Wannsee, a suburb of the great city of Berlin, is one of the most idyllic neighborhoods in the world. Situated beside a picturesque lake, its long, quiet streets are lined with palatial homes that were once owned by some of the most accomplished Jewish families to ever reside in the German capital. But because of the political and ideological turn the country took in the 1930s, Wannsee is not merely an exquisite jewel, but one laden with the terrible weight of history.
I have been fortunate to visit there many times as a reporter, and have been thankful for every one of those occasions. But, as I've written often, Wannsee is one of the most dangerous spots in all of Germany, and not because there are neo-Nazis lurking in the shadows, as well there might be. Rather, it's because of the beauty that surrounds you. Wannsee is a lure — a trap waiting to lull you into submission, enticing you to lower your guard and forget what was done in the name of genocide to the many Jews who once lived there.
These sentiments emanate as well from a recent opinion piece written by Richard Cohen titled "Berlin's Lake of the Unimaginable," which appeared in the June 12 edition of The Washington Post. The author set the scene with impeccable precision:
"The sun has risen over the Wannsee, the lake here in this leafy section of the German capital. The day will be hot and the sky a deep blue until afternoon, when the expected thunderstorms arrive. I am writing in the gatehouse of the old Hans Arnhold estate, which is now the American Academy in Berlin. The Arnholds left behind the lakeside vista, the boat basin, the bucolic setting, the imposing house and a prosperous banking business. They ran for their lives."
Cohen has also made many visits to Berlin, and this marked his second stay at the American Academy, where he has often contemplated what he called a history "almost impossible to comprehend."
Across the lake from the American Academy, for example, rests the famous mansion where, in 1942, a group of Nazi bigwigs devised the "final solution" — the systematic murder of Europe's Jews. That Wannsee mansion is now open to the public; it's a museum and center dedicated to the study of genocide.
"Because of its historical significance, there is no more important lake in the entire world than Wannsee. For the same reason, there is no more important neighborhood than this one. There is no more chilling story than that of Germany's Jews and what happened to them. There is no more crashing silence than the gleeful sounds no longer made by children, by shooing nannies, by parents gone and businesses as expropriated and houses stolen and people marched here or there, allowed at first to flee, then not, and finally killed."
Cohen noted that Wannsee is Berlin's "unparalleled" tourist site. He then exhorted his readers to travel there "to see what no longer can be seen."