Friday, April 10, 2015
Day 4 - Berlin to Prague
DAY 4 - BERLIN / PRAGUE
We began our last day in Berlin with a stop at a memorial to one of the lesser known events of the Holocaust. In February 1943 a group of German Aryan women stood in front of the building at Rosenstrasse 2-4 which was serving as a detention center for Jews who were scheduled to be deported east. These women were married to Jewish men who had been rounded up on orders of Joseph Goebbels who wanted to make Berlin “Judenrein” [Jew-free] as a birthday gift for Hitler. For one week the women stood in front of the building, chanting “We want our husbands back!” The Germans set up machine guns, threatening to fire on them, but the women would not back down. Finally it was the Nazis who relented, releasing all their husbands, even bringing back two who had earlier been sent to Auschwitz. The Rosenstrasse memorial was one built by the Soviets in response to pressure from citizens who felt the event should be marked and depicts the events of this week in February 1943 and the heroic efforts of these women to challenge the Nazi regime and secure their release. Mr. Barmore informed us that about 2,000 Jewish men would live out the remainder of the war in Berlin. This represented another contradiction, he said, as to Nazi policy. The Nazis were so fixated on the destruction of all European Jewry, to the point, he said, that when they found out that some Jewish babies had been left with rural Ukrainian families in an attempt to save their lives, a special SS squad was sent to the area to find the babies, kill them and their adoptive Ukrainian parents, and yet they were willing to allow 2,000 Jewish men to remain in the German capital because of the women’s protest. This demonstrated, Mr. Barmore said, how even dictatorships cannot totally disregard public opinion and needs to be mindful as to what actions might be negatively viewed by the population. It was also noted that there were many non-Jewish women across Europe, married to Jewish men, but this type of resistance only took place here, adding to the complexity of the study of the Holocaust and human behavior.
Earlier in the week we had visited the German Historical Museum which gave us an overview of German history. Today, our final stop would be the Jewish Museum of Berlin, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, which opened in 2001 and focused on 2,000 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 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 the rebuilding of the Jewish community in Germany post 1945.
Olaf began our tour with the Axis of the Holocaust where we entered through a door to find ourselves in a 24-meter high space, called the Holocaust Tower, rising from the basement to the roof inside the building. Empty, unheated, dark, lit only by natural light from a diagonal opening in the wall, one could hear sounds from outside the building yet felt so disconnected and separate. Mr. Libeskind called this room the “voided void”.
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 talked to us about how there was no stability in this exhibit, but rather the sense of uncertainty which reflected the difficulty in even trying to understand what, precisely, was the German Jewish identity.
Mr. Barmore also spoke to us about the absence of what used to be. He spoke to us about an area nearby which now nothing stood, but where once stood a synagogue. “When nothing stands for something, it’s a loaded nothing,” he said. “It’s nothing, but with memory, not a simple void, making this place not just a museum but also a memorial.”
In one space we came upon a robot which was writing a Torah, which we all found quite fascinating.
In another empty space in the building, there was an exhibit by the Israeli artist, Menashe Kadishman, who called his installation “Fallen Leaves”, dedicating the more than 10,000 metal faces covering the floor, to all innocent victims of war and violence. As the students walked through the void, stepping on the metal faces which created a cacophony of clanking, they reflected on the significance of this modern memorial as well as their level of comfort at walking through it.
As we continued through the history of Jews in Germany, we came to the 20th century – commerce, art and film. Jews because of their long history with commerce, had developed the department store, such as the large Berlin store, still in existence, Kadewe. Mr. Barmore told us that while Jews were less than 1% of the German population, they were 10% of the Berlin population, and on the main commercial street, Kurferstendam, they were even more prominent, visible, and economically successful, leading to jealousy. Jews were prevalent in film which was seen as a degenerate art form and 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, its culture.
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 earlier. 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 men, 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.
To watch videos of our experiences today go to our YouTube Channel at