While Jewish presence in Berlin can be traced all the way to the 13th century, the real history of the community does not begin until 1671 when the “Great Elector” Friedrich Wilhelm I issued a special decree allowing 50 prosperous Jewish families that had been previously expelled from Vienna to settle in Berlin.
For centuries Berlin was the center of Jewish life in Germany, and its Jewish citizens strongly influenced the city’s cultural, literary and scientific life. However, their outstanding achievements commingled with being subjected to recurrent violence that rose to a crescendo in the Holocaust. And yet, to the consternation of many, Jewish life has returned to Berlin. In parallel with an ongoing increase in the Jewish population there has been an increase in tourism to an array of monuments, synagogues, museums and workaday places related to Jewish history and present life in Berlin. Some of these landmarks had a profound effect on me. I suppose I would have been stirred up by similar emotions had they been anywhere in the world, but being in Berlin, a city that is engraved with the traumatic memory of the Holocaust more than any other place, made these emotions even more powerful.
You can literally stumble over Jewish history all over Berlin. Since 1995, artist Gunter Demnig has been paying tribute to the victims of the Nazi regime through his “Stolpersteine” (literally stumbling stones) project. Thousands of brass Stolpersteine have been embedded in sidewalks and pavements outside victims’ last chosen place of residence. The artist cites the Talmud saying that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”; thus each “stone” is inscribed with the name, year of birth and fate of a person, beginning with the words HERE LIVED… In this way the abstraction of the numbers of victims is replaced with an identified human being. While the majority of the Stolpersteine commemorate Jewish victims, there are also many that name Sinti and Romani people, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, Christians opposed to the Nazis, members of the Resistance, military deserters, and the physically and mentally disabled victims of euthanasia. The ongoing project is not limited to Berlin. Stolperseines have already been installed in 610 places in Germany as well as in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Norway, Ukraine and Russia.
The Jewish Museum of Berlin presents the culture, tradition and customs of Berlin’s Jewry through a wealth of Judaic items and artifacts, some of which are hundreds of years old. The long history of the community is also conveyed through what can only be described as a reflective reaction which is generated by the building’s unique structure. My visit to the museum was an aesthetic, intellectual and emotional experience. Whether my reaction is or isn’t connected to my heritage I feel that the incredible design of this memorial to Jewish life in Berlin denies the possibility of a passive response. The 10,000-square-meter building is located on the old border between East and West Berlin and like its location, the striking design of the new museum (attached to the historical one) is all about symbolism. Viewing the structure from both the inside and outside is akin to immersion in a work of art, one that blurs the lines between architecture and sculpture and whose statement is as powerful in its aesthetics as it is in its allusive literal context. The floor plan is based on a shattered Star of David. It is clad with titanium-covered zinc, (a resilient, long-standing, and malleable metal) that reflects light. It rises from a base whose line is frequently broken in zigzag fashion. The structure contains spiralling walls, sloping floors, a windowless Holocaust Tower, and lines of windows that resemble wounds. The architect, Daniel Libeskind, explained that the idea of the jagged lines was to evoke a disconcerting disorientation. One of the most emotionally stirring spaces is the Void which functions like a backbone to the structure, giving its unfolding curves a central axis. Representing “embodiments of absence” this empty space of the Void, which runs the length of the museum, consists of raw, blank concrete walls, with no insulation, heating, or air conditioning. It is visible to and yet cut off from the viewer. Through its inaccessibility, the Void, according to Libeskind, points to “that which is absent, but that must still be made present”. Bridges crisscross the Void, connecting the rooms with line, space, and form creating an architecture of abstracted, sculptural quality. The exterior walls are sliced with irregularly placed windows, some linear, some of geometric shape, adding a further element of light and line to the composition in both interior and exterior. A paradox, perhaps, of Libeskind’s concept is that, while the structure is full of deliberately, physically dramatic effects aimed at disorientation, the composition is so powerfully controlled and balanced that it provides a counterpoint, a sensation of aesthetic “rightness.” Libeskind commented that in his design he wanted to capture the cultural contributions of the Jewish citizens of Berlin, the tragedy of the Holocaust, and how ultimately, “through a particular form of absence, life can have meaning and an optimistic, hopeful direction.” I believe he has achieved his goal. The permanent collection is instructive and fascinating. However, it is extremely condensed and thus it is probably best to take advantages of the two admissions included in the entrance fee.
For me, the Holocaust Memorial (officially named the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) is the most emotionally gripping of Berlin’s Jewish sites. Peter Eisenmanthe’s unique design has drawn both praise and criticism. Among other things it has been deemed to be too depressing, too abstract, too Jewish, and not Jewish enough. The Memorial occupies about 19,000 square meters of open space near the Brandenburg Gate and is just a short walk from the ruins of Hitler’s bunker. It is made up of 2,711 grey rectangular stone slabs that evoke tombstones and coffins but bear no markings, such as names, dates, plaques, inscriptions, or religious symbols. Each five-sided slab is individually unique in shape and size and they seem to undulate with the sloping land in a wave-like pattern. As there is neither set pattern to the stones nor marked direction, we entered and plodded distractedly through. At first the slabs were only ankle high, but as we continued on the concrete path the ground suddenly plunged down and the concrete slabs were towering over my head so I couldn’t see where I was. Standing on uneven ground, the slabs seem to almost fall into the center of the site, rising up again towards the edge, forming numerous uneven stone corridors. As I continued to walk through these corridors (I already lost sight of my husband at this point) the ground rose and fell in random undulation, one path looking exactly like the next one, and I felt disoriented, as if I had lost all sense of direction. The horizon was cut off and the sound of the city was blocked away. Though there were a few people moving in and out of sight, I could see neither who was approaching me nor who was behind until they were directly in my face, and I had a strong sense of being totally alone and disconnected from others. Only when I came out of the concrete forest (in a different spot from where I had entered) I was able to make some sense of the height and depth of the field and to ground myself again. But the feeling induced by the experience lingered. Later I found out that the design was intended to create in the visitor exactly this feeling of groundlessness and a sense of disorientation, as if to offer a symbolic experiential notion of the individual Jewish experience during the Holocaust, of a snatched away past, anxious present, insecure future and a scant hope of escape.
A subterranean Information Center/Museum, located at the base of the memorial, offers a well-presented small exhibit of personal documentations about families and individual victims of the Nazi atrocities.
Emerging outside again we noticed that sitting on some slabs were young people kissing and talking, and office workers in suits having a late lunch. There were children playing and a few lost tourists consulting maps. At first sight this seemed very odd, but then I remembered reading that the memorial’s architect had in fact said that he hoped the memorial would become a natural part of the city, that it would blend in with its background, be used for shortcuts on the way home from work or as a place of peace and quiet on a chaotic day. Thinking about it from this perspective the scene seems not only appropriate but actually to be adding power of the memorial.
In what was East Berlin, Oranienburger Strasse is emerging as the new center of Jewish life, with the “New Synagogue” as its focal point. Originally constructed between 1859 and 1866, the Synagogue’s Moorish gold dome, its ornate gold-plated ribbed lattice and the oriental motifs on the façade were inspired by the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain. Like the Alhambra the design of the synagogue contains Muslim, Christian and Jewish motifs symbolizing peaceful, liberal coexistence. With more than 3000 seats it was the largest synagogue in Germany and served as a symbol of the then thriving liberal leaning Jewish community of Berlin. The building was damaged on Kristallnacht (Nov. 9 1938) when Nazi looters desecrated the synagogue and set it on fire, yet it wasn’t totally destroyed thanks to the efforts of the local police chief. Later, it was heavily damaged by the Allied bombing of Berlin in 1943, then torched by a local mob in 1944, and finally in 1958 it was demolished by orders of the DDR government that allowed only the main façade to be kept as a memorial. Partially reconstructed in the mid-1980’s, it now functions primarily as a museum and an information center dedicated to the preservation of Jewish history and tradition.