Walking around Berlin can be a little eerie, especially to a Jewish guy like me. From here, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis did their best to exterminate my people. And traces are all over, from historical signage talking about what a building was under the Reich, to memorials, to museums. Despite how much exposure I have had to the Holocaust, and how steeled I may have been coming into this trip, it is still raw and emotional. And it should be.
Germany does a good job of remembering, and only through remembrance can we learn the lessons of the past. But it isn’t fun, and it isn’t easy. And even though I choose to avoid things like Hitler’s bunker, simply appreciating the more modern sights of the city brings me adjacent to – and in touch with – the horrors of the not-too-distant past.
In 1933, only a few weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as German Chancellor, a fire broke out at the German Reichstag (parliament) building. Hitler used this as an excuse to suspend personal liberty, and from there the Nazi rise was inevitable. And here it stands, a stunningly beautiful building dating back to 1884. The modern Reichstag is a mixture of historic facade (the dedication Dem Deutschen Volke – to the German people – was added during World War One), a shockingly modern interior, and a stunning glass dome, added after German reunification in 1991 to symbolize the transparency of modern German democracy.
A dome visit is a must when in Berlin. It is free (though advance reservations and a background check are needed), and the audio guide provides a lovely tour of the sights around as one winds higher up, as well as the features of the building. And below, in the dome’s atrium, is an exhibit on the history of the building, with photos of the fire and of the Nazi flag flying over. The juxtaposition is stark, and I’m filled with both sadness and anger at the past, as well as pride and joy at the modern present. This is a dichotomy that will exist throughout my time in Berlin.
Just on the other side of Brandenburg Gate from the Reichstag is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Containing 2,711 concrete pillars of varying heights and an underground museum, it is a labyrinth of remembrance. It is easy to get lost in here, and I believe that’s part of the point; it is an overwhelming maze, with each view providing just more concrete pillars, leading to a tiny understanding of the sheer magnitude of the Holocaust, in which an incomprehensible six million Jews were murdered.
Germany remembers them, owns the mistakes of the past in a way few other nations ever would or could, and my visit here coincides with numerous tour groups and school visits. While some play hide and seek among the pillars, I hope it sinks in that they are in a sacred place, and that they honor the past in the way the government intends.
Waking around the city, one will stumble – literally – across bronze stones set into the sidewalk. These stumble stones are nearly everywhere in Germany, part of a project to remember Jews who lost their homes and businesses to the Nazis. They are set into the sidewalk in front of buildings that once held Jewish residences or offices, with the names of those who once were here, and if known, what happened to them. There are too many to stop to read them all, but I try to when I see them. Again, Germany remembers. A large cluster outside a medical office pays tribute to Jewish doctors who once practiced here, and my stopping to pay homage causes another group to do so.
(Other memorials to other persecuted groups are also present, especially the Gypsys, who were also subject to extermination orders en masse. I don’t in any way want to minimize the pain and suffering of those others the Nazis tried to kill.)
The Topography of Terror is an appropriate name for a museum just down the street from the memorial. Built on the grounds of the Gestapo headquarters (the building itself only exists in a single ruined strip of a cellar, as the decision was made to demolish it following the war), it traces the evolution of the SS and the atrocities committed by this singularly terrible branch of the Nazi regime. Photos here are vivid, and not for those unable to cope with watching cold-blooded executions. I find myself only reading signage covering basic historical elements of the SS, not able to view the rest without tears.
The most angering portion of an incredibly angering museum is the last exhibit, talking about the trials of a mere few of those involved in these atrocities. The overwhelming majority served little to no time, and were even able to continue careers in medicine (after experimenting on Jews at concentration camps) or law (after presiding over sham courts sentencing dissenters to death) or politics. While Germany remembers, and it does take guts to talk about this, this was a lapse in post-Nazi policy. Former Nazis served in the governments of both East and West Germany, and even in the American CIA, rather than facing justice for the crimes they helped to perpetrate.
The museum is free, and it is crowded, so at least people are here to learn. But today, it doesn’t feel like quite enough.
Oranienburgerstrasse is a cute street running through central Berlin, and here sits the Centrum Judaicum, built into a building that still holds the facade of Berlin’s New Synagogue. Built in the 1800s, the golden domes of this incredibly beautiful building can be seen from all over this portion of the city. Once there were more than 80 synagogues in Berlin. There are now thirteen. But they are here, representing a Jewish community that still exists. 24/7 police protection is provided by the government for all Jewish organizations, a signal that Jews are both welcome and valued here in today’s Germany, despite the horrors of the past. Of the thirteen, I cannot imagine one more beautiful than here.
From 1933 to 1945, Hitler’s Nazis tried their best to exterminate my people and others they deemed to be lesser. It is impossible to visit Berlin and not experience remnants of that terrible past. It is difficult to not be angry, to not be terribly sad, to not be outraged. And Germany itself, modern Germany, seems as angry, sad, and outraged as I am. The country makes every effort to remember, to improve, and to educate. As I walk back to my apartment, I reflect. I am, in spite of the best efforts of the Nazis, here. I am a German citizen (read about that here). My people exist here.
May we never forget.
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