BERLIN – For those of us who lost family – innocent civilians and brave soldiers – as a result of Germany’s crimes against humanity, it is not easy to visit the soil of the perpetrators, especially the operational centre.
Walking the streets on my first visit to the German capital, I soon realized that the post-World War II generations have made it a priority to document the descent into the Nazi hell and teach that the Master Race ethos and its totalitarian methods were evil and must not be repeated.
Close to my hotel in the Mitte district, on my first day, I passed the ruins of a once magnificent Franciscan Monastery Church, now a monument. I saw teachers leading young students through it, presumably explaining why it was bombed by Allied forces on April 3, 1945.
It is among 313 memorial sites all over Berlin, including nine exhibitions, that were open to the public during my August 2017 visit – vivid and omnipresent reminders of the darkness that Nazi Germany unleashed on the world.
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At some of them I was moved to cry, recalling my maternal grandparents, uncle and aunt and cousins, wiped out for the sole reason that they were Jews.
However, I came away with the highest praise for the integrity, thoroughness. and skill that went into developing the museums and memorials that document and display that period and what led up to it. But before I visited them – The Typography of Terror, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, with its subterranean exhibits, the Jewish Museum, and Soviet War Memorial – I spent a memorable four hours on a walking tour of Jewish Berlin, one of nine such Insider Tours run by Nadav Gablinger. As of last month it had received 411 excellent ratings on Trip Advisor. Add mine and make that 412.
With her M.A. in history our guide, Alex Leonzini, started her information packed tour at the remains of the foundations of Berlin’s first synagogue, and as we walked around the area we heard about the community’s expansion and achievements in all walks of life and scholarship. When Berlin was home to about 80,000 Jews, the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 marked the start of the community’s ostracization and eventual destruction, among six million European Jewish victims.
The tour took us to lesser-known sites such as the brush workshop for the blind, maintained intact as a museum and located at its original site in a humble courtyard. It was operated by Otto Weidt, ostensibly to employ blind and deaf men and women to manufacture brushes for the Wehr-macht. Up to 30 Jews were employed there between 1941 and 1943, the most vulnerable in the community. When the Gestapo started rounding up Jews, he kept many of them safe by falsifying documents, bribing officials, and hiding them in the back. For his courage, he is known as the
German Schindler. We went to nearby Rosenstrasse and heard about the women’s demonstration there that began February 28, 1943, at the Jewish Community Centre where Jews who were intermarried with non-Jewish spouses, or were the children of these unions, were taken during a special Final Roundup of Berlin Jews. The wives began shouting “We want our husbands back.” It took great courage and continued until March when fearing a public-relations failure, a few of them were released.
We were reminded that self-preservation sometimes triumphed over morality, as in the case of the most infamous of the so-called “Jew Catchers” operating in Berlin. We heard about Stella Goldschlag-Kübler, who after she was captured and beaten by the Gestapo, agreed to work for them to locate Jews living underground, along with her then boyfriend and later husband, Rolf Isaacksohn. As our guide explained, if they saw someone they believed was Jewish, they’d entrap them in casual conversation. Convicted by the Soviets, she served ten years in jail, then moved to West Germany where she received the same sentence, but was released for time already served. She committed suicide in Berlin in 1994.
Walking to the Typography of Terror you will pass a large section of the Berlin Wall, preserved as a monument to the era when it was erected by the German Democratic Republic, starting in August 1961 to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the West. It is lined with panels outlining the history of the 12-year reign of terror at the very location of buildings where the Gestapo and SS were located.
Inside, panels and photos tell the story of the Germans who planned and executed Nazi decisions and decrees.
“Berlin was not merely the capital of the Third Reich,” one panel reads, but also “the center of Himmler’s and Heydrich’s SS State.” It was from here that its officials managed and coordinated the arrest and murder of “enemies of the state and people.” Victims included political opponents of national socialism, the deportation of German Jews, Sinti and Roma, to extermination camps “in the east,” terror against homosexuals and so called asocial elements, foreign prisoners of war, forced labourers, and other enemies of the Nazi state.
I was fascinated by these well-documented displays, and how complete there were. They included the various periods after the war when war criminals were tracked, with varying degrees of energy and success.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial, was designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Bueo Happold. It is stark and bleak and is on display without words or conventional symbols – 2,711 gray concrete slabs, or stelae, resembling coffins, and identical in their horizontal dimensions. They differ only vertically, from eight inches to more than 15 feet, over a 4.7-acre plot of land. They are set up in rows, with alleys between them, but the ground under them is uneven, and the overall feeling while walking among them is that of enormity, covering a huge area, anonymous because all victims whatever their background or age, shared the same fate. It is meant to be experienced, like an installation, rather than observed from afar. Underground, there is a museum with rooms featuring videos, photos, audio, farewell letters, and biographies to humanize the anonymity of the memorial above, and historical photos and film footage of persecution and extermination sites.
The Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is a complex building with underground axes, angled walls, and a zigzag plan that can be seen to resemble a broken Star of David, or a lightning bolt. It is meant to disorient. The axes represent three stages of German Jewish life – exile, the Holocaust, and Continuity. The overall effect of the building and its displays is powerful, even overwhelming.
After the collapse of East Germany, the unified German government agreed to maintain the huge Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park, to commemorate 7,000 of the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin in April and May 1945. The focus is a 12-metre statue of a Soviet solider with a sword, holding a German child and standing over a broken swastika. Walking up to it you will pass 16 stone sarcophagi with bas-relief carvings and quotations from Joseph Stalin, in Russian and German.
Finally, no visitor should miss the memorial statue by Frank Meisler next to the Friederichstrasse Railway Station, labelled as Trains to Life, Trains to Death. It shows two sets of children, back to back. The lucky ones are the Jewish children known as part of the kindertransport, accepted as refugees to England, their lives saved. The other represents the hundreds of thousands of Jewish children sent to extermination camps.