by Martin Ben Moreh
The Berlin Experience- a Question of Reframing
What the Berlin experience did to me
Berlin is not just another city , its buildings, its music, art, and its human mosaic that showcases so many different and opposite sides of the human condition, jolted my thoughts and feelings about who I am: my Judaism, my Zionism, the personal choices I’ve made in my life, my family, my work, my values. Its history tells a story of literally living at a crossroads. For one hundred years, Berlin was the very center of the power struggle in geo-politics, the fight for freedom, the horrors that mankind is capable of, the inner powers that are in all of us to choose between right or wrong, the decadence that exists in the city and the hopes of the people. In short, the Berlin experience of living at the very edge of history for the last century, sharpened my senses and forced me to reflect on my responsibility to the choices I’ve made and will take on the winding road of life.
My wife Anat and I set out from Jerusalem for an 11 day birthday celebration (hers) in Berlin. A place we’ve heard so much about. Berlin as you can imagine was not a ‘normal place’ to visit. The name, or rather, the idea of the city, has deep connotations for us and I suppose for any Jew. You cannot just arrive with an open mind; the historical memories are so intense. So our feelings were excitement to be going accompanied by a little trepidation. We wondered whether this would be just another holiday or something more.
Introduction to the city
Arrived at a really good comfortable flat – in West Berlin, (Walter Benjamin Platz , Charlottenburg area), we did a house swap with an Israeli couple (he’s a shaliach who works in Berlin, they have grandchildren in Jerusalem) – there are all the modern conveniences, plus a pair of bicycles and hundreds of great discs – Israeli, Classical and Jazz!
The only thing we pre-arranged from Jerusalem was a trip from a very highly recommended Israeli guide named Avichai – an ex distinguished prize winning newspaper man in Israel who, after a short visit with his wife a few years ago decided to delve into the complexity of Berlin in all its aspects and become a personal guide to the perplexed for those who come from Israel and want to unravel the layers of modern Berlin and relive its glories and tragedies. We started our trip with him as our guide and ended with deep appreciation and with a friend.
Berlin jolts the senses. There is something different in its ambience that we just could not put our fingers on – different from other trips we’ve made to New York, London, Paris, Prague and Barcelona.
In our line of sight as we stroll are bicycles, buses and train Berlin (one of the most amazing transport systems we’ve come across). There are wide thoroughfares, little side streets and alleys, enclaves that are hidden from the street, parks. Berlin is green all over, for example the Lietzensee Park and the majestic Tiergarten Park and forest where of course we rode on our bicycles. Our park days were celebrated by bright sunshine which helped to create a break from the dark historical Berlin and gave us a number of serene and fulfilling days.
Berlin – The weight of memory
Imperial Berlin of the Prussian empire, the home of two revolutions in 1919, the Weimar republic, the capital of Nazi Germany, the destruction of the city, the center of the cold war, a city divided by an ugly wall, reunification……and of course, the Jewish shadow of a proud past which ended in a horrific holocaust lurks around every corner…intertwined by the smattering of Hebrew we overhear on the street.
Jewish world – We start our cultural, historic walk around the city; highlights include the Jewish quarter. Around the Hackesche Market there are very interesting hidden enclaves where Jews once lived in total poverty and today, like in so many other cities in the world, yesterday’s slums are today’s areas of the wealthy and arty elite. We saw the original Jewish Cemetery from the 17th century, and literally fell into an amazing art object – a dining table whose chairs had been thrown to the ground – depicting the suddenness of the Nazi attacks on Jews. We visited the museum of the ‘Silent Heroes‘ dedicated to the thousands of Germans who hid Jews during the holocaust. A total of 10,000 Jews tried to go underground in Germany and 5,000 survived. For each Jew that survived, up to 10 Germans tried to support him or her – meaning tens of thousands of ordinary Germans were involved in protecting Jews. We literally fell upon the amazing project of the ‘ Memorial Stones’ embedded in the pavement of the city, which tell personal stories of the Nazi victims – names, dates, where they were born and where they died. These stones have become a national educational project where families remember their loved ones. We saw the Newe Synagogue – Berlin’s oldest Shul which is full of stories and relics of a very vibrant Jewish culture and tells so many sad tales. And finally, the unique Micha Ullman Memorial ‘ the empty bookcase’ consisting of a glass plate set into the cobbles, in memory of the ‘’Burning of the 20,000 books‘’ by the Nazis in 1933 – with the quote from Heinrich Heine: ‘’Where they burn books they will eventually burn people’’.
We attended a free concert (!), by the Berlin Philharmonic, an open concert in the foyer of their impressive building. It was magnificent with over 500 people in the hall – with a mostly local audience, this was true musical delight. We explored the KW art gallery which shows the cutting edge of art in Germany today, a stunning gallery where we spent hours looking at art. One room has an amazing wall mural made up of over 30 individual paintings in different styles which by themselves and together was a fascinating sight, in addition to the very unusual and compelling exhibits on the various floors and even an elegant film, ’The Limits of Control’ (by Jim Jarmusch ) where every scene was set like a beautiful painting.
We stopped at the KaDeWe – Berlin’s incredible temple multistory Temple of Food, slightly bigger than my father’s deli in Glasgow….which of course was Jewish owned before the time of the Nazi’s and has its own special Berlin History. In the Mitte area, near Hitler’s bunker, flies an enormous poster ‘Shopping is Coming Home’ that advertises a gigantic new shopping area which will be built on the site where George Wertheim, a Jew created one of Europe’s first elegant shopping emporiums before the Nazi ‘s destroyed it. ‘Shopping is coming Home’ – touches the depth of Berlin ‘s complex historical experience.
From the glorious Siegessäule victory memorial (remembering the Prussian victories of 1870 which created the greater German Empire), to the horrific Topography of Terror – an astounding exhibit over a mile long, explaining simply and graphically how the Nazis systematically destroyed German democracy in their first year of power 1933. On many of the photos it is written the victim was ‘taken at night to the Nazi Bars and maltreated‘, meaning literally beaten to death, and this goes for every force that stood in their way – Jews, Anarchists, Communist, Socialists, Homosexuals etc. It’s a very strong exhibit which stirs the soul and bothers the mind. We saw Checkpoint Charlie, the famous checking post between allied Berlin and Soviet Berlin, where the drama of post war Germany took place, and where you finally begin to understand that Berlin was not only divided internally, but was also an enclave in East Germany cut off completely from the West. The allies hit back with the renowned airlift of 1948 to break the Russian blockade, landing a plane full of supplies every 62 seconds! The wall was built overnight, the center of the cold war was Berlin, but the cracks begin to appear and the wall crumbled, and finally Germany was reunited. From post war Berlin we saw the audacious Russian monument to the 22,000 Red Army soldiers killed in the fight for Berlin in 1945. This is truly an epic piece of Bolshevik ‘realism’ where size is key and the spectator feels small in the face of the enormous work. We took a tour of the new Bundestag building, the German parliament. You can see the design emphasis on transparency, and the public can see how its government works. The main chamber has a simplistic design, the uncluttered chairs of the members. There are no computers or other electronic devices allowed when parliament is doing ‘the people’s business’. We climbed the famous Bundestag dome where you have a fantastic view of all Berlin. At the top, is a standing exhibition depicting Germany’s history from its unification in 1870 up until the present day, where once again the Nazi period is described very frankly and the inner message is democracy, pluralism and freedom for all. As we left near 22:00pm there was still a long queue outside still waiting to get in.
The world of memory
As we walked around the city I imagined someone who was born in Berlin around 1905 and lived to, let’s say 1995. What did he/she feel, what did they see and experience from the days of the great German Empire to the tragedy of the First World War which ended in such a humiliating defeat for the Reich , the hopes of the German Revolutions in 1919 to the destruction of Germany, the rebuilding of the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazis, the Holocaust, the Battle of Berlin, the ‘Cold War’ where the West met the East in the center of Europe, the divided city, the massive allied airlift, the Berlin wall that separated families, the destruction of the wall and the birth of a reunited Germany in 1989 , that’s some lifetime!
2013 marks 80 years since the Nazis came to power. We were very impressed by the posters in the streets all over Berlin that tell the personal stories of Jews and others who the Nazis persecuted and in most cases murdered. These ” City memorials” were put up by the German authorities and give the feeling that today’s Germany does not want to forget the long night of the Nazi Third Reich.
Reflecting on our trip
Berlin hit all our senses very strongly. It is a very heterogeneous city full of different peoples where the stories of so many cultures are intertwined. Your imagination constantly plays tricks with what you – what was it like to be a Jew in Berlin - to have a feeling of pride and identification with Goethe’s ‘’Germany’’ and then in the 20′s and 30′s to be thrown into the Nazi ‘’storm’’, caused at first by manipulating the democratic system and then into the long night of the third Reich?‘ While we were in Berlin the German elections took place and for the third time, the Chancellor Angela Merkel a well known moderate won a handsome victory – time will tell whether this victory is pointing to a new moderate Germany which could play a vital role for world stability. Berlin is a famous capital with the unusual mix of famous buildings, striking architecture, wide thoroughfares and small local neighborhoods full of unique markets and the corner cinema… there is no real center of the city – it is a global/local Metropolis, every neighborhood tells its own unique story…. Above all there is the mystique of an emerging future created by such a horrific past.
After thought – as we at on the plane – Anat suddenly said that with all the obvious differences, Berlin nonetheless reminds her in a strange dialectical way of Jerusalem – ‘a one off on the world’s stage, a dramatic history of highs and lows, so many different cultures, so many different people, a city which does not really have one center, the old and the new, so much tension and so much desire for eventual peace’.