Jan 2010 Journal

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Berlin’s other commemoration

The world’s media went into overdrive on 9 November 2009 with its coverage of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the celebrations in Germany. The commemoration of another key German event on this day seemed all but forgotten.
Yet only six days previously Chancellor Angela Merkel had given a major speech before both Houses of Congress in Washington with the Wall as its principal theme. She had referred early in her speech to ‘the catastrophe that was the Second World War, to the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust, to the hate, destruction and annihilation that Germany brought upon Europe and the world. November 9 is just a few days away. It was on November 9, 1989 that the Berlin Wall fell and it was also on November 9 in 1938 that an indelible mark was branded into Germany’s memory and Europe’s history. On that day the National Socialists destroyed synagogues, setting them on fire, and murdered countless people. It was the beginning of what led to the break with civilisation, the Shoah. I cannot stand before you today without remembering the victims of this day and of the Shoah.’
Later in her speech, Merkel stated: ‘A nuclear bomb in the hands of an Iranian president who denies the Holocaust, threatens Israel and denies Israel the right to exist is not acceptable.’ And, in an interview with Bildzeitung a few days later, she was asked ‘9 November is the anniversary not only of the fall of the Wall, but also of the burning of the synagogues in 1938 – how can you explain that Germans as a people were capable of both?’ She simply replied: ‘For burning synagogues and the Holocaust which followed I have no explanation. It was and remains incomprehensible.’

Whilst Germans celebrated the anniversary of the fall of the Wall, it is possible that a few may have chosen to visit the highly publicised memorials to the Shoah such as Daniel Liebeskind’s Holocaust-themed extension to the Jewish Museum (only ten minutes’ walk from the former Checkpoint Charlie) and the vast Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe with its moving underground museum (near the Brandenburg Gate). If they did, precious little media coverage was given to them as a party atmosphere prevailed throughout the day in the city that had once been the centre of the Third Reich.

It may be worth highlighting some of the many lesser-known Holocaust memorials in Berlin, which probably received very few visits on the day. Some may not receive any visits on any day.

The starkest memorial must be Platform 17 of Grunewald Station, a busy commuter interchange. No trains arrive or leave from this platform today. Its track is overgrown with weeds. Alongside is the ramp from which lorries unloaded their human cargo from the Berlin and surrounding area, ready for deportation on cattle trucks to the camps. Along the platform edges today are hundreds of inscriptions in chronological order stating the date and destination of each transport and the precise number of Jews (usually counted in hundreds) deported on each. Most trains, one reads, travelled to Auschwitz, others to Terezin. The last inscriptions record only a small number of Jews, as there were by then few left to deport. There are two memorials outside the station for local commuters to ignore and Jewish visitors to inspect.

Sachsenhausen lies a mile north of the terminus station Oranienburg, a sleepy outer suburb of Berlin where little happens today. Could its citizens really have been ignorant of the human traffic which once passed through? On the walk from the station to the camp, one passes a roadside memorial to the many enforced death marches which started at the camp as the end of the war approached. The use of the excellent audio-guides to the camp means that many visitors can learn of the terrible details (clinic for ‘medical experiments’, gallows, mass graves, inmates’ barracks, prisoners’ cells, etc.) in respectful silence, distanced from the coachloads of noisy schoolchildren on their annual day out.

A bus ride from Wannsee Station is the Wannsee Conference House, today, as in the past, one of the many impressive lakeside villas of rich Berliners. It now houses a museum detailing the conference of 20 January 1942, when leading Nazis met there to decide the organisational details of the Final Solution. One of the Nazis had probably said ‘Come to my villa for the meeting’ – so they did. It is likely they discussed in the morning, smoked cigars and ate in the afternoon, and returned to their families and children in the evening. It was very considerate of them to leave minutes of the meeting behind for posterity, a fact which made life easier for the Nuremberg judges a few years later.

Berlin’s first Jewish Museum was opened in Oranienburgerstrasse just six days after Hitler’s Machtergreifung in January 1933 and closed after Kristallnacht, much of its collection lost forever. Today, it houses the Jüdische Galerie, exhibiting works by mainly Jewish artists.

In the same street is the domed (doomed?) Neue Synagoge, opened in 1866 and once Europe’s largest synagogue, holding 3,000 worshippers. During Kristallnacht the local (non-Jewish) district police chief kept the rampaging SA hordes from setting the whole synagogue ablaze (and was later punished for his troubles). Religious services continued until Allied planes bombed the whole area in 1943 and in 1958 the desecrated and ruined main hall was torn down. Recent reconstruction has enabled visitors to enter, and lectures and exhibitions are often held behind the original facade.

On Stolpersteine (‘stumbling stones’) in the pavement in the same street are inscribed the names of former Jewish residents of adjacent flats and the dates they were deported. One wonders what the current residents feel. Nearby, on the Grosse Hamburgerstrasse, is (or rather isn’t) The Missing House, a work by Christian Boltanski from 1990. The missing building, formerly home to Jews, was destroyed in the war, hence the ‘memorial space dedicated to absence’. The signs on the nearby walls indicate the names, dates of birth and death, and professions of the former residents. An unusual memorial, yet the questions ‘Where is it?’ and ‘Where are they?’ are absolutely the right ones.

Otto Weidt had employed Jewish workers, mostly blind or deaf and dumb, in his broom and brush factory in Rosenthalerstrasse. When they were arrested by the Gestapo in 1942, Weidt had a number of them returned and he hid them until the end of the war. The ‘Blind Faith’ exhibition in his former factory is today a branch of the Jewish Museum.

The Topography of Terror in Stresemannstrasse documents the activities of the Gestapo, which had its offices here.

Next to a playground in Koppenplatz is ‘The Abandoned Room’, a sculpture created in 1996 – simply a table and two chairs, one upturned as if its occupant had left in great haste, all on a mock parquet floor; the Holocaust reduced to a small human scale.

The is a huge ‘Mirror Wall’ in Steglitz containing the names of 1,723 murdered local Jews, which merges significantly with reflections of nearby everyday street life - schoolchildren, parents with prams, commuters, pensioners, couples, shoppers, all imprinted with the victims’ names.

There remain many other sites of Shoah interest, too numerous to describe. These include the former Jewish Hospital in Auguststrasse (later housing the pre-war Jewish Cookery School, the Chevrah Kadisha, the Jewish Children’s Home, the Jewish Children’s Aid Agency, and many others) and the derelict Jewish Girls’ School in the same street, forcibly closed by the Nazis in 1942. Now that both buildings have been returned to the Jewish community, one hopes they will soon be repaired and restored, either as memorials or, even better, as living Jewish institutions.

It has been stated that 9 November was never designated a public holiday in Germany after 1989 because of the Kristallnacht association, although this seemed largely forgotten in the festivities of the day. Perhaps it is time for this public holiday to be proclaimed a meaningful time for both sadness and celebration – reflecting that the freedom which the fallen Wall has granted must always mean the freedom to make the world a more tolerant and caring place.


The author has recently led a number of guided tours of Berlin for sixth-form students.

David Wirth

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