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Jun 2007 Journal

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Overcoming trauma: a weekend in Berlin

Berlin was my first Heimat as I was born there in 1935. She and I have spent almost a lifetime apart, yet we connected almost immediately when I visited her for a long weekend earlier this year. This wasn’t my first visit since leaving her in 1939 on the Kindertransport as I have visited her at least half a dozen times in between.Berlin and I have been through our separate trauma and, I think, we have come out the other side in reasonably good shape.

This time, I came on my own at the invitation of Leonore Maier at the Jewish Museum. I arrived on Thursday afternoon and had the evening to explore locally before going to the Museum the next day. I had the privilege of going round the special Heimat und Exil exhibition alone before going round later with a group of graduate students from Greenwich University who were spending a few days in Berlin. The views expressed and questions asked by these students and their tutors made it a fascinating experience for me. On the Monday, I had the pleasure of talking with a group of students from the Berlin Nelson Mandela School as a group in the Museum’s classroom. This group comprised students from many countries so, apart from my personal story and the theme of ‘exile’, we had a lively discussion on identity and citizenship. They were interested too in what differences I found talking with German student groups compared with similar groups in England. Of course, every group has its own character so that the flow of dialogue is inevitably different, but that did not satisfy them. There is always the underlying issue around in German dialogue: ‘How do “they” feel about “us” now?’ I suspect the hidden and ‘un-askable’ question is more like ‘How do I feel about myself as a German now?’ This issue for the second and third generations in Germany in bearing the indigestible part of their personal and collective history is as difficult for them as it is for second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors. And this is a genocide that has been fully acknowledged. How much deeper in the collective human psyche are the horrors buried from past genocides that are being perniciously denied such as the Armenian genocide and the rape of Nanking?

The exhibition itself cannot fail to impress. It is not the size that draws the visitor into engaging deeply. Holocaust museums tend to strike a note of horror, making it difficult, if not unbearable, to try and absorb very much. A huge screen imaging a Nazi march, that follows the visitor with its discordant marching beat in the background, represents the horror. However, the ethos is positive. These are the stories of the Jews of Europe who escaped the Nazi death machine. For most, their lives were shattered, vividly illustrated by a room full of fragmented photographs (the same ones shown as you enter the exhibition), but they found ways of renewal in the lands of exile. Most of them never returned to their original Heimat, but I know from my own work with survivors that many made the difficult journey to reconnect with their roots, even if they did not stay there. There were many voices of refugees for the visitor to listen to through headphones. These have power to engage and move the listener beyond any of the visual material, although I was moved to find a photo of my father in Shanghai that I had never seen before.

Finally, a moving experience on the way home. On leaving the Jewish Museum on the Monday afternoon, I was lucky to find a lone taxi just outside. The driver expected me to want to go to the new Holocaust Memorial as, he told me, most of his fares did. I wondered why he chose to wait so often at the Jewish Museum. He said he wanted to do something to help Jews, and so we got talking. We ended up sitting some time at the departure bay of the airport. He was almost in tears as he described his struggle to come to terms with his mother having worked for the Nazis in Poland during the war and his father having fought with the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front. Neither had given him much in the way of details so he was left a prey to his own fantasies about what they might have been involved in. I was able to validate his anguish, if not comfort him a little, by telling him I felt honoured he had shared his painful story with me. I also encouraged him to talk to more people, especially his children, and find out more so that his children would not suffer a similar lack as he had. I suggested there might be many more with stories like his if he could only find and talk with them. This taxi driver remains as an important part of weekend, representing the scars left in Berlin’s soul from the infamous Third Reich.

Ruth Barnett is Clinical Director, Raphael Jewish Counselling Service

Ruth Barnett

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