Friday, April 6, 2018

Day 3 - Berlin

Today we awoke to another wonderful spring day in Berlin -  the great weather is holding!  Everyone enjoyed another sumptuous breakfast and then we headed for our bus.   As we began our day Olaf told us we would be spending the day in the western part of Berlin whereas we had largely spent the first two days in the eastern section of the large city.  On the way to our first stop of the day, Olaf pointed out some of the sights of Berlin.  As we entered Tiergarten Park,  he pointed out the large Berlin Victory Column which celebrated the 1864 Danish-Prussian War.  The statue was commissioned in 1864 but by the time it was dedicated in 1873 it had also defeated Austria in the Austro-Prussian War and France in the Franco-Prussian War in what would be called collectively the Unification Wars.  We were asked to reflect upon our discussion yesterday of how much easier it is to erect memorials to victory than to defeats or difficult events in one’s history.

Olaf pointed out the headquarters of the political party of Prime Minister Angela Merkel, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and several embassies including those of Mexico, China and Norway. Large apartment block buildings lined the major streets.  At the end of the war, 60% of the city had been destroyed, we were told, and housing was an immediate, pressing need, so the rows of apartment buildings were quickly constructed.   We entered one of the 12 districts of Berlin, called Charlottenburg, named for Sophie Charlotte, the wife of  King Frederick I.  We learned that each of the 12 districts of the city of Berlin has its own mayor and town hall, but all are officially under the jurisdiction of the mayor of Berlin.

In the Charlottenburg district we stopped before a sprawling palace which Olaf told us had been the summer palace of the King and his wife, After  80% of it was destroyed in World War II, there subsequently ensued an argument  whether to raze the entire structure and build a supermarket and parking garage, or rebuild the palace to its full glory.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s the decision was made to rebuild.  Many of the interior items,  including paintings, furniture, and other artifacts, had been removed from the palace during the war and stored in safe locations, so these were now restored to the palace.  It houses exhibitions and occasionally important public events, such as when President Obama and his family came to Berlin in 2013.  Olaf told us that our wonderful bus driver, Bettina, had been the limo driver for the First Lady, Sasha and Malia as they wanted to learn about and see as much as possible of the Berlin Wall. 

Across the street from the Charlottenburg Palace, Olaf pointed out the Berggruen Museum.  Heinz Berggruen, we were told, was born in Berlin to an assimilated German Jewish family.  In 1936 he emigrated to the United States where he studied literature at UC Berkeley and became an art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and assistant director for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where he began his art collecting.  After WWII he returned to Europe, settling in Paris. He sold his collection to the city of Berlin for a fraction of its worth, including collections of Picasso, Klee and Matisse.  Olaf lamented that few tourists ever visited this museum.  Here, Mr. Barmore said, “Now I’ll tell you the Jewish side of the story”.  Having left Berlin when Jews were encouraged to emigrate, Berggruen went to the U.S. and became a well known art collector. What is unique about his collection we were told, was that it tells you the whole story of these artists and their different periods or phases, rather than an eclectic collection.  The collection contains examples of paintings from all of their various artistic periods.  No other place in the world can you learn about all of these artists in a more didactic way.  After the Holocaust there were many Jews who would have nothing to do with Germany; would not speak German or buy products made in German.  Some Jews, however, still felt themselves to be German and what they really wanted was the recognition that they were, in fact, German.  Mr. Barmore told us that Berggruen negotiated the sale of his art collection in return for a fancy house.  He also received honorary citizenship from the city of Berlin.  He had received his long wished for recognition in return for his collection.  In the Jewish world, we were told, this was as low as you could go, leaving your collection to Germany.  This story highlights memory, as we were discussing yesterday, and the complication of memory, even with the victims.  What is the right way to carry on with this anger and feeling of alienation?  Is there a right way?

Our first stop was the Berlin Olympic Stadium in the Berlin district of Grunewald. In 1931 the International Olympic Committee had awarded Germany the 1936 summer Olympic games signaling global acceptance of Germany’s return to the international community following WWI. When the Nazis came to power and initiated their discriminatory policies against Jews, there was discussion among many countries, including the United States, that there should be a boycott of the games. Under the guidance of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis wanted to use this venue as a demonstration of Aryan supremacy and so there was an abatement of Nazi policies against the Jews so as not to alienate the international community. An Austria Jew, Helene Mayer, a fencer, was even allowed to compete and won a silver medal. Gretel Bergman, a German Jewish high jumper, was told she would also compete. The day after the ship carrying the American Olympic team left New York harbor, Bergman was told she would not be competing. Why the difference? Mayer had blonde hair and looked Aryan; Bergman had dark hair and looked Jewish. One thing most American students learn about the 1936 Olympics is that an African-American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, won 4 gold medals, severely damaging the Aryan supremacy of the Nazis. Mr. Barmore drew a contemporary parallel between Germany’s change in policies in 1936 when she wanted a positive spotlight on the nation with the Olympics and to not alienate the world, to Russia’s response to the allegations of Russia’s poisoning of a former Russia spy and his daughter on British soil on the eve of her hosting the 2018 world cup in June.

The Olympic sports complex was constructed by Werner March. The stadium had a capacity of 110,000 spectators and included a special elevated reviewing area for Hitler and his political colleagues. We next viewed the Olympic Bell which has been placed outside the stadium. The bell had been placed outside the stadium. The bell had been cast in 1934 and contained the Olympic Rings, the German eagle, the Brandenburg Gate and 2 swastikas. Olaf had told us it was illegal to place swastikas on items in Germany now. After the war, these two swastikas had been partly filled in so that they were no longer complete swastikas.

The bell tower and Langemarck Hall had been damaged during the war. A guide book from the Olympic Stadium says :These were restored under the leadership of Werner March who had been rehabilitated in the de-Nazification process.” Much more extensive renovations to the stadium were done in 2000 and the stadium reopened for use in 2004, yet another example of Germany dealing with history and its narrative. The guide book continued, “History cannot be erased; neither can the history of buildings, unless they are torn down, so it is a reassuring sign when a building –albeit historically burdened – is left standing to bear witness, yet change at the same time, transported into the modern world using careful conservation measures.”

We next visited a modern memorial to the Holocaust in a section of Berlin called the Bavarian Quarter, so named because many of the streets were named after towns and princes in the German state of Bavaria.  In this middle class section of the city, once lived an estimated 16,000 assimilated German Jews, most of whom would be murdered by the Nazis.   One very famous Jewish resident was physicist, Albert Einstein.  He had moved to Berlin in 1914, lived in the Bavarian Quarter and taught at Humboldt University, next to the German Historical Museum that we had visited on our first day [site of the book burning memorial], until he emigrated to the United States in 1932.  Approximately 70-80% of this residential area was destroyed during the war, so it is now largely comprised of modern apartment buildings and stores.

The Bavarian Quarter memorial  reflected the first phase of the Nazi policies towards Jews, the legislative phase.  This modern memorial is comprised of over 80 signs attached to poles throughout the residential district.  On one side of each sign is a city ordinance or statute which had been enacted against the Jews during the period of 1933 to 1943, and on the other side is a picture or symbol which depicts the essence of that rule.   These signs are scattered, and we encountered several on our walk around the quarter, noting that they were not in any particular order and not chronological. 

At one sign which showed a loaf of bread, the ordinance read ‘Jews are only allowed to buy food between 4 and 5 in the afternoon’  and was dated April 1940. The question was asked,  “Who came up with the concept that it was important to make a law which said ‘Jews can’t own pets’, or ‘Jews cannot sing in the city choir’  or ‘Jews can only sit on benches in the public square which are marked specifically for them’?”  These were not the Nuremberg Laws passed for all German Jews, but local laws for the Jewish residents of Berlin.  These were ordinances passed by their own neighbors.   Some rules came from above, but many laws came from below.    

We walked to the Loecknitz Elementary School so the students could view a project which has been ongoing for more than 25 years relating to the Holocaust. For the past 2 years we have met with students from the school and their principal and they have given presentations about the project and shown us around the school, but they are on Easter break so the school was closed, but we were able to visit the wall which represents the culmination of the project for all 6th graders.   In the 1990’s a book was published about the memorial signs in the area and in the book were also listed 6,069 names sorted by streets and house numbers with the date of birth, and the location and date of death or deportation.  Students started asking about the signs on their street and they wanted to look at the list of names in the book, noting that someone who was deported by the Nazis had the same name or birthday, or had lived on their street, or in their apartment building.  They wanted to know more about these people and thus was born in 1994 an incredible educational project they call the Memorial for Jewish Citizens.   6th grade students choose the  name of a Jewish citizen who lived in this community during the Holocaust and do research on the individual, then memorializing that person by preparing a brick to add to their growing wall in the schoolyard during a ceremony each spring that now receives considerable attention from the Berlin community.  On each brick was written the name of a person, the date of birth, and the date and place the place the person died or had been deported.  The wall now has more than 1,200 bricks.  Last year one of the students had told us of a Jewish saying “If people are forgotten, they die a second time.”  The students want to be sure citizens who lived in their neighborhood, are not forgotten; to keep their memory alive. A signpost by the wall has an explanation of the project in 5 languages, stating that the learning of the Holocaust is embedded in the school curriculum in a teaching unit on National Socialism.  The schools’ mission statement:   Our school doesn’t forget the past, shapes the present courageously, and prepares the future with responsibility.

Upon leaving the school, we noticed a stolpersteine [stepping stone].  Yesterday Olaf had shown us several stolpersteine in the area around Otto Weidt’s workshop.   Stolpersteine are brass plaques placed throughout Berlin and other European cities, where Jews lived before being deported.  Each plaque had the name, date of birth, date of deportation and date and place of death.

Our next visit was to the train station in Grunewald, a very wealthy residential area of Berlin.  It was from this train station, beginning on October 18, 1941, that most of Berlin’s Jewish residents were to be deported.  Olaf showed us three memorials at Grunewald to the deportation.  The first memorial was a cross section of railroad ties in front of the entrance to the train station, established by a local group of Lutheran women in 1987, with a plaque commemorating the beginning of the deportations.  In 2011 a Polish artist brought birch trees from around Auschwitz to several places in Germany which were part of the Holocaust, planting several here at Grunewald train station as part of this memorial. 

The second memorial was a wall which depicted figures as they walked up the hill to the train platform to be deported.    The third memorial established by the  German Railroad, was consisted of two train platforms lined by plaques which represented each deportation train from Grunewald, listing the date, the number of Jews and the destination of the train, including Theresienstadt, Lodz, Riga and Auschwitz.  We spent some time walking along the tracks looking at the plaques.  Callie and Kelly added the numbers on each of the plaques and calculated the total number of Jews deported from Grunewald between October 18, 1941 when the first transport carried 1,251 Jews to Lodz and the last on December 10, 1944 carried 31 Jews to Auschwitz.  Their total was 50, 282.  The largest transport was 1,758 Jews and the smallest was 13 Jews.  Mr. Barmore noted that officially, the decision to stop the annihilation of the Jews was made on  November 27, 1944, according to documents.  Yet transports continued to be sent to the east.  What do these small numbers signify at the end?  Where do they find them?   Mr. Barmore spoke to us about an event toward the end of the war called the “Jew Hunt” in which there continued to be a concerted effort to track down all Jews, showing the extent to which this whole racial policy was important to the Nazis.  He spoke of it being a bureaucratic search whereby bureaucrats went back into old census lists and other records in order to locate any Jewish names.  Another method they employed was hiring Jewish informers as bait to locate Jews who were hiding. 

 We had lunch at a local deli, Spinner-Brücke, known as the ‘biker deli’ because it has served as a meeting place for motorcycle enthusiasts for years.

After lunch we traveled to our last stop, the Wannsee House.  It was in this house, located on the beautiful waterfront lake, Wannsee, that representatives of the bureaucratic agencies would meet on January 20, 1942 for a luncheon over which they would discuss how to carry out the plan known as the Final Solution.   

Mr. Barmore told us the Nazis were faced with a paradox:  they came to power in 1933 and wanted to solve the “Jewish Question”, but did not know how.  The Nazi ideology was racist and about the survival of the fittest [the Aryan race], but in the beginning they were more about expulsion of Jews from society rather than their annihilation.  On the one hand, they wanted to eliminate Jews from society, but on the other, they didn’t have a clue as to how they were going to accomplish their goal.  Yet in nine years, there would be 5 factories of death operating in Poland, with precisely that function.  So how did they arrive at 1941, doing exactly what they could not conceive of doing in 1933?

We learned that it was a process which consisted of three phases, 1933-1942, a “Twisted Road to Auschwitz”, that Mr. Barmore had mentioned yesterday. This means, we were told, that at every phase of the Holocaust, things could have been done to avert it, which makes individual and national inactions more troubling. 

Inside the Wannsee House, which in 1942 was a house used by Nazi leaders for meetings and social gatherings, Mr. Barmore reiterated what he had told us about Nazi racial ideology; namely that the Nazis did not view their desire to eliminate the Jews from German society as emanating from any hatred of them, but from their ‘reasoned’ conclusion that Jews were essentially a destructive virus in the body of Germany and for its survival, they needed to be eliminated.  He said the Nazis placed races in three groups:  (1) the superior race or Aryans – superior because they were able to create culture and scientific inventions and discipline; (2) the inferior races who were culture bearing races, and (3) the Jews who were not only inferior but destructive, and like a virus, needed to be eliminated from the body or it would die. 

Phase I [1933-1939] focused on legislation and emigration of Jews.   Early in the Nazi years, April 1, 1933, a one day boycott of Jewish businesses occurred.  This was not orchestrated from above, by the government, but was an action of the S.A. and was unsuccessful and unsettling for the German people because it represented chaos at a time when they had elected a new government on the promise of law and order.  Nazis therefore decided they must not allow mob activity to take over and decided to go about the process differently.  They would have the legal state first define who was Jewish, then take away the rights of those individuals and proceed against them in a legal, orderly way to “squeeze them out of Germany”.   But when no nations were willing to accept  Germany’s 500,000 Jews [less than 1% of the population] and many Jews were unwilling to leave their home, the Nazis realized they would have to go about their goal a different way, and Reinhard Heydrich was placed in charge of a special office to find solutions for the Jewish question. The first policy was to encourage their emigration but Jews could only leave without property which made it difficult for nations to receive them because now they were penniless immigrants who might become reliant on the state.

Phase II [1939-1941] focused on the period of concentration or ghettoization.  The Nazis had been unsuccessful in dealing with their own Jews, and now with the invasion of Poland, there were an additional 3 million Jews that Germany needed to deal with.  The intent was to turn Poland into a servile nation, and this goal resulted in the elimination of the intelligentsia:  political leaders, professors, authors and clergy.  Possible solutions discussed were the concentration of the Jews near Lublin, or shipping them to Madagascar, neither of which was possible.  The Jews of Poland were concentrated in the larger cities into ghettos during this period. Mr. Barmore emphasized that while most people focus on the activities of the extermination camps, the average life expectancy in those places was about 2 hours.  Jews lived in the Lodz ghetto or the Theresienstadt ghetto for 4 years.  And Jews needed to figure out a way to survive and outlive this horror.  In the early years of the ghetto the focus was not on extermination but how to survive and the general consensus was to figure out a way to make themselves useful to the Nazis.  In Lodz, for example, a center of the textile industry in Poland, the ghetto inmates would sew uniforms for the German army.

Phase III began June 1941 with the German attack on the Soviet Union.  The Nazis understood that it would be a special war; one of competing ideologies and they prepared for that special war by establishing special units, called Einsatzgruppen [mobile killing units], prepared for a harsh war with Russian communists, partisans, and Jews who might be aiding the Soviet army.   These units from June through December would be responsible for killing more and more Jews outside big cities, often with the help of local citizens, especially in the Ukraine and Lithuania who viewed themselves not as being conquered by the Nazis but as being liberated from the Soviets. 

After this happens in the Soviet Union, but only in the Soviet Union, the Nazis needed to decide what to do with the rest of the Jews and they started analyzing their options in October and November of 1941.   Mr Barmore said that after killing literally hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Soviet Union, when “the sky did not fall” the Nazis felt, ‘why not do this to the rest of the European Jews’.  They reasoned that the mobile killing units were inefficient, and they were especially concerned that 20-30% of the members of the units doing the shootings had suffered mental breakdowns.  They needed to design an indirect, impersonal way of killing by industrializing it, so they developed the factories of death in Poland since that nation had the largest concentration of Jews.  The factories of death needed to be constructed close to the source of raw materials, which were the Jews.   Instead of sending killing units to find Jews, they would transport Jews from various communities to these death camps as a more efficient means of implementing their decision to annihilate all Jews.  The decision was made in 1941 and they started to build.  The first killing center was Chelmno near the Lodz ghetto.  They had already experimented with carbon monoxide at Belzec and zyklon B gas at Auschwitz [then a concentration camp], and so they were ready to proceed, but they needed a process of how to proceed. Hitler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich was given that task. Now that the decision had been made the Nazis needed to coordinate the killing effort among the different agencies.  How to supply the trains to the ghettos; how would the tickets be paid for; how would the lists be compiled; how to calculate the numbers which could be processed.  All of this took coordination and a meeting was originally scheduled for December 9, 1941 but was postponed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, until January 20, 1942.

In the main room of the villa, where the meeting had taken place Mr. Barmore spoke to us about both the participants of the meeting and the content of their discussions.  These were educated people, we were told.  There were 9 Ph.D’s and even one was a Protestant minister.  We had spoken of a concept of Hannah Arendt, “the banality of evil” during our debriefing last night.  The discussion of this meeting was an example of that.  The original concept was to comb Europe from the West to the East, and send Jews to the East for extermination, but one member suggested that it might be more efficient to start in the East where the Jews were already in large numbers, concentrated in ghettos, dying of starvation.  So that policy was adopted.  Another problem was what to do with the ‘mixed’ Jews, the mischlinge.  First degree mischlinge had one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent so were 50% Jewish.  But what about if one was 25% Jewish with 1 Jewish grand-parent and 3 non-Jewish grandparents?  This would include many excellent Germans who were war-heroes or highly respected members of society so they became more liberal at this meeting and voted to adopt the policy to only eliminate 50% mischlinge. Another paradox since it had originally been determined that any ‘Jewish blood’ was a virus to the German nation and must be eliminated.  The Final Solution could now be implemented and it was time to construct the remainder of the killing centers which were operational within a year.  Between February 1942 and 1943, Mr. Barmore said, most of the 6 Million Jews of Europe were murdered.

The three phases in the Twisted Road to Auschwitz, I-Emigration and Legislation, II-Ghettoization, and III-Annihilation were complete.   The Nazis came to be what they could not conceive of when they initially came to power, Heydrich and leaders of the bureaucratic agencies which would be used in the  murder of  Europe’s Jewish population delineated the process for it here,  over lunch, in this house where we now stood. 

We returned to Berlin and our hotel and said goodbye to our local guide Olaf, as we would be leaving tomorrow for Dresden and Prague.  At the hotel we met some very special guests.   Two years ago
Mr. Barmore had met a German film producer, Mathias Schwerbrock, who had been working with refugees, and he arranged for us to meet with two of them.  This is how we met two very special young people, Mohammad (16)  and Sanaz (17).  In that first year they shared their story in English, telling of leaving their home in Afghanistan after their father, a police officer, was threatened by criminal groups associated with the Taliban, walking through Iran and Turkey, riding in a small, overcrowded and flimsy plastic boat from Turkey to Greece, and then continuing to walk through Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, before reaching Munich, Germany, 50 days later.  Here they were helped by a German relief agency and moved to Berlin.  Their journey was about 3,000 miles, or the distance between our two states of New Jersey and California.   Originally housed with thousands of other refugees from multiple nations, in a converted gymnasium with cots for beds and families separated by curtains (as one would find in an ER between hospital beds) but no walls, families were moved after about 3 months into converted hotels where they were assisted by German aid agencies. 

We remained in contact with Mohammad and Sanaz throughout the year and last year they told their story again.  But this time they spoke in German and their story was translated by Olaf, which to us, indicated how successful their transition into their new life had been.  Tonight they told their story again to our students, once again in English since Olaf was no longer with us.  It was wonderful and so heartwarming to see how confident they now are and how happy they are in their new life.  After a Q&A session, we boarded the bus to go to dinner at the Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt for a great dinner, with Mohammad and Sanaz intermingling with our students.  , After dinner we said goodbye to Mohammad and Sanaz and headed back to the hotel for a debriefing from a very long but educational and inspiring day. 

Read student comments on the Padlet at the following link:


  1. Thanks for telling us about an amazing day. The amount of material presented each day is staggering. It's hard to imagine what your students are feeling and thinking, listening to what happened 75 years ago.
    I'm sure the work all of the teachers and students did in preparing for this trip is paying off by matching up what you saw in books and discussed in a classroom and are now seeing in person.
    This gives a depth of understanding that will always be remembered.
    Great work and great to see a picture of you Colleen.

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  3. The bell tower is totally worth visiting. It surrounds so much history.
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