A History Lesson in Berlin

Our side trip to Berlin was only intended to be a quick visit with some friends and a stopover beween Vancouver and Poland.  Once on the ground, I was sucked in by its history, and my interest in the Second World War meant my eyes and ears were open to taking in more than just bier and currywurst.

The Berlin Wall

Bricks signifying where the Berlin Wall once stood.
Bricks on the sidewalk signify where the Berlin Wall once stood.

Kat’s friend and travel companion from southeast Asia now lives in Berlin. She gave us our first taste of history by pointing out the paving bricks that wind their way through Berlin’s neighborhoods marking the location of the mostly torn down Berlin Wall.  They are a stark reminder of how Cold War politics cut the world in two and literally divided a city.

Stolpersteine: Emotional Stumbling Blocks

On a walk along a quiet side street in Berlin’s Kreuzburg neighborhood our friend come tour guide directed our attention to a grouping of small brass plaques sunken into the sidewalk.  The words are in German.  There are dates and a name.  None of it has meaning until the last word is read. Auschwitz.

Stolpersteine on a sidewalk in Berlin
Stolpersteine on a sidewalk in Berlin.

Motivated by a conversation with a Cologne resident who denied that any Sinti or Roma (gypsies) had lived in her neighborhood before the war, artist Gunter Demnig began a quest to symbolically return the missing and murdered holocaust victims to their homes.  Stolpersteine, meaning stumbling blocks, are 10x10cm concrete paving blocks with brass plaques offering some details of a former resident or worker.

The stolpersteine are placed at the foot of the door of the last known place of residence or work of a victim.  These small and simple markers may not protrude from the ground for one to trip over, but do induce an emotional “stumble” as one walks the streets of Berlin and spots a shiny plaque on the ground in front of a doorway that reads, “Here lived Arthur Simon, born October 1872, deported March 2, 1943, murdered in Auschwitz.”

Topography of Terror: Where Horrible Decisions Were Made

Further into the centre of the city or mitte, meaning middle, we arrived at the site that once housed the SS and Gestapo headquarters. Now the Topography of Terror, an indoor/outdoor museum documenting the rise of Nazism, occupies the land, chronicling some of the cold decisions that were made inside the darkest offices of the Third Reich.

A preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, outside the Topography of Terror, Berlin
A preserved piece of the Berlin Wall, outside the Topography of Terror, Berlin

Here “the Jewish and Gypsy question” was answered with concise and deliberate plans of action.  The idea of erasing whole populations and whole cultures was drawn up in this place.  For instance, the plans to invade Poland, destroy Warsaw, and force labour upon, deport or murder its citizens were conjured up inside these neat offices by well educated men in pressed uniforms and peaked caps.  The heartless logic the Nazis employed is sickening, and some of the featured quotes really drive home that effect.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews

In the heart of the capital is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a huge site of stelae in varying heights and set in undulating terrain.  More than 2,700 concrete slabs occupy almost 5 acres right by the famous Brandenburg Gate: a site fitting to honor the Jewish victims, and a massive symbol of the responsibility the Germans feel as a people and a nation for the crimes of their grandfathers.

Concrete slabs at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe
Concrete slabs at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe

However, it feels somewhat insufficient as a memorial given the gravity of the occasion being memorialized. The signs referring to the Memorial are barely noticeable.  Without prior knowledge it is difficult to tell exactly what the area is supposed to be and there are no markings of any kind on any of the blocks.  Luckily, there is no graffiti thanks to a high tech anti-graffiti coating used on the blocks, but it isn’t without a perverse irony that the same company that made the coating also made Zyklon B, the poison used in the gas chambers where so many of the memorialized Jews here were put to death.

There is no mention of the reason these people were murdered, by what mechanism or by whose hands.  There is no information available, not one sign asking for respectful behavior. This utter lack of guidance means what you are likely to see are children and parents playing hide and seek in the maze-like setting, teenagers jumping on the blocks, families sitting and eating on them, and countless people taking tasteless selfies with thumbs up, big smiles and even middle fingers in front of what is supposed to be a solemn place.  It would appear that the only ones who come to reflect on the six million Jews who were put to death are the informed.

Berlin: An Important Stop

Being my first and long anticipated visit to Germany I am thrilled to have been pulled in by its history.  Despite what I feel about the need for more information around the Memorial to the Murdered Jews, I am mostly satisfied and moved by Germany’s attempts to atone for the sins of the Nazis.  I’m happy Berlin became a stop on our short European trip and can say that no trip here would be complete without a visit to some of these important sites.