April 14, 2005
New Berlin Memorial a Sign of Hope
Each year our congregation travels to a different corner of the Jewish world, and last Tisha B'Av, the day commemorating persecutions and destructions that have befallen the Jewish people, we found ourselves in Berlin.
We entered Germany's gleaming, dynamic capital with ambivalence, eyeing its people, especially those over age 75, wondering what they did during World War II. We sat and watched, discussing our reluctance to be there, but acknowledged that nearly 60 years have passed and accepted the fact that most contemporary Germans had nothing to do with the Shoah.
And while we felt haunted during our stay, we enjoyed Berlin as a lively and lovely city, and took comfort in the numerous Holocaust monuments we saw.
The newest memorial, Peter Eisenmann's Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, will be officially unveiled May 10, two days after ceremonies mark the 60th anniversary of World War II's end.
The memorial's opening comes nearly six years after the Bundestag originally passed a resolution for its construction, and almost four years after the official opening of the city's Jewish Museum.
Situated in a five-acre field near the Brandenburg Gate in the center of Berlin, The Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe is made up of 2,751 concrete blocks, emulating gravestones of varying heights. Visitors can enter the memorial from all four sides and can walk through the narrow paths between the blocks. Its wave-like design is haunting in its simplicity, and the unevenness intentionally evokes a sense of being disoriented and lost.
An information center is located beneath the memorial, supplying biographies of individual victims and their families.
Berlin's Jewish Museum is the city's second most visited site and is well complemented by the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by architect Daniel Liebiskind, who is now creating the World Trade Center Memorial, the museum teaches its mostly non-Jewish visitors about the Holocaust, but it also explores the pivotal role that Jews played in Germany over the last 800 years.
Architects often say their buildings tell a story. The Jewish Museum is no exception. Its Holocaust spaces evoke feelings of fear and claustrophobia with slanted floors that disorient, mazes that confuse and confined spaces that make escape just out of reach. Never have I seen architecture used more effectively, especially in the Garden of Exile.
When Germans walk by the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag (since 1999, once again the seat of Germany's Parliament) or the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, purposely left partially destroyed, they are reminded of the past.
Located just outside of the Wittenbergplatz subway station, in the center of town, a large sign lists the names of extermination camps, urging passersby never to forget the horrors. It rests a few yards from where one of our synagogue members lived as a child. And at Levetzowstrasse, where another member was deported to Riga, there are powerful sculptures depicting horrors of the Shoah and plaques that mark where synagogues once stood.
One synagogue still standing is The New Synagogue. Built in 1867, with 3,000 seats and modeled on the Alhambra, the synagogue is now a glorious museum of Berlin's Jewish religious past, from traditional to liberal.
While there, we joined our cantor, Ruti Braier, in singing "Mah Tovu," with music written by the New Synagogue's former Cantor Moshe Lewandowski. For a moment, present and past were joined.
We wanted to see how Jews in Berlin live, so we visited the Jewish Community Center, which is built on the site of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, where another of our members sang in the children's choir on High Holidays. All that is left of the original building is an arch over the center's main door.
So much of Berlin's Jewish life is like that -- the void is more powerful than what exists.
And, yet, Germany's Jewish population is growing to fill the void left by the Shoah. Before the Holocaust there were 535,000 Jews in Germany; after, only 15,000. Today the country's Jewish population is more than 110,000, many whom are from former Soviet countries and have a minimal religious background. As part of its reparations, Germany admits Jewish refugees, providing them with welfare benefits and, ultimately, if employed, citizenship after eight years.
We saw other signs of hope around Berlin. There were long lines for a wonderful Chagall exhibit in artist Max Liebermann's home, next to the Brandenberg Gate, where six decades earlier Hitler drew adoring crowds. In Pottsdamerplatz, where 60 years before, both blacks and Jews were considered undesirable "untermenschen," the Klezmatics and American gospel singers performed together, with young Germans singing, clapping and dancing.
Dealing with one's past -- personal and communal -- is always a path to healing pain and facing the future more openly. Sixty years later, the situation isn't black and white. There are many shades of gray. But hate, anger and avoidance aren't as constructive as engagement and discovery.
Arnold Rachlis is rabbi of University Synagogue in Irvine.