Day Three – Berlin, Germany

After another sumptuous buffet breakfast, we boarded our bus for visits to three very different memorials: the Bavarian Quarter memorial, the Grunewald train station memorial, and the Wannsee Villa. As we drove to our first stop, Olaf pointed out some sights, including the President’s Hotel [family refugee housing] where we first met Mohammad and Sanaz three years ago and where she now works part-time, 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.   Olaf informed us that at the end of the war, 60% of the city had been destroyed and housing was an immediate, pressing need, so the rows of apartment buildings were quickly constructed.

We began our day visiting a modern memorial to the Holocaust 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 [site of the book burning memorial], 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.

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The Bavarian Quarter memorial reflected the first phase of the Nazi policies towards Jews, the legislative phase. In the 1980’s the city council decided to put up a memorial in this area. Olaf told us the memorial is comprised of over 80 signs, about 10” x 14” attached to poles throughout the quarter. On one side of each sign is a city ordinance or law 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 ordinance. These memorial 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 bread between 4 and 5 in the afternoon’. Mr. Barmore spoke of milestones for Germany’s Jews in the Holocaust. This rule, he noted, for Berlin’s Jewish community, was just such a milestone. He told us of how Inge Deutchkron, who had survived the Holocaust and created the Otto Weidt Museum of the Workshop of the Blind we had visited yesterday, would mention this law.   The law was difficult partly because by 4 or 5 in the afternoon, most or all of the bread would have been sold, but the most painful part for the Jews of Berlin was the fact that their neighbors abandoned them. Inge would say that when her neighbors saw them standing in line for bread, they would not acknowledge them but would cross to the other side of the street. They were embarrassed, and rather than greeting or acknowledging her, which would require them to also acknowledge the rule, they preferred avoidance to having to deal with the injustice of the ordinance. He noted that the people that really hurt you are closer people, friends who don’t notice you, more than the law itself. And all this was occurring in a society in which Jews sought so much to assimilate.

Mr. Barmore 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 and reminded us that the Nazi boycott in April 1933 lasted only one day because the German people did not like it. People often asked after the war, how could this have possibly happened? But the process was gradual and consisted of chipping away at the rights of German Jews. Jews had been outside of society until the 18th century then gradually they obtained citizenship and rights before World War I and now their rights were again, gradually being taken away. These decrees were part of that piece-meal process of the Nazification of German society, happening slowly and over a long period of time, long before the annihilation of European Jews.

We walked to the Loecknitz Elementary School so the students could view a project which has been ongoing for more than 25 years relating to the Holocaust. For the past 2 years we have met with students from the school and their principal and they have given presentations about the project and shown us around the school, but they were having a special school inspection today and could not meet with us. We were, however, able to visit the wall which represents the culmination of the project for all 6th graders.

Standing before the school, Olaf showed us a memorial to the synagogue which had existed where the school now stood. The stone memorial represented a classic memorial, commemorating a site. The school chose to engage in a modern memorial program. 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 , many of whom are refugees or immigrants from nations such as Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Afghanistan, want to be sure citizens who lived in their neighborhood, are not forgotten; to keep their memory alive. A signpost by the wall has an explanation of the project in 5 languages, stating that the learning of the Holocaust is embedded in the school curriculum in a teaching unit on National Socialism. The schools’ mission statement:   Our school doesn’t forget the past, shapes the present courageously, and prepares the future with responsibility.

Walking around the Bavarian Quarter we noticed many stolpersteines [stepping stones]. Yesterday Olaf had shown us several stolpersteine in the area around the Old Neue Synagogue and Otto Weidt’s workshop.  Stolpersteine are the brass plaques placed throughout Berlin and other European cities, depicting where Jews had resided before being deported. Each plaque had the name, date of birth, date of deportation and date and place of death.

On the way back to the bus we went into the subway station where there exists a photo exhibit showing the Bavarian Quarter as it had existed prior to World War II and highlighting some of the stories of its most famous residents.

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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. This was the first time in many years that we had seen the birch trees in bloom.

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The second memorial Olaf showed us 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 consisted of two train 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. The train left October 18, 1941 carrying 1,251 Jews to Lodz and the last on December 10, 1944 carried 31 Jews to Auschwitz. The largest transport carried 1,758 Jews and the smallest carried 13.

Mr. Barmore also spoke to our group about how the Holocaust represented modern murder. First, because of the technology, and second, because of the bureaucracy. The technology allowed the Nazis to bring people from as far away as Norway quickly and efficiently, and the vast system of bureaucrats, with their organization and exacting, meticulous methods, made it possible for the Holocaust to be so total. This presented a problem after the war, he said, in that how do you answer an individual who says, “I didn’t do anything wrong, I just drove a train” or “I just typed a letter, I’m not responsible.” How can you do the most terrible things, without really thinking you are taking part in it, we were asked.

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Mr. Barmore noted that officially, the decision to stop the annihilation of the Jews was made on November 27, 1944, according to documents. Yet transports continued to be sent to the east. What do these small numbers signify at the end? Where do they find them?   Mr. Barmore spoke to us about an event toward the end of the war called the “Jew Hunt” in which there continued to be a concerted effort to track down all Jews, showing the extent to which this whole racial policy was important to the Nazis. He spoke of it being a bureaucratic search whereby bureaucrats went back into old census lists and other records in order to locate any Jewish names. Another method they employed was hiring Jewish informers as bait to locate Jews who were hiding.

We had lunch at a local deli, Spinner-Brücker, known as the ‘biker deli’ because it has served as a meeting place for motorcycle enthusiasts for years.

Our last stop for today was the Wannsee Villa, located on the banks of lake Wannsee, which on a beautiful sunny and clear day seemed such an incongruous setting for a meeting on January 20, 1942, called by Himmler’s deputy director of the SS, Reinhard Heydrich and Adolph Eichmann, bringing together representatives of many bureaucratic agencies for a luncheon meeting over which they would discuss how to implement the plan known as the Final Solution.

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Mr. Barmore again 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?

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We learned that it was a process which consisted of three phases, 1933-1942, a “Twisted Road to Auschwitz”, as Mr. Barmore called it. This means, we were told, that 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 Villa which in 1942 was a house used by Nazi leaders for meetings and social gatherings, Mr. Barmore 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. He said the Nazis placed races in three groups: (1) the superior race or Aryans – superior because they were able to create culture 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.

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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. The first policy was to encourage their emigration but Jews could only leave without property which made it difficult for nations to receive them because now they were penniless immigrants who might become reliant on the state.

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. The intent was to turn Poland into a servile nation, and this goal resulted in the elimination of the intelligentsia: political leaders, professors, authors and clergy. 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. Mr. Barmore emphasized that while most people focus on the activities of the extermination camps, the average life expectancy in those places was about 2 hours. Jews lived in the Lodz ghetto or the Theresienstadt ghetto for 4 years. And Jews needed to figure out a way to survive and outlive this horror. In the early years of the ghetto the focus was not on extermination but how to survive and the general consensus was to figure out a way to make themselves useful to the Nazis. In Lodz, for example, a center of the textile industry in Poland, the ghetto inmates would sew uniforms for the German army.

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.   Mr Barmore said that after killing literally hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Soviet Union, when “the sky did not fall” the Nazis felt, ‘why not do this to the rest of the European Jews’. 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. The factories of death needed to be constructed close to the source of raw materials, which were the 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. The decision was made in 1941 and they started to build. The first killing center was Chelmno near the Lodz ghetto. 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. Now that the decision had been made the Nazis needed to coordinate the killing effort among the different agencies. How to supply the trains to the ghettos; how would the tickets be paid for; how would the lists be compiled; how to calculate the numbers which could be processed. All of this took coordination and a meeting was originally scheduled for December 9, 1941 but was postponed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, until January 20, 1942.

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In the main room of the villa, where the meeting had taken place Mr. Barmore spoke to us about both the participants of the meeting and the content of their discussions. These were educated people, we were told. There were 9 Ph.D’s and even one was a Protestant minister. We had spoken of a concept of Hannah Arendt, “the banality of evil” during our debriefing last night. The discussion of this meeting was an example of that. The original concept was to comb Europe from the West to the East, and send Jews to the East for extermination, but one member suggested that it might be more efficient to start in the East where the Jews were already in large numbers, concentrated in ghettos, dying of starvation. So that policy was adopted. Another problem was what to do with the ‘mixed’ Jews, the mischlinge. First degree mischlinge had one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent so were 50% Jewish. But what about if one was 25% Jewish with 1 Jewish grand-parent and 3 non-Jewish grandparents? This would include many excellent Germans who were war-heroes or highly respected members of society so they became more liberal at this meeting and voted to adopt the policy to only eliminate 50% mischlinge. Another paradox since it had originally been determined that any ‘Jewish blood’ was a virus to the German nation and must be eliminated. The Final Solution could now be implemented and it was time to construct the remainder of the killing centers which were operational within a year. Between February 1942 and 1943, Mr. Barmore said, most of the 6 Million Jews of Europe were murdered.

The three phases in the Twisted Road to Auschwitz, I-Emigration and Legislation, II-Ghettoization, and III-Annihilation were complete.   The Nazis came to be what they could not conceive of when they initially came to power, Heydrich and leaders 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.

Educated men, not monsters, had sat down to lunch and considered how to implement a policy which would result in the deaths of millions of people.  On this beautiful sunny day it was especially incongruous. They asked how much to charge for a one-way ticket for a child; they asked how they should annihilate innocent people, they asked whether it would be better to “comb Europe for Jews” from the East to the West or the West to the East.  They discussed all of the logistics of how to implement this policy.  What they did not ask themselves was “Should we do this”?

 

 

12 comments

  1. Hello New Milford Friends! Like Mr. DeLalla, I, too, am a former history teacher and I am in awe of the up close and personal narratives that are being afforded to you in a history lesson unlike anything you’ve had before this week. Not only lessons in history, but your interactions with the past and present as you travel will provide you with a perspective on life and love will shape you as you become young, responsible adults and citizens. Looking forward to the daily pictures and stories.

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  2. I love the amount of things to do in this trip. You guys seem to be having so much fun and I’m glad everything is working out well for you guys over seas. Please keep us updated and enjoy the rest of your stay!!!

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  3. A grim reminder that even the most educated of people can use their intellect against people and of how friends and neighbors can become enemies.

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  4. It’s crazy how they were rich and wealthy in 1941, until they get deported and never see their homes again. History has many ways of everything that happens and it makes one say how or why it happened.

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  5. its great to see all the students writing and taking notes as they go, it shows how dedicated and interested they are in the material. their journals will be a great tool for them to utilize and read back long after they leave the trip and want to be reminded of the important things the learned, and the emotions they were feeling

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