Thursday, October 23, 2014 Tishri 29, 5775

A Renewed City Built On Guilt

December 28, 2011 By:
Comment0

Multimedia

Enlarge Image »
Peter Eisenman's Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the heart of Berlin. Photo by Deborah Hirsch.

 "Germans are wonderful pupils," says Ilan Weiss, an Israeli-born Berliner. "Germans will say, 'Yes, we are guilty. Yes, we did the wrong thing.' And they are excellent at it. That's part of the German personality. They do everything well -- even feeling guilty."

Visitors to the German capital can quickly comprehend the complex truth embedded in Weiss' sharp quip. All they must do is take to the city's streets.
 
Since 1985, I've been to Germany many times as a reporter; but over the last decade, I've been to Berlin only twice, and for brief periods. The landscape has changed so much it seemed as if I were experiencing a whole new city during a visit here last month.
 
For one thing, it appeared that the two sides of the old divided capital had switched places. According to young Berliners, bushels of money had been thrown at the city's eastern half once the wall tumbled. So when people speak about the German capital being one of the hottest spots in Europe right now, it's the old East Berlin, the former heart of the pre-war city, they're talking about. The once-vibrant West Berlin looks a bit dingy these days, worn at the edges and in need of attention.
 
One irony about the former divided city was that the bulk of the monuments to the Holocaust did not stand in free West Berlin but rather in the communist East. But you could not call them Holocaust memorials; that was not Soviet communism's way.
 
These were memorials to the victims of National Socialism, with the word Jew nowhere in evidence. Now, this wrinkle in history has been corrected. The former monuments, like the former East Berlin, have been brought in line with reality. Any structures built over the last two decades that deal with the Shoah loudly broadcast their identity.
 
I began my tour at a logical point: The Topography of Terror, which I had seen in its most rudimentary stages in 1997. Back then, it was just a cleared massive field, along one edge of which stood what looked like the partial walls of a red brick building.
 
Today, its vastness remains, but the entire plot has been covered with a layer of uniform slate-gray stones. A few sharply angled concrete paths lead from the excavation point to the permanent museum, whose exterior echoes the ubiquitous stones' slate-gray color.
 
The Topography of Terror had its origins in the refurbishment of the Martin Gropius Bau, a 19th century neoclassical beauty next door on Wilhemstrasse. Work began on the building more than 30 years ago. At the time, the adjacent stretch of land seemed nothing more than a sea of weeds and debris.
 
Once the Gropius Bau was brought back to its former grandeur, discussions began concerning the exhibit that should relaunch it. A history of Prussia was chosen. After months of planning, someone asked whether it was correct to celebrate Prussia, known for its military prowess, right next to the area where National Socialism's administrative buildings had stood.
 
The field -- perhaps several football fields in length -- was where the Gestapo, the SS and the SD (the Security Service) once stood. A group of everyday citizens began clearing the space. The excavations along the eastern edge revealed what was left of the basement of the Gestapo and some of the torture cells. Permanent signage explained what had been exposed.
 
Then a public debate ensued. What should be done next? Should there be a visitors' bureau? A permanent museum? Opinions varied. Making something of this evil area might glorify the Nazis. But if visitors came, shouldn't there be something to inform them of the history, however horrid, that transpired on this soil?
 
Only recently, the decision was made to build a permanent structure, a severe modernist rectangle. Inside the building -- the work of Berlin architect Ursula Wilms and the landscape architect Heinz W. Hallmann -- I followed the historical flow of the exhibit, amazed at new revelations, but was stopped cold by a series of panels called " 'In Plain Sight' -- The Deportation of the Jews and the Auctioning of their Household Effects: Photographs from Lörrach, 1940." Here were intense close-ups of Jews being herded together, encircled by curious bystanders who watch, smile, even laugh and point.
 
I tried to make my way out of the building quickly, but the crowd had grown. When I finally got to the walkway, I began wondering what was going through the minds of the German visitors. They just kept arriving, five and 10 at a time. What were they feeling or thinking? Why did they come here? According to the museum, more than 600,000 people pass through its doors every year.
 
Only after I stepped into the shadow cast by the Gropius Bau did I turn back. The Topography of Terror looks like a scar upon the earth, a wound that may never be absorbed.
 
I continued north, with the Brandenburg Gate, high above the tree line, as my guide. A few blocks later, I came up short at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
 
This was also the result of a protracted debate among the public and politicians. The issue of a national Holocaust memorial arose after President Ronald Reagan's 1985 visit to the Bitburg cemetery where he planned to pay tribute to the dead. Even before he went to Germany, though, it was disclosed that SS members were buried there.
 
Chancellor Helmut Kohl, caught in the wake of the furious controversy stirred by the stop at Bitburg, suggested there should be a central memorial where dignitaries could pay their respects to victims.
 
The debate went on for more than a decade and involved two international competitions during which world-famous architects submitted designs. One of the judges -- the only Jew -- was James E. Young, professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the author of a book on Holocaust memorials, The Texture of Memory.
 
Ten years ago, Young wrote that Germany faced "an almost impossible problem. There is no country anywhere that has made its crimes the center of its national identity. Every nation creates a national identity from the memory of its triumphs. How would a nation of perpetrators remember its victims?"
 
No one seeing American architect Peter Eisenman's memorial would question its power. Construction began in May 2003 and was completed two years later. The area -- close to 70,000 square feet -- is covered by more than 2,700 concrete slabs or stelae, differing only in height, thus making for a seemingly undulating series of gravestones.
 
Walking between the slabs is dizzying, and I feared losing myself in this field of the dead.
 
But I also walked along the perimeter and watched the people. Although some acted like tourists, taking photos, and a few children ran up and down the lanes as if it were a playground, the majority of people had the same serious expressions as at the Topography of Terror.
 
I walked on, feeling overwhelmed. Needing something to lighten my spirits, I turned right at the Brandenburg Gate and headed along Unter den Linden.
 
Berlin was particularly beautiful at that moment -- the trees ablaze with fall color set against buildings majestic in size. I understood once again why the Jews had loved this city.
 
At the edge of Humboldt University, a series of tables appeared, stocked with books. The titles were in German, but they were cheap and I had English translations of many. I purchased a few, just to mark my visit. I felt physically lighter moving among the other browsers, enjoying the anonymity.
 
The first set of tables ended at the entrance to the university, then picked up again at the other end of the archway opening. I took my time, anticipating a whole other set of books to peruse.
 
Then I looked down and saw them -- a dozen or so golden-colored squares with names on them.
 
They are known as "Stumbling Blocks" (in German, Stolpersteine), part of an ongoing art installation by German artist Gunter Demnig. He has researched places in Berlin, throughout Germany, in all of Europe where Jews were deported. At these spots -- in front of houses, businesses, schools -- he affixes 4-inch-square brass plates to the sidewalk. They contain the name of victims, the date when they were deported and, if their fate is known, what transpired.
 
I bent down and with my camera took shot after shot. In time, a crowd gathered. When asked, I explained what I was doing. Some people kept walking as if embarrassed; others stopped to talk.
 
One woman told me with tears in her eyes how important this and the other memorials are. "This is part of what it means to be a citizen of a unified Germany," she said, "what it means to be part of a democracy. We must acknowledge these crimes and face them, over and over.
 
"Over and over," she repeated, almost to herself.
 
I am not so naive as to think that the Germans have been cleansed of their hatreds -- no more than any other people -- but they are, as Ilan Weiss said, good students who appear to keep studying their texts.
 
This article was made possible by a grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The fund was established by the family of the late Irving Felgoise, a printer, in honor of his longtime association with the newspaper field and Federation. The Memorial Fund is administered by the Federation Endowments Corporation. Leiter's visit was also supported by the German Tourist Bureau. 

Comments on this Article

Advertisement