the context of ‘nation’, it is something greater than its people, something vague and difficult to define. Asking German students what is ‘German nationalism’, he said, would elicit different responses, which would include history and tradition and culture, not typical responses from Americans. For Germans, it was much more complicated. Germany became a nation at a very special stage in history and becoming a nation was an issue of consciousness, where people began to see themselves as Germans, especially as it developed during crises, where suffering together gave people the feeling of unity. “The Holocaust”, said Mr. Barmore, “is the extreme expression of what nationalism can lead to.”
In the main hallway of the German Historical Museum, we stood before a statue of Germania, representing the strength and power of the German empire, we discussed how history is what we remember and how history is subject to interpretation and can be manipulated. European nations would come to be personified by a symbol in order to simplify it. France would be represented by the female statue, Marianne, Britain by Britannia, and Germany by the female, Germania. Why women and not men? “Because women were considered good, and pure,” Mr. Barmore said. When asked how America was personified, most students responded “Uncle Sam” . Although “Lady Liberty” was also offered as a representation.
At the other end of the hall another statue stood representing the Nazi belief of what it meant to be German. The statue representing the superior man, was a wake up call to Germans to regenerate into what they had been prior to the disastrous loss in World War I: a manifestation of both physical and spiritual strength. This comes from something new which developed in the 19th century: the science of biology. The Nazis said that if there are divisions in the animal kingdom, why could there not be similar differences between humans. Darwin’s theory of evolution and survival of the fittest, evolved into a study of human societies or sociology. If one race is more fit than the other, according the Nazi racial ideology, there will be a struggle for one to survive against the other. In the Nazi theory, Jews are not only a lower race than Aryans, but the Jews are destroyers of races and destroyers of culture: they are like parasites which enter the body and destroy from within, which is why Germany needed to cleanse the nation of the Jewish population.
As we continued through the museum we learned that Frederick the Great brought in French Huguenots [Protestants] who had been forced to flee by the Catholics, because they were artisans, and also allowed certain Jews to come in because they were good businessmen. We learned that the Industrial Revolution which had first occurred in Britain and developed at a much slower pace, with gradual society change, came last to Prussia and progressed much faster, eventually overtaking other European nations. We were told that if a society does not have time to adjust to the pace of change there could be disastrous consequences. Mr. Barmore also emphasized the significance of the development of the train. With the train came the ability for people to travel outside of their communities, the recognition of borders and the development of identities.
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 came to define them. We examined several paintings of families and noted how the images reflected not just a connection with the past, but a glorification or romanticizing of that past, rather than an accurate depiction. This period represented an escape to what was viewed as a glorious past without telling the whole story, including the negatives. By the 19th century, the proletariat had developed – farmers had moved into the cities to work in the factories and they became poorer, with no safety net. Evolution, said Mr. Barmore, brings beautiful things, but is can also bring misery.
Continuing through the museum, Mr. Barmore pointed out several pictures of Jewish families in typical settings, such as a 7 year old’s birthday party. He spoke to us of the “one sided love affair” that German Jews had with Germany. They wanted so much to assimilate but people never seemed to forget that they were Jews. The Jews still were noticeable in society, even in their new form, and when there developed problems in the society, they became the convenient scapegoat.
Downstairs in the Weimar Republic exhibit 1919-1933, we learned how with the Treaty of Versailles, ending WWI, 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. 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, and the general faiures of government.
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.
At this point, Mr. Barmore spoke of a benefit to the way the Nazis viewed Jews and their contributions. If the Nazis had not treated Albert Einstein as a Jewish scientist and dismissed his theories on nuclear physics, Germany could well have developed the nuclear bomb first. But since it was Jewish physics, it had no value to the German nation.
After lunch we continued our day at the museum of Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind. In this factory, students heard from Olaf about the blind and deaf employees who made brooms and brushes for the war effort. Otto Weidt 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. Olaf explained how Otto Weidt helped one employee, Inge Deutschkron, who is the survivor who returned to Berlin after the war and memorialized the rescue efforts of Otto Weidt by single-handedly creating this museum.
As we walked to our next site in the Mitte district of Berlin, 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 in many cities in Germany and other nations.
Our next stop was the Jewish cemetery in the neighborhood. Olaf talked to us about the statue by the cemetery 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 Moses Mendelssohn was buried, 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.
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.” This reflected the ‘one-sided love affair’ that Mr. Barmore had spoken of – they were Jews, who wrote Hebrew letters but were speaking the German language to show they were part of the larger national community.
We walked to dinner in the same district, to meet three very special guests.
Three years ago, Mr. Barmore 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. This is how we met two very special young people, Mohammad and Sanaz. In that first year told us of leaving their home in Afghanistan after their father, a police officer, was threatened by criminal groups associated with the Taliban, 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 where they were helped by a German relief agency and moved to Berlin. Their journey was about 3,000 miles. Originally housed with thousands of other refugees from multiple nations, in a converted gymnasium with cots for beds, families such as theirs were moved after about 3 months into converted hotels where they were assisted by German aid agencies.
Every year we have been so pleased and honored to have them meet with us and tell our new student participants their story. Especially in a world political climate in which immigrants are often negatively portrayed, having our students meet such wonderful young people and see how they have adjusted to their new country is an important learning experience. And we have been thrilled to witness their growth into confident young adults who have successfully transitioned into German society.
This year we were joined by Mathias Schwerbrock for the first time since first meeting Mohammed and Sanaz. Mathias had not seen them in the three year period, so for him, it was also a rewarding experience to see how well they were doing. Mohammed and Sanaz shared their story again, and then updated us with changes in their lives. Mohammed is now in a three year course of study so he can enter a drafting program. He has a car which he saved for and purchased, and works part-time for an internet provider company. Sanaz is in a medical program of study with one more year left of high school and then she hopes for a career as a family doctor. She also works part-time. She has chosen to work in a refugee center, helping new immigrants deal with the confusing bureaucratic paperwork and such daily needs as how to reach a doctor. “If I can help”, she said, “why not?”.
Mohammed and Sanaz are such engaging and inspiring young people and it is truly one of the highlights of our tour, to meet with them each year.
Returning to the hotel, we had our first full debriefing and journaling session, reflecting upon something that we each saw that either inspired or surprised us and the ensuing discussion provided us with a lot of food for thought.