Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Day 2 - Berlin


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

This morning, after a good night’s sleep and a wonderful breakfast at the Moevenpick, we began our day with Mr. Barmore asking us to consider some questions before we headed out, such as:  “How did Hitler come to power?”, “Why do dictators like referendums?”, “Was the Nazi Party voted in to power or was it more that the previous regime was being voted out?” , and “Why was the East German dictatorship after the war called the ‘Democratic Republic of Germany’?” In essence we were being asked to consider the relationship between citizens and their government and the responsibility of individuals in a democracy.

We learned that Germany’s development in nationalism was different from most other nations.  Germany was more than 300 principalities which needed to be unified.  What makes people think they should unify?  Some suggestions were shared culture or history, common language, and in the case of Germany, a common enemy in the personage of Napoleon.  

Our first stop of the day was at the site of the 1933 book burnings in Berlin, in the plaza in front of Humboldt University.  The memorial to the book burnings is a glass plate on the plaza through which one can see rows of empty bookshelves.  We were asked to consider which books were burned and why?  Mr. Barmore told us that the Nazis wanted to destroy books by authors they felt were ‘contaminating’ the German culture.

We then walked to the German Historical Museum where Mr. Barmore told us he would be showing us some highlights of German history in an attempt to provide a framework that would contextualize the Holocaust.   That, in and of itself, he said, was difficult because if one accepts the assumption that German history defines the German people, how does a museum present that history as something which led up to what that society did?  He also spoke to us about nations having historical mythology and how nations often tried to recreate what was viewed as having been a perfect time.  And sometimes, we reshape our nation’s past in order to accommodate the future we desire.  Nazism, we were told, is the outcome of German nationalism, and their ideal to recreate the perfect Middle Ages.

At the German Historical Museum,  Mr. Barmore used the United States to explain some of the differences between the concept of nationalism as it developed in Europe and what we would call ‘American nationalism’.   America, he said, was a result of rationalism and the focus on democracy and the rights of the individual.  In the United States, the structure and role of the government was created in the name of the people.  The purpose of the state is to guard the civil rights of the citizens and the government officials in America are our civil servants.   In contrast, in the European historical evolution of the context of ‘nation’, it is something greater than its people, something vague and difficult to define.  The individual is only something because of the group; an individual cannot develop culture alone.   The nation will be personified by a symbol in order to simplify it.   France would be symbolized by the female statue, Marianne, Britain by Britannia, and Germany by the statue,  Germania.   And under fascism, the German state would become an absolute;  the role of the individual in that society was to serve the state.
As we continued through the museum we learned that during the Romantic Period,  many aspects that gave identity to a people, such as language, literature and music, would become specific to that nation.  In this way, Shakespeare’s plays became not just literature, but English literature, and Beethoven’s music would become German music.  While Germans were lacking in terms of geographic unification, they developed a sense of cultural unity which defined them.

 Later, when the Nazis came to power, a spiritual component to nationalistic pride was added, so that Germans became superior not just physically but spiritually, which manifested itself in creativity.  For the Nazis this superior creativity would be attributed to race.  And when Jews became emancipated they entered the middle class, became economically successful and fell in love with German culture --- what Mr. Barmore called this the “one-sided love affair”.   While Jews felt assimilated, eventually German racism would hold that Jewish contributions to German culture were not creativity, but a vulgarization, cheapening or copy of that culture, and that would eventually destroy the culture.  To the Nazis, Germans created literature, Jews created journalism, a vulgarization of literature, and while Germans produced theatre, Jews created movies.  To protect the very existence of German culture, therefore, we were told, the Nazis believed that Jews needed to be expelled from German society. 

From the museum we went to the former Jewish neighborhood, Mitte.  Our first stop here was the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind. In this factory, students heard from Olaf about the blind and deaf employees who made brooms and brushes from horse hair and pig hair. Otto Weidt also employed Jews, and used the Berlin Work Act to legally keep employing his Jewish workers during the war. Because some of the brooms and brushes made were supplied to the German army, the workshop was deemed ‘important for the war effort' .  Otto protected his Jewish employees as well as a Jewish family of four which hid in a secret room built behind a secret wardrobe closet.  After eight months of hiding, the family was betrayed and deported to Auschwitz, where they were all murdered.  Olaf explained how Otto Weidt helped one employee, Inge Deutschkron, who is the survivor who returned to Berlin after the war and memorialized the rescue efforts of Otto Weidt by single-handedly creating this museum.


After lunch we walked to the Jewish cemetery where we visited the grave of Moses Mendelssohn and the memorial to the women who had been interned in the German concentration camp north of Berlin, Ravensbruck.  On our walk to the last stop  of the day, the Old Neue Synagogue, <olaf called our attention to several engraved brass plaques amidst the cobblestones of the sidewalks on which we were walking.  These, we were told, were part of the Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones) project of a German artist and sculptor, Gunter Deming.  Since 1989 he has placed these stones, at the request of family or friends, to memorialize victims of National Socialism, primarily Jews.  Each stone bears the year of birth and the deportation and fate of the person.  The stones are then laid before the building where the individual or family lived. In light of our discussion yesterday of traditional versus modern memorials, Olaf asked us whether or not we thought these were an appropriate memorial and there were varying perspectives.  

We continued on to the Old Neue Synagogue which was built over a six year period and consecrated in 1866.  The beautiful Moorish building style and the large Schwedler Dome of gold, shaped the silhouette of Central Berlin,  and was a symbol visible to all of the self-confidence of the Jewish community.  During Kristallnacht, in November of 1938, most of Berlin’s 14 synagogues were burned, but Wilhelm Kratzfeld, the Berlin police officer responsible for the district, was able to preserve the synagogue from major damage by chasing away the arsonists and calling the fire department.  The synagogue was able to resume services in April of 1939 and the last services took place in March of 1940 at which time the synagogue became a storage place for documents and records.  Allied bombs severely damaged the synagogue in 1943 and in 1958 the main synagogue was blasted in what was then East Berlin.  In 1988 a seven year reconstruction project was undertaken and the synagogue opened as a museum in 1995.

Mr. Barmore talked to us about German Jews and their aspirations.  People, he said, when they entered into a different society or culture, might try to assimilate or integrate.  Many Jews wanted to truly assimilate into German society, even to the point of converting to Christianity.  Others wanted to integrate, which meant becoming a part of the society but still retaining certain elements of Judaism.  Mr. Barmore told us how German Jews, attempting to integrate into German society, would built such extravagant synagogues, to rival the most elegant Christian churches.   And Olaf showed us two Torah curtains which contained a Psalm.  While the writing was in Hebrew letters, the words created were Germans.

We headed back to the hotel where we would have time to freshen up before our dinner at a restaurant back in this Jewish neighborhood.  

Upon returning to the hotel, the students were asked to consider the various sites of today and to reflect upon some aspect of a memorial that had impacted them.  The goal of this trip is to complicate students' thinking and their observations reflected that goal.   Camille noted that she was impressed with the synagogue and the fact that instead of fully remodeling the synagogue, the community "took the damage with pride" leaving it unfinished.  Caitlin stated that the book burning memorial left the greatest impact on her because of the fact that the Nazis would choose to destroy knowledge, simply because of whom it came from.

YouTube video of Otto Weidt's Workshop - Student Reflections


  1. Glad to hear all is well! :) Keep in mind to not only view perspectives of the holocaust and modern day Berlin, but also of yourselves. You will all have a different perspective of yourselves - past, present, and future - after your HST experience. Camille, you make a great point about taking the damage with pride. It is important that the history, although it is negative, is held on to in order create a positive outlook of overcoming such great defeat. Also, the gold plates cemented into the cobblestone sidewalks are friendly reminders of what great destruction to humanity took place in the city of Berlin. Enjoy every second of every day no matter how tired you are! I look forward to following throughout the rest of the journey! :)

    1. I'm not sure why my name isn't showing but it's me, Ashley Lignos!

  2. What a great learning experience! I can't wait to read more about it!

  3. What an amazing first few days you guys have had. When I look at the photos that have been posted, I can actually see the emotion in your faces. I doubt any of you will ever experience anything like this again. Keep learning, keep having fun, and keep feeling.

    Steve and Kris Venechanos

  4. Thank you for sharing in such detail your experiences. Without even being there with you, there is a lot to ponder. The questions posed by your guide are critical. I look forward to continuing to read about your amazing learning and future questions/thoughts.

  5. The clear picture of the empty bookshelves in the memorial of the Nazi Book Burnings shows the power of the written word. The Nazis needed to destroy words because of their power in influencing and educating people. My school is presenting the play "The Diary of Anne Frank" tonight and tomorrow night, and it makes me think about the power of words in telling the truth about the history of the Holocaust. Long after death of Hitler and other Nazi officials, students throughout the world are still learning about the Holocaust through the written words of young people like Anne, Otto Wolf, and others who kept diaries about their daily experiences. Like Ashley commented, each of you will be learning something new and different every day and this HST experience will change your life. Keep writing down your thoughts throughout each day of the experience, because those words have power beyond the pages where they are written.

  6. Berlin is a city that has many “faces” and yet it is “faceless.” Its history full, and yet, filled with void. The struggle to be and the concept of identity is much more complex than the words define.

    Stay close to Mr. Barmore as he introduces you to a different level of understanding. Remember his lessons of identity, assimilation, Germanic nationalism, and the “one-sided love affair,” as these will reveal themselves in layers throughout the trip.

    You will find that these topics are not just bond to history; they are surprisingly and unequivocally human. Soon you will travel to Prague (enjoy the train ride and take in the picturesque scenery), as you delve deeper you will have to confront the fact that this was and is a human-to-human story. In the words of your great historian, “Who is the bad guy? We think of villains as being monstrous, looking hideous. It becomes difficult to reconcile when the bad guy looks just like the rest of us.”

    Continue to question, to learn, and share.

    Mrs. T, Mr. Barmore, Ms. Sussman, Mr. Capuano, and Olaf I miss you all.

  7. These first few days have been jam packed with history. I am in awe as I follow your trip. Take it all in but also remember to reflect on it all as well.
    Everyone looks more rested today! Looking orward to reading tomorrow.

  8. I've never seen such a thing in my life, until now. A memorial of book burning. One of the smallest memorials I have ever seen. It's disturbing to see Nazis burning books written by Jewish people.