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Jul 2006 Journal

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A journey into the past: AJR members visit Berlin

This Spring, 21 keen AJR members paid a four-day visit to Berlin. On arrival at Berlin airport, we were met by our most helpful guide, Sue Arns-Blumenthal. At a subsequent meeting, Sue spoke to us about the historical background of Berlin Jewry, life in Berlin as a Jew at the present time, and relations between Jews and non-Jewish citizens.

On our second day, we took a coach trip to Villa Wannsee, in southwestern Berlin. The meeting held there in January 1942 - a high-level ministerial gathering of civilian government and SS officials - was convened by Reinhard Heydrich in order to bring together the leaders of the German organisations whose co-operation was necessary to implement the plan for the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question'. Though all records of the discussions were intended to be destroyed, after the war a protocol of the proceedings by Adolf Eichmann, providing a true picture of this fateful conference, came to light. A permanent exhibition there records the rising antisemitism of the Weimar period and the development of racist policies in 1933-39.

We continued our sad Jewish trail to Bahnhof Hamburg, the transportation point for Berlin's Jews. By the side of the rails we could read the details of the individual transports: 1064 to Theresienstadt, 1055 to Minsk, 1067 to Auschwitz and so on. As Rubin Katz recited Kaddish by a small stone memorial, we stood silently in the brilliant sunshine - a time when the heavens should have shed tears.

Our next painful destination was Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum. The Museum contains references to early Expressionism, with Weimar films such as Das Kabinett des Dr Caligary springing to mind. There is, for instance, a symbolic connection between Libeskind's zigzag architecture and Siegfried Kracauer's Von Caligari zu Hitler. The Holocaust Tower is surely the most emotionally overpowering part of the Museum. The room's towering angularity nourishes a fear of being lost, while a ladder high up the naked wall mocks you - there is no escape. There is also a spiritual connection between Libeskind's Museum and Eisenmann's Holocaust Memorial in the Garden of Exile - a small forest of stellae.

Our third day proved the climax of our Berlin adventure. The Mitte district once housed the poorer section of Berlin Jewry, but Rosenstrasse told quite a different story of the history of the Third Reich: the first successful resistance to Nazi racial actions. At the time of Stalingrad, when the mood of the population was at a low ebb, 'Aryan' wives of Jews demanded the release of their deported partners. As more and more people joined the clamour, the event presented a direct challenge to the Nazi authorities. But the situation was too risky to use brutal force. The wives won: the husbands were released and those already deported were permitted to return.

Cheered for once by an event appertaining to the Nazi past, our next meeting was with the President of the Bundesrat, Wolfgang Thierse, at the Holocaust Memorial. The President showed understanding of the mixed feelings visitors to this unique monument might have: why, for instance, a monument devoted exclusively to Jews rather than one for, among others, Gypsies, homosexuals and political prisoners? His answer was the enormity of the crime: the murder of six million Jews - men, women and children. Peter Eisenmann, the creator of over 2,700 stellae comprising the Memorial, provides no explanation of this huge constellation: it is for visitors to make up their minds. Walking between these weird concrete slabs does create a feeling of menace - that of a powerful, impersonal mass. The Memorial is complemented by an impressive subterranean Information Centre enabling visitors to gain further insight in the history of the Holocaust.

A pleasant climax to our Berlin visit was a reception by Berlin's Deputy Mayor André Schmitz in the splendid nineteenth-century town hall. He gave us an overview of Berlin's lively past, following which we were given a tour of the town hall. A plaque commemorates city councillors and members of the magistrate murdered by the Nazis; Jewish names are well to the fore.

While throughout our visit we witnessed details of the heinous crimes of the Third Reich, it is only fair to say that this public revelation of Germany's shameful past has been fostered by the Federal Republic of Germany, the country's first real democracy. One must, of course, not overlook the background to it all: Berlin, a vigorous, attractive city; reconstruction still continuing after reunification; seemingly friendly people all round - long may they remain so. And what about our echt Berliners? They searched for, and may have rediscovered, their erstwhile heimatlich home - very much changed, no doubt. All was superbly organised by the AJR staff who accompanied us - Susie Kaufman and Carol Rossen.

This is an abbreviated version of Eric Kaufman's article.
Eric Kaufman

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