Saturday, April 1, 2017

Day 1 - Berlin, Germany

We welcome parents of this year’s Holocaust Study Tour participants, their friends and family, HST alums, our colleagues, and anyone who just happened upon our blog and is interested in our trip, as we begin our annual study of the Holocaust. At the end of each day's blog we will post a link to student reflections on Padlet. 

Fifteen students from three high schools, New Milford  and Midland Park [New Jersey] and Bishop O'Dowd [California] met together for the first time this morning at our hotel, the Moevenpick, in Berlin.  After introducing ourselves over the incredible Moevenpick breakfast, and meeting our Israeli historian and guide throughout the trip, Shalmi Barmore,  and Olaf, our local guide, we boarded our private bus to begin the day, which was beautiful, sunny and warm. Aboard the bus, Shalmi asked “Why Germany? How do we look for a reason for the Holocaust?  Is there something different in German history that could provide an explanation?” 

Shalmi talked about the concept of nationalism and how European nationalism differs from American nationalism.  When asked ‘What is American nationalism?’ students offered concepts such as freedoms, values, equality – concepts guaranteed by the Constitution.   Shalmi agreed, saying that the American nationalism was the result of rationalism and the focus was 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 was to guard the civil rights of the citizens and the government officials in America were considered by the people to be our civil servants.  

In contrast, we were told that in the European historical evolution of the context of ‘nation’, it is something greater than its people, something vague and difficult to define.  Asking German students what is ‘German nationalism’, Shalmi said, would elicit different responses, which would include history and tradition and culture, not typical responses from Americans.   “Anybody can become an American” we were told, “if they agree to uphold the Constitution and pass a test.”   For Germans, it was much more complicated.  Germany became a nation at a very special stage in history and becoming a nation was an issue of consciousness, where people began to see themselves as Germans, especially as it developed during crises, where suffering together gave people the feeling of unity.  Out of the crisis of WWI a certain Germany emerged, and after WW2 and the Holocaust another Germany was created.  Our first stop would be the German Historical Museum where we would begin the process of examining the history of the development of Germany as a nation.

On our way, Olaf showed us Checkpoint Charlie, the checkpoint between the American and Soviet sectors of Berlin after WW2 through which people might be able to pass between East and West Berlin.  We also saw the impressive statue of Frederick the Great, so important to the historical development of Berlin.  We saw many construction sites as this city is an amazing study in both old architecture and new buildings.  We learned that 60% of Berlin had been destroyed during World War II and then after the reunification in 1989 of East and West Berlin, there came a new spurt of building, particularly in former East Berlin where the German Historical Museum was located.

In the museum,  Shalmi 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 Germany 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 in that nation’s history. 

In the entry hallway, we stopped at an impressive statue of Germania, the symbol of Germany.  Shalmi told us that in the Middle Ages, everything revolved around religion and when something positive happened, it was often referred to as a miracle.  Nationalism was a modern phenomenon, a result of the Enlightenment, and things needed to be have a rational explanation, but that with people there was not only reason, but passion and emotion.  The individual was only something because of the group; an individual could not develop culture alone.   European nations would come to be personified by a symbol in order to simplify it.   France would be represented by the female statue, Marianne, Britain by Britannia, and Germany by the female, Germania.  Why women and not men?  “Because women were considered good, and pure,” Shalmi said.    When asked how  America was personified, most students responded  “Uncle Sam” .  Although “Lady Liberty” was also offered as a representation.   

Also in the hall, a second, very different statue, was one created by the Nazis to symbolize the power and strength and superiority of the Aryan race.  Shalmi talked about ideology – the beliefs of a group, and specifically Hitler’s Nazi ideology.   He asked if we believed that all 60 million people who voted for Hitler, believed in his ideology.  Then why follow?   He said that in democracy, very often people are voting against something rather than voting for something. 

Shalmi explained that over the next two weeks, we would be seeing many memorials and statues and said we should always bear in mind two questions:  (1)  Who made this?  And (2)  What is the message that the creator wants to convey to me?   The dialogue, he said, is between you and the person who made the statue or memorial.

As we continued through the museum we learned that Frederick the Great brought in French Huguenots [Protestants] who had been forced to flee by the Catholics, because they were artisans, and also allowed certain Jews to come in because they were good businessmen.  We learned that the Industrial Revolution which had first occurred in Britain and developed at a much slower pace, with gradual society change, came last to Prussia and progressed much faster, eventually overtaking other European nations.  We were told that if a society does not have time to adjust to the pace of change there could be disastrous consequences.  Shalmi also emphasized the significance of the development of the train.  With the train came the ability for people to travel outside of their communities, the recognition of borders and the development of identities.  And one of the main developers of trains in Europe, we were informed, as the Rothschild family.

 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 came to define them.  And the primary communicators of that cultural identity were the classroom teachers.   

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.

We ate lunch in the Potsdamer Platz, which Olaf informed us had been built since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  We were eating, he said, in what had been no man’s land during the Cold War era.  The area had largely been developed by two companies, so the two complexes which contained shopping malls, restaurants, and business offices, were known as Daemmler City and the Sony Center. 

Our next stop was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe designed by American architect Peter Eisenman and dedicated in 2005.  The memorial is a city block on which are placed 2711 grey concrete blocks or ‘stellae”, arranged in a seemingly haphazard manner, on a sloping surface which rises and falls as one walks through the stellae.  We talked about what the memorial represented to visitors as well as to the residents of Berlin.  We spoke of the difference between the classic memorials in so many cities which honor war heroes and which leave little room for discussion and the modern memorials which seem to challenge the visitors to enter into a discussion about what the memorial stands for.  What is the symbolism of the blocks?  What is appropriate behavior at the memorial? Why is it only for the murdered Jews?  Olaf told us that the architect had said nothing about the memorial as a guide, leaving it to the visitor to determine the message.  We recalled Shalmi’s two questions he had asked us to consider this morning, as we visited each memorial.  

We returned to the Moevenpick to check into our rooms and freshen up for dinner and prepare the student posts. 

Please view student comments on Padlet at

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  1. Great first day. Loved reading the blog.

  2. Incredible stuff. Can't wait for the next update!

  3. It is very interesting that the statue created by the Nazis symbolizes the power and strength and superiority of the Aryan race.

  4. It's very sweat that their are memorials deducted to the victums of the holocaust.

  5. It was very interesting reading about religion in paragraph 7. Today, we still view many positive occurrences as miracles or acts of God. It was interesting that these connections are made between so long ago and today.

  6. It is interesting that three different high schools are going on this trip, I thought that only Bishop O’Dowd was going. Shalmi seems like a very knowledgeable person and someone that I would enjoy talking to about the Holocaust. I like how the blog explains that in the United States it’s constitution is focused on democracy and the rights of the individual compared to the German nationalism which includes history, tradition, and culture. Checkpoint Charlie seems like a very interesting tour to go on and very informational. It’s interesting to see how America is seen as Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty. I like the quote “if a society does not have time to adjust to the pace of change there could be disastrous consequences.” The concrete blocks have a very simplistic yet power look to them that allows the viewer to think. The start of this trip seems great and very interesting.

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