How can a nation atone for the atrocities of its past? Germany certainly has many charges to answer from the 20th century. Where South Africa created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reconcile itself from the agonies inflicted by Apartheid, Germany has produced a concerted effort along several paths in changing its course from that of the Nazis. When Germans use the term “genocide,” they speak with uncomfortable knowledge of this crime against humanity. My final day of tourism in Berlin was an emotionally trying one as I visited several memorials and museums dedicated to the victims of oppression, both during and after World War II. These “hair shirts” remind Berliners every day of past horrors committed by their nation.
My first stop was quite close to the Brandenburg Gate, though I had passed near it several times without noticing. The Soviet Memorial in the Tiergarten is the final resting place of 2000 soldiers who died in 1945 during the battle for Berlin. The site looks very little like Arlington National Cemetery, though; the soldiers were buried as a group rather than individually. The soldier atop the pillar stretches out a hand to the fallen, his rifle slung in peace. The pair of T-34 tanks flanking the memorial on plinths look down on the road that approaches the Brandenburg Gate. The Tiergarten park was west of the Berlin Wall, and yet the Soviet Memorial retained its pride of place. Not far away, a statue embodying grief was constructed, “The Crier.”
I marched south from the Brandenburg Gate, reaching the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is quite hard to miss, extending several acres. The “Field of Stelae” comprises 2711 concrete slabs, ranging in height and forming a grid of aisles. An information center can be reached by stairs, descending into the ground. The names of three million Jews Holocaust victims can be found there. I felt a barrenness infect me as I looked across the site.
Close by, I found a rather different place. The site of Adolf Hitler’s final days has been immortalized in a scene from the movie “Downfall,” then popularized in a hundred variants with new subtitles via social media. In person, it is an incredibly ordinary spot. In an example of German good taste, Berlin has changed this site into a parking lot. A signboard supplies a map of the original structure and a newspaper article from a few years after the war from a journalist who visited the ruins. By comparison, the nearby sculpture giving the profile of a man who attempted to assassinate Hitler gets far more of a spotlight than the place Hitler died. As I walked to my next site, I enjoyed a bit of socialist-era artwork at the Ministry of Finance.
My primary destination for this day was the Jewish Museum of Berlin. I had read great things about the place. I arrived during a special exhibition devoted to the Golem, a Talmudic legend of a statue brought to life by mystical words. The legend was brought back to life by Gustav Meyrink in his 1914 novel. The movie released in 1921 by Paul Wegener produced some of the iconic images associated with the myth, so much so that they were visited again in The Simpsons. I was fascinated by what I saw, though my stomach turned when one of the first exhibits included a hat from the Donald J. Trump campaign. The plaque beside it compares the way in which the Golem escapes the control of his handlers to the behavior of the Republican candidate: “Trump seems to gather power with every TV appearance and every crackpot speech.”
The Jewish Museum of Berlin is profoundly unsettling. Again, one must descend below ground to get to the main exhibit. The lower level is constructed on three hallways intended to capture three axes: Exile, Holocaust, and Continuity. The hallways, however, do not meet at right angles, neither are they level. One can explore “voids” in the space. The two most notable are the “Fallen Leaves” exhibit by Menashe Kadishman, in which one walks on a variety of faces sculpted in thick metal plates, and the “Holocaust Tower,” which is a parallelogram-shaped tower extending to the roof, with only a slit to the outside through which muted light enters.
To reach the permanent exhibition, visitors mount eighty-two stairs from the lower level. By contrast, the upstairs is bright and beautiful, telling of the emergence of the Jewish community in Germany. I learned quite a lot; I had not realized that every complete Jewish community includes a bath house, a cemetery, and a synagogue (see examples in Tarnow). The exhibits focused on three communities that featured large numbers of Jewish inhabitants: Speyer, Mainz, and Worms. I was particularly delighted that the name of Worms relates to a myth about a dragon! I liked the video presentation the museum had assembled, but I was disappointed that the English subtitles covered only about 10% of the content.
Jews were frequently the victims of malicious rumors, spread by their enemies. When dead children were found in the woods during the Middle Ages, someone was sure to raise the claim that Jews had re-enacted the crucifixion using the child (sometimes claiming the blood was used for Passover). A painting of Saint Werner of Oberwesel (whose sainthood was later revoked) remembered a sixteen-year-old boy who was believed to have perished in such a ritual.
The stories of prominent Jews in Germany frequently revolve around those who produced special services to the court. I enjoyed reading of Isaac Daniel Itzig (1764-99), a surveyor and financier whose services to Frederick the Great paved the road from Berlin to Potsdam. His effort to provide the French Republic with horses in 1797, however, led to his financial ruin when the government refused payment. He died two years later. This pattern of prominence and betrayal was a pretty common one among the “Court Jews.” I was glad to see that the museum also remembered the Jewish peddlers who were so crucial to people who lived away from town (as celebrated by a plaque I saw in Graaff Reinet).
Since the last places I visited in the Jewish Museum were the tilted Exile Garden and the Holocaust Tower, I felt quite emptied out. I went on a long walk toward the center of town. My attention had been drawn earlier by a monumental building near Museum Island:
The plaque at the building had these moving words:
The Neue Wache is the place where we commemorate the victims of war and tyranny.
We honour the memory of the peoples who suffered through the war. We remember the citizens who were persecuted and who lost their lives. We remember those killed in action in the world wars. We remember the innocent who lost their lives as a result of war in their homeland, in captivity, and through expulsion.
We remember the millions of Jews who were murdered. We remember the Sinti and Roma who were murdered. We remember all who were killed because of their origin, homosexuality, sickness, or infirmity. We remember all who were murdered, whose right to life was denied.
We remember the people who had to die because of their religious or political convictions. We remember all those who were the victims of tyranny and met their death, though innocent. We remember the women and men who sacrificed their lives in resistance to despotic rule. We honour all who preferred to die rather than act against their conscience.
We honour the memory of the women and men who were persecuted and murdered because they resisted totalitarian dictatorship after 1945.
The statue inside, of a woman holding an emaciated corpse, took away what emotional reserves I retained after such a day.
On my walk back to the hotel, I took a moment to reflect at the pool that stands in Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. The sky wept a few tears to match my mood. Berlin is a city that lives each day with the memories of its traumatic past. May we all learn from its painful history.