Thursday, April 4, 2013

Day 3 Berlin


After another sumptuous buffet breakfast, we boarded our bus for visits to three very different memorials: the Bavarian Quarter memorial, the Grunewald train station memorial, and the Wannsee House. Before heading off, we had our second brief German language lesson from our local guide, Olaf, teaching us some useful phrases.

In a section of western Berlin called the Bavarian Quarter, so named because many of the streets were named after towns and princes in the German state of Bavaria, we were shown an unusual modern memorial. In this middle class section of the city, once lived an estimated 16,000 assimilated German Jews. 

Approximately 70-80% of this section was destroyed during the war, so it is now largely comprised of modern apartment buildings and stores. In the 1980’s the city council decided to put up a memorial in this area. It is comprised of over 80 signs, about 10” x 14” attached to poles throughout the quarter. On one side of each sign is a city ordinance or law which had been enacted against the Jews during the period of 1933 to 1943, and on the other side is a picture or symbol which depicts the essence of that ordinance. These memorial signs are scattered, and we encountered several on our walk around the quarter, noting that they were not in any particular order and not chronological.

Mr. Barmore told us of a saying: “The Holocaust did not come with a bang; it came with a whimper.” If the Final Solution had been attempted in 1933, he said, German society would have objected. But it didn’t happen overnight; it happened slowly. These laws were part of the process of Nazification of German society, happening slowly and over a long period of time, long before the annihilation of European Jews. 

The question was asked, “Did these laws come from above or below?” Who came up with the concept that it was important to make a law which said ‘Jews can’t own pets’, or ‘Jews cannot sing in the city choir’ or ‘Jews can only sit on benches in the public square which are marked specifically for them’? These were not the Nuremberg Laws, but local ordinances and restrictions passed for Jewish citizens.

At one sign which showed a loaf of bread, the ordinance read ‘Jews are only allowed to buy bread between 4 and 5 in the afternoon’ and was dated April 1940. Mr. Barmore spoke of milestones for Germany’s Jews in the Holocaust. One such major milestone was Kristallnacht. Another, he noted, for Berlin’s Jewish community, was this restriction. He told us of how survivors would mention this law and say that when their neighbors saw them standing in line for bread, they would not acknowledge them but would cross to the other side of the street. They were embarrassed, but this embarrassment, in time of war and food rations, made them ambivalent about the law. This ambivalence led them to look the other way when they saw their neighbors. The law was difficult partly because by 4 or 5 in the afternoon, most or all of the bread would have been sold, but the most painful part for the Jews of Berlin was the fact that their neighbors abandoned them.

Our next visit was to the train station in Grunewald, a very wealthy residential area of Berlin. It was from this train station, beginning on October 18, 1941, that most of Berlin’s Jewish residents were to be deported. Olaf showed us three memorials at Grunewald to the deportation. The first memorial was a cross section of railroad ties in front of the entrance to the train station, established by a group of Lutheran women in 1987, with a plaque commemorating the beginning of the deportations. The second memorial was a wall which depicted figures as they walked up the hill to the train platform to be deported. The third memorial established by the German Railroad, was two platforms lined by plaques which represented each deportation train from Grunewald, listing the date, the number of Jews and the destination of the train, whether Theresienstadt, Lodz, Riga or Auschwitz.

After lunch at a nearby German restaurant we arrived at our final memorial destination for the day, the Wannsee House. It was in this house, located on the beautiful waterfront lake, Wannsee, that representatives of the bureaucratic agencies would meet on January 20, 1942 for a luncheon over which they would discuss how to carry out the plan known as the Final Solution. Olaf told us how after the war, though the city owned the Wannsee House, it was a property that was ignored until 1992 when they opened the exhibition about what had occurred here fifty years earlier. “Initially they wanted to forget,” he said. “Now they want to use it to educate.”
Inside the Wannsee House, which in 1942 was a house used by Nazi leaders for meetings and social gatherings, Mr. Barmore reiterated what he had told us yesterday about Nazi racial ideology; namely that the Nazis did not view their desire to eliminate the Jews from German society as emanating from any hatred of them, but from their ‘reasoned’ conclusion that Jews were essentially a destructive virus in the body of Germany and for its survival, they needed to be eliminated. “The Jews are our misfortune” was a common phrase used by the Nazis. To the Nazis, ‘misfortune’ represented ‘evil’ from a profound point of view.

Mr. Barmore told us the Nazis were therefore faced with a paradox: on the one hand, they wanted to eliminate Jews, but on the other, they didn’t have a clue as to how they were going to accomplish their goal. In 1933, he told us, Joseph Goebbels was asked if eliminating the Jews from society meant that they should be killed. Goebbels’ response, he said, was “What do you mean? We are not barbarians”. Yet in eight years, there would be 5 factories of death operating in Poland, with precisely that function. So how did they arrive at 1941, doing exactly what they could not conceive of doing in 1933?

We learned that it was a process which consisted of three phases, 1933-1942. Historians had long struggled to understand this process and they largely fell into two schools of thought. One school, the Intentionalists, believed that there was a straight line between Nazi ideology and the killings. The other school of thought are the Functionalists, who reasoned that if it was a straight line, there should be references to the killings in Nazi documents and writings as early as 1933, 1934, 1935, and so on. Yet they could not discern anything about annihilation in the reports of early years. The Functionalists, therefore, believe that Nazi policy evolved, a “Twisted Road to Auschwitz” , due to different circumstances, in three phases.

Phase 1 [1933-1939] focused on legislation and emigration of Jews. Early in the Nazi years, April 1, 1933, a one day boycott of Jewish businesses occurred. This was not orchestrated from above, by the government, but was an action of the S.A. and was unsuccessful and unsettling for the German people because it represented chaos at a time when they had elected a new government on the promise of law and order. Nazis therefore decided they must not allow mob activity to take over and decided to go about the process differently. They would first define who was Jewish, then take away the rights of those individuals and proceed against them in a legal, orderly way. No phase ended because it was complete, we were told, but because another phase started. For example, emigration did not stop in 1939; in fact, officially a German Jew could leave Germany as late as February 1943 if he/she could find a place to go. At this time, most Polish Jews had been murdered.
Phase 2 [1939-1941] focused on the period of concentration. When Germany began WWII with the invasion of Poland, there were 2.5 million Jews that Germany needed to deal with. Possible solutions discussed were the concentration of the Jews near Lublin, or shipping them to Madagascar, neither of which was possible. The Jews of Poland were concentrated in the larger cities into ghettos during this period. Mr. Barmore noted that this was a phase of the process which is unfortunately often overlooked in a discussion of the Holocaust, while the death camps are the major focus. He told us that the average length of time a Jew spent in a death camp was 2 hours. This is where they were brought to die. While the ghettos were the place that they lived --- for one, two, maybe three years. So a study of the ghettos, he reasoned, and their life in the ghettos, was a crucial part of Holocaust history. 

Phase 3 began June 1941 with the German attack on the Soviet Union. The Nazis understood that it would be a special war; one of competing ideologies and they prepared for that special war by establishing special units, called Einsatzgruppen or mobile killing units, prepared for a harsh war with Russian communists, partisans, and Jews who might be aiding the Soviet army. These units from June through December would be responsible for killing more and more Jews outside big cities, often with the help of local citizen, especially in the Ukraine and Lithuania who viewed themselves as not being conquered by the Nazis but being liberated from the Soviets.

After this happens in the Soviet Union, but only in the Soviet Union, the Nazis needed to decide what to do with the rest of the Jews and they started analyzing their options in October and November of 1941.   They reasoned that the mobile killing units were inefficient, and they were especially concerned that 20-30% of the members of the units doing the shootings had suffered mental breakdowns.  They needed to design an indirect, impersonal way of killing by industrializing it, so they developed the factories of death in Poland.   They had already experimented with carbon monoxide and zyklon B gas, and so they were ready to proceed, but they needed to figure out how it would actually be accomplished. Hitler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich was given that task.

The three phases in the Twisted Road to Auschwitz, 1-Emigration and Legislation, 2-Concentration, and 3-Annihilation were complete.  So how had the Nazis who in 1933  (Phase 1) responded that there would be no killing because they were not barbarians, arrived in 1942 (Phase 3) where they were, in fact, barbarians?  Mr. Barmore said there was one possible answer, and that was that war brutalizes.

However the Nazis came to be what they could not conceive of becoming when they initially came to power, Heydrich and representatives of the bureaucratic agencies which would be instrumental in the  murder of  Europe’s Jewish population delineated the process for it here, over lunch, in this house where we were now standing.

Video Clips

Student Reflections

Group 1 - Allie, Miya, Helen, Amanda, Kelly M., Kendall, and Max say ...

We felt the Grunewald Memorial was the most memorable and touching place we have visited thus far.  We have been seeing a lof of memorials but this one felt different. It was organic, not created after the Holocaust, but coming from the Holocaust.  For the first time we could really begin to picture the victims right where we stood.  Seeing the houses right by the station made us question how people could say they did not know what was happening.  Definately a sobering experience.

Group 2 - Alicia, Sarah, Bedros, Chris, Sam, Ashley, and Shannon say ...

Today we visited the Bavarian Quarter where we saw signs that memorialized the Nuremberg Laws and segregation of Jews in the Nazi era.  Everyday the German citizens of this region have to see these reminders of their country´s actions in World War II.  Unlike in Germany, Americans are shielded from the racial bias of their history.  Germany has acknowledged their past and  has provided visible representation of their awareness.  Additionally, it seemed to us that Berliners are hyper aware of their past. 
Group 3 - Alyssia, John, Kiley, Emma, Andrew, Guage, Juliana, Kelly B., and Meredith say ...

While we approached the Wannsee Villa, we were all in awe.  We were taken back by the beauty and intricacy of the museum, as well as the heinous events that occurred behind closed doors.  The conference room where the final solution was scripted made us unnerved, and made us all realize that moment was the means to bureaucractic justification for the end of the Jewish question.


  1. Impressive reflections. I look forward to more. Your faces in the pictures are so intense; you are taking it all in...keep up the good work...

  2. Thanks once again for your reflections. It amazes me that you are all high school students. Only 3 days there and already you have begun to see things much differently. I really don't know if I could stand in your shoes. So much sorry. Looking forward to hearing more in the days ahead. Thanks again.

    Mr. P

  3. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. Please don't waste this special opportunity - listen, learn & reflect. You will all return wiser, and I know you will strive to make the world a better place.

  4. This journey has given you an opportunity that so many will never experience. At such a young age you are growing wiser minute by minute with every step you take.

  5. As I have said many times before, a learning experience like this cannot be replicated in a classroom or school for that matter. The overall blog continues to evolve into a world-class exposition of knowledge and learning that is being actively applied. Keep up the great work and thought-provoking posts.

  6. Wow... when I read Goebbels’ response, “What do you mean? We are not barbarians” I was once again shock how narrow minded and ludacris these people were. What WERE they thinking?? The photos of the train station are always very see the various locales and the vast number of victims that were hauled off...unknowing their sad. I look forward to following your Blog, as I do every year. Just be sure to take in all this important information so you can go forth and spread these valuable lessons when you return. This is an amazing opportunity!

  7. I set time aside this morning to sit back and quietly read your blog and all of your reflections. I have to say, I know quite a bit more than I knew 30 minutes ago.What stopped me is when Group 2 wrote that "American's are shielded from the racial bias of their history"... Since I've never been on this trip, I found it interesting that the German citizens of this region are reminded every day of their country's past. How horrible for them! Imagine we were in constant reminder of the crimes in America's past? But that's exactly it... maybe we should be reminded more often. Maybe that would change our country for the better. Have these reminders changed the German mindset? Do you have the opportunity to speak to average German citizens to hear their thoughts and opinions?

    Your thoughts gave me a great deal to think about....

  8. looks like you guys are having an great time! love reading about it for the past week!


  10. I couldn't help but link your guide's comment, “Initially they wanted to forget,” he said. “Now they want to use it to educate" and Group #2's comment that, "Americans are shielded from the racial bias of their history."

    Interesting insights as always! Continued safe journeys ...

  11. So glad to see so many of my former students on this life-changing educational journey. What you will come away with could never be found in just reading and studying about the Holocaust. This experiential learning will transform your attitudes, change your lives, and make you better people. Can't wait to hear more!
    Enjoy every moment!

  12. Wow, you have covered so much in the short time you have been there. I have been checking in to see some of the comments posted. Some of these stories can be so impactful. When you step back, you really appreciate what you have.