Friday, April 5, 2013

Day 4 Berlin - Prague

Our final day in Berlin began with a stop on the Unter den Linden Strasse on the plaza in front of Humboldt University. It was here, on May 10, 1933, that students participated in one of the many book burnings throughout Germany, orchestrated by the Nazi leadership. On that day, right-wing students went into the university libraries and pulled out books written by Jews or by authors ‘under the Jewish influence’, and threw them on a huge pyre on the plaza. Books by authors Sigmund Freud or Heinrich Mann were burned, but books about non-Jews were also destroyed, such as ones with the art of Pablo Picasso. Though Picasso was not Jewish, the Nazis reasoned that anyone who would create such paintings as “Woman with book" 1932 or rather than creating such masterpieces as 19th century German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich must have had their creativity ‘bastardized’ by a Jewish influence. The Nazis called this art ‘degenerate art’.  Mr. Barmore told us of a man named Heinrich Heine, one of the most significant German poets of the 19th century. His radical political views of the time led to his works being banned by German authorities. One hundred years before the Nazis came to power Heine, in 1820, had prophesised “where they burn books, one day they will burn people.”

He also told us that it was, perhaps, even fortuitous that there had been this rejection of "Jewish ideas" in 1933 which essentially stopped the work of nuclear physicists in the 1930’s in Germany, causing many of them to emigrate to the United States. If this had not occurred, it might have been that Germany would have developed the atomic bomb before the United States.
Michael Ullmann constructed a memorial, “Empty Library”, on the plaza to commemorate the site of the book burnings. If you did not know about it you might walk right past it, even walking over it. There is a clear glass panel (about four feet square] embedded into the plaza floor. Looking down through the panel, one sees empty library shelves and in front of them, is glass, so that as you look at the empty shelves you see the image of yourself. In this way, you, as the observer, are unable to distance yourself from this event. “It puts you into the memory”, said Mr. Barmore. Unfortunately, inasmuch as the glass panel was frozen, we were unable to view the bookshelves and could only use our imagination to picture the memorial.
Our last stop in Berlin would be to the Jewish Museum Berlin. On Wednesday we had visited the German Historical Museum which had given us an overview of German history. The Jewish Museum Berlin, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, which opened in 2001, focuses on two thousand years of German-Jewish history.

Entering the Museum’s basement brought us to three axes. Two of them – the “Axis of Exile” and the “ Axis of the Holocaust” focus on the Nazi era. The third axis, the “Axis of Continuity” leads up several flights of stairs to the permanent exhibition which takes visitors through two floors of German Jewish history, beginning with the first Jewish communities in the Middle Ages, through Moses Mendelssohn’s contributions to the Enlightenment, the process of assimilation of Jewish citizens, the Holocaust and rebuilding of the Jewish community in Germany after 1945 to the present day.

Olaf began our tour with the Axis of the Holocaust. In this section we could see personal documents and objects that told of Nazi persecution. The museum is rich in symbolism, with many empty spaces, so-called ‘voids’ that rise vertically from the basement to the roof inside the building. Mr. Libeskind has said of these ‘voids’, that he could not deny the Holocaust in his design of the building, but needed to make it visible and part of the museum. One such void we were taken to by Olaf was the “Holocaust Tower”, an empty 24 meter high spaced, unheated, lit by natural light falling through a diagonal opening in the wall. Sounds are audible from outside the building. This space has been interpreted as a commemorative space for victims of the Holocaust, but visitors are invited to make their own, personal interpretation of the spaces. Olaf said it reminded him of being “in the world, and yet disconnected from it” as Mr. Barmore had often referred to the German Jews and their situation.
In another section called "Memory Void" , one exhibit has 10,000 faces punched of steel.  Entitled "Fallen Leaves", Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman dedicated his artwork to the memory of the Jews killed in the Holocaust as well as to all victims of violence.  Visitors are invited to enter the void and walk on the faces, listening to the sounds that are created by the faces clanging against one another.  
In the Garden of Exile stand 49 titled columns on sloping ground. Olaf told us that exile meant rescue and safety but arrival in a foreign country also caused feelings of disorientation. Refugees often had difficulty gaining a solid foothold in their new home, hence the uncertain path visitors must walk as they wander through the columns.
Mr. Barmore would then take us through the permanent exhibition, after giving us a brief background of Jews in Germany. By the year 1000 Europe is Christianized; Christianity representing a cementing ideology between groups of people. The relationship between the Christian and Jewish communities in Europe in the second millennium will deteriorate. The relationship was seemingly better in the first millennium than the second millennium perhaps because of the Crusades. As a result, Jews were now the object of very ambivalent attitudes – at best they were tolerated. According to Christian doctrine, Jews had killed Christ, and yet on the other hand Jews had been given certain privileges by the king. They had been invited by the king, were property of the king and as such, were protected by him. Jews were able to pay taxes and were therefore a source of revenue for the ruler so they were protected.
One of the other important and enduring features of Jewish civilization is that Jews were literate and had always been literate. From the age of 3, Jewish boys began to learn to read so that they could study the Torah. Every Jewish male was literate and many Jewish women. In contrast, the average European citizen began to be literate from the beginning of the 20th century when education began to be mandated. This gave Jews certain obvious advantages, but in the eyes of Europeans this was unsettling in that this ability appeared to give them special powers.

At this time Jews were living inside Christian society but were not part of it; the two groups didn’t mix. There were strict rules regarding contact between the groups. For the Europeans, Jews were there to help the nobility. For the Jews, their belief was that they had a special relationship with God; God was keeping them in exile and when God felt they had suffered enough, they would be allowed to return to their homeland. Physical violence and discrimination, therefore, were seen by Jews as more the work of God than the human perpetrators. Wherever they were in exile, though, they knew they needed to make a living and so they had contact with the outside world through their activities in commerce; but for the inside world, they focused on the study of the Torah. This would go on until modern times.

Before two marble statues, one beautiful and sighted; one blindfolded. Mr. Barmore said these were images which would traditionally be found outside churches in medieval times, such as Notre Dame in Paris. The statue on the left represented the church and the statue on the right represented the synagogue, which was unable to see the truth. He said that no one can understand the Holocaust without understanding the roots of Christian antisemitism. Nazi ideology cannot be disconnected from Christian antisemitism , and yet Christian antisemitism would never have committed genocide on the Jews. In Catholicism, the Witness Theory is the belief that Christians will bear witness to the suffering of the Jewish community at the hands of God, for its failure to recognize and acknowledge Jesus as His son. When Jews have accepted the Messiah, all humanity will witness the second coming.

When Jews were emancipated, the wanted to prove they deserved to be equal. When confronted by “You don’t speak our language”, they proceeded to learn the language; when challenged by “You are not part of our culture”, they made it their culture. Jews were emancipated into that society and culture which they grew to love. The problem, Mr. Barmore reminded us, was that it turned out to be an unrequited love; a one-sided love affair. Jews could become too successful in German society, too fast. Jews changed during this process. For instance, he asked us to remember the Old Neue Synagogue in Berlin when it was built. It looked like a church, even an attempt to outdo the other churches in Berlin, and was so very visible to all in Berlin, so that in trying to emulate the German way of living, perhaps some viewed it differently.
Mr. Barmore spoke to us about personal histories which illustrated this concept. A Jewish woman named Rachel Levy married a German noble and became Rachel Varnhagen von Ense. She gave parties in her home and everyone came. She converted to Christianity. She felt she had arrived in society. And yet, he said, she was never invited to any parties. Her husband was invited and instructed not to bring her. The one-sided love affair.

Other Jews were different. When there was an increase in antisemitism, Zionism began and these Jews did not want to assimilate but to emigrate to Erez Israel, or Palestine. It was a chain reaction of events: Jews would react to some action or event, the outside would respond to the Jewish reaction, to which the Jewish community would respond. This, Mr. Barmore said, was why Jews have so many identities. For the Nazis, they concluded that what united these different Jews, was race.
Mr. Barmore spoke to us of the importance of Moses Mendelssohn (1750-1800) who personified many of these changes. He was an orthodox Jew who brought the Enlightenment to Jews also. He felt that if Jews wanted to be emancipated, they needed to reform. As they did that, however, it changed their identity. Most Jews changed, but many didn’t. All of his grand-children converted to Christianity. The question remained: Could one be an enlightened Jew? Could a person be a part of German society but still Jewish? Or did they have to become a Christian German? Could these two be reconciled? The different degrees created different kinds of Jewish identities.

Europe became more anti-Semitic at the end of the 19th century even though it became less Christian. “Why was that?” we were asked. Jews wanted to disappear into German society but as they were assimilating they became more visible. How was that possible? They changed names; they converted. Mr. Barmore challenged us to find an explanation.
As we continued through the history of Jews in Germany, we came to the 20th century – commerce, art and film. Mr. Barmore told us that before the 20th century their religion precluded Jews from drawing human figures, so there were few Jewish artists, but there were many Jews who were art critics, or involved in film or theatre. Hitler even noted, he said, that Jews weren’t artists because they lacked creativity, but they used art, and vulgarized art in film and theatre. Jews were prevalent in film which was seen as vulgarized art and Jews were prominent in journalism which Nazis claimed was the vulgarization of literature. These arguments played into the Nazi ideology that Jews were a destructive element in society, incapable of creativity, but who had a predilection for destroying that which was good in a nation.
The last stop we made in the museum was before a picture of Walter Rathenau, who, Mr. Barmore said, was the symbol of the one-sided love affair he had spoken to us about. Walter Rathenau was the son of Emil Rathenau, a highly successful German Jewish businessman who had established AEG Incorporated. His son, Walter, was nominated, following the loss in World War I, as Foreign Minister for the Weimar Republic and would be sent to Paris to help negotiate what would become the Treaty of Versailles. Two cousins, Albert Einstein and Max Lieberman approached him and begged him to not accept the nomination, fearing that if anything went wrong, the Jews would be blamed, Rathenau’s response was that “I am first a German; and if my nomination helps Germany, I will accept.” Rathenau went to Paris and he signed the Treaty of Versailles which was rejected by consensus of German public opinion. A short while later, he would be shot and killed by a right wing radical. At the trial, Rathenau’s mother spoke to the mother of the son, and is reputed to have said, “If your son knew what a good German he killed, he would have turned his gun on himself.”
We left the museum and drove to the new train station where we said goodbye to our Berlin guide, Olaf, and boarded our train for Prague. The rest of the day was traveling on a five hour train ride through the beautiful countryside, arriving in Prague at 7:30 p.m. where we were met by our Prague guide, Kamila who took us to our hotel and then to dinner at the Municipal House.


  1. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. I love this Blog.

  2. Hi Everyone!
    It sounds like your last day in Berlin was full of learning...a lot to absorb each day, but I know you were very well prepared in advance.

    I knew about the book burnings in 1933, but reading about them again here does give me pause. I did not know about Heinrich Heine's prophecy - chilling!

    What an excellent idea to include Shalmi's videos as part of your blog! That really makes me feel like I can share the experience that you're having, at least somewhat.

    I look forward to reading your blog as your trip progresses - and especially reading all of the students' commentaries.

    Keep up the good work, all of you, and thanks for sharing!

  3. I always get chills each year when I read about and see the Memory Void exhibit.

  4. It is so good to see all of you. What you are showing us is just beyond anything that can be read in a book or taught in a classroom. Thank you so much for taking us on this journey with you.

  5. As always, I feel like I'm learning along with all of you. The "Empty Library" memorial is certainly a fascinating visit ... and one that gives me chills just thinking about it. Continued safe journeys....