Monday, April 4, 2016
Day 2 - Berlin, Germany
We began our day at the Brandenburg Gate, a powerful symbol of the Cold War and the division of Berlin into communist East Berlin and democratic West Berlin and how for years the world’s attention was focused on what happened here and the potential threat of a nuclear war. Olaf then told us about the events in 1989 and the reaction of the people of Berlin – in the West and the East – to the wall coming down.
From there we walked across the street to the Memorial to the Sinti Roma dedicated in 2012 and commemorating the murder of an estimated 500,00 Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis in what the Roma [Gypsies] call the Porjamos (The Devouring). The memorial was designed by an Israeli artist, Dani Karavan, and has a round reflecting pool around which is written the poem “Auschwitz” by Roma author Santino Spinelli. Surrounding the pool are broken stone slabs on which are carved the names of concentration camps and ghettos in which the Sinti Roma were inmates. In the center of the pool is a triangle on which rests a single flower. Each day the platform is lowered below the surface and then is raised with a fresh flower.
Mr. Barmore spoke of the complexity of the Nazi racial ideology. He told us that Gypsies, originally from India, are actually Aryans, but that didn’t mesh with the Nazi view of Aryan supremacy that they were trying to promote, so their persecution of the Gypsy population was pursued on a sociological rather than racial basis.
Next we went into the Reichstag Dome from which we could see wonderful panoramic views of the city of Berlin and we able to identify many landmarks we had already visited.
Our next stop would be the Jewish Museum of Berlin, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, which focused on 2,000 years of German-Jewish history. Mr. Barmore then took us through the permanent exhibition. First, he talked to us about the Jewish perspective until modernity. Jews, he said, lived in Erez Israel until they were exiled by God [the Romans being merely a tool of God] for their sins. Jews would then be dealing with God, keeping the law, living according to the Torah, until God saw fit to return them to their home. Thus there developed a pattern of life, grounded in the Torah, an open account with God, which kept the Jews separate from the Christian society around them. On the practical side, they needed to earn a living, often engaging in commerce. The Christians were also ambivalent towards the Jews, at best they were tolerated. They had often been invited by the king to collect taxes or maintain records, were property of a king, and as such, were given certain privileges and were protected by him. Another important and enduring feature 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.
We stopped before two marble statues - images traditionally found outside churches in medieval times, such as Notre Dame in Paris. The statue on the left, beautiful and sighted, represented the Church and the blindfolded 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.
We continued through the museum as Mr. Barmore discussed the rise of the German Jewish community into the middle class, their desire to become assimilated into German society. German Jews had what Mr. Barmore called a “one-sided love affair.” They wanted to be German, but the outside world would never accept them as such; to most Germans, Jews could never be German.
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.
After lunch we continued our day at the museum of Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind. In this factory, students heard from Olaf about the blind and deaf employees who made brooms and brushes for the war effort. Otto Weidt 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.
Our last stop today was 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. These women were married to Jewish men who had been rounded up to be deported. 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.
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.
We returned to the hotel to relax and get ready for dinner - tonight at the Augustiner Brau in the Gendarmenmarkt.