Jewish Journal

Birthright Berlin

by Rob Eshman

Posted on May. 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm

The Neue Synagogue, Berlin

The Neue Synagogue, Berlin

I’m a normal Jew. When I dream, I dream of Israel. When I have nightmares, I have nightmares of Germany.

No other countries, not even my own, occupy so much of my psyche as those two. 

Israel is not a fantasy to me. Long ago, I went there, lived there, learned its language, understood it — as the saying goes — warts and all. Germany, meanwhile, lived only in my mind, and it was all warts. For years, I resisted going there. Like most Jews I know, I feared what would happen to me at the airport when I landed. Not that I’d be arrested or detained — but that I’d hear the German language. I didn’t think I could stand it.

Then, two weeks ago, I went to Berlin.

Airberlin and the visitBerlin tourist board offered to fly me there to inaugurate the first-ever nonstop Los Angeles-Berlin flight. Normally I don’t go in for press junkets, but the opportunity to finally get Germany into my system was too good to pass up. Don’t young Jews get free trips via Birthright Israel to experience their heritage firsthand? Well this, I figured, was my very own Birthright Berlin.

The first shock was the trees. In my mind, Berlin was the color of old concrete and dull steel. But the city is covered with parks and trees, surrounded by lakes. How beautiful! I thought, and then: How dare it be so beautiful?

Of course, while Berlin was festering in my psyche, the city had been busy reinventing itself, post-Cold War, as the European capital of cool. Throngs of young people fill the city’s bars and cafés, which buzz all night long. I mentioned to one young woman that New Year’s Eve must be crazy. “It starts Dec. 31,” she said. “It ends Jan. 3.”

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, money and creativity flooded East Berlin. Nineteenth-century breweries became hip art centers. Bauhaus buildings became galleries and restaurants. Now, as gentrification pushes the artists to outlying areas along the Landwehr Canal, a four-star-hotel boom has taken over downtown.  

Over another fine lunch at Katz Orange, a new restaurant in (another) converted brewery, a Berliner told me his city is like Tel Aviv — without the Mediterranean.

“Tel Aviv is carpe diem, because of what could happen in the future,” Burkhard Kieker, the CEO of visitBerlin, explained. “Berlin is carpe diem because of what did happen. In Tel Aviv, you play hard to forget the future. In Berlin, you play hard to forget the past.”

That was the jarring aspect of my visit. I luxuriated at the Hotel Regent. At lunch and dinner, I was wined and dined at a series of remarkable restaurants. It is white asparagus season, and at the Regent’s Fischers Fritz they serve stacks of fat ones, covered in a morel-flecked béarnaise, over a piece of fresh cod.

At the same time, I was in Berlin to mourn, to loathe, to accuse, right? It was confusing. Either Berlin doesn’t really want you to forget, or I really couldn’t.

Case in point was a visit, on our third day, to the Jüdische Mädchenschule. Once a Jewish girls’ school in the former Jewish neighborhood around Auguststrasse, it recently was bought and renovated by a local millionaire. The upstairs holds stunning galleries. On the bottom floor is Mogg & Melzer, Berlin’s first Eastern European delicatessen, where owners Oskar Melzer and Paul Mogg and a New York chef named Joey Pessarelli cure their own pastrami. Beside that is The Kosher Classroom, where you can eat kosher meals three times a week surrounded by museum-quality photographs. And where the girls’ gymnasium used to be is Pauly Saal, Berlin’s hot new restaurant, with an open kitchen and carefully sourced local food. There, I had one of the standout meals of my life, even as I couldn’t quite forget that I was enjoying my halibut with kohlrabi and stinging-nettle polenta in a building whose students were deported and gassed.

I know this, because when I wasn’t enjoying Berlin’s present, giddy with Riesling, I was wandering, sullen and morose, through its past.

And here’s another surprise: Berlin makes that easy, too.

There are the big reminders: the Holocaust memorial, a four-block set of monoliths atop an underground museum, set in the center of town. I went there twice, not quite sure how I felt about it, more impressed by the fact that a city would consent to it than by the experience of it — four blocks of monoliths, it turns out, create the perfect playing field for noisy games of hide-and-seek.

The Neue Synagogue, with its striking refurbished façade, houses an exhibition that tells the story of what was Germany’s largest Jewish congregation. It was not the building’s gold dome that intrigued me, so much as one small black-and-white photo of Jewish children at an annual Purim parade at the Beith Ahawah Kinderheim (House of Love Children’s Home). One of the boys is dressed in a Nazi uniform and sitting on a donkey, laughing. The date on the photo is 1939.

The Jewish Museum, once you maneuver through Daniel Libeskind’s high-metaphor architecture, tells the story of German Jewry in a compact, workmanlike way. Each room depicts such towering cultural and intellectual accomplishment — Mendelssohn, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Reinhardt, Wilder — I kept telling myself to stop before I got to the last room.

Of the big museums, the new Topography of Terror makes the strongest impression. Set on the site of Heinrich Himmler’s Gestapo headquarters — completely destroyed by Allied bombs — a spare, square building documents the creation of the Nazi killing machine. Beside it, in a sunken space where the actual Gestapo bunkers once stood, an open-air exhibition relates the history of Berlin before, during and after the war.

What struck me most about Berlin weren’t the few big museums and monuments, but the ubiquity of the smaller ones. Brass cobblestones, called “stumbling stones,” have been placed outside buildings from which Jews were deported, the names and death dates of former residents inscribed on them. The city is full of stumbling stones, large and small: a mini-museum to Otto Weidt, whose Workshop for the Blind saved many Jewish lives; a sculpture honoring the Rosenstrasse protest; stark sculptures in front of the old Jewish cemetery; a plaque outside the Circus Hotel, put there by the current owners, acknowledging the wealthy Jewish Fabisch family that developed the property and was eventually murdered.

On the cobblestone plaza in front of Humboldt University, you come across a glass window set into the ground. Look down through the window and you see a whole basement lined with empty bookshelves. On this spot, on May 10, 1933, the Nazis burned books — Judaica, sex textbooks, political literature. The Israeli artist Micha Ullman was commissioned to create this memorial. He placed a simple bronze plaque with a quote from the great German poet Heinrich Heine nearby: “This was only a prelude: Where you burn books you will soon burn people.” Heine wrote these words in 1820.

Berlin alternates between memorializing its past and obliterating it. A humongous H&M advertisement showing a very tan woman in a very small bikini fronts the building that overshadows the spot where Hitler’s headquarters once stood. One day, I rode a rented bike over to the location of Hitler’s bunker. The authorities purposely decided not to create a historic site there: It’s a parking lot. I spit on it — really mature, yes, I know — then looked up to see that precisely above the spot where Hitler’s body was burned, a sign advertises a new café — in Hebrew.

By my last day, I was at a loss to make sense of both the city and my emotions. Then I found Ms. Himmler.


My friend the Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum suggested I look up Katrin Himmler. She is the great-niece of Heinrich Himmler, the man who headed the Gestapo and organized the killing units that destroyed the Jews of Europe, the man whose career I had just traced from museum to monument to museum.

Himmler had two brothers: Gebhard and Ernst. Ernst was Katrin’s grandfather. Growing up, family members told her that their tree contained one bad apple, but the rest of the Himmlers were good people in a bad time. Katrin began researching her family’s past. The result was a book, part memoir, part history, titled “The Himmler Brothers” (MacMillan, 2007). It was a sensation in Germany, in part, Katrin told me, because “most people don’t have any idea what their ancestors were doing.”

I met Katrin at the original Café Einstein Stammhaus in a converted villa in West Berlin. It is an über-German spot — cozy wood paneling, a baking sheet of warm strudel at the door, steaming rich coffee. (Only later did I learn this is exactly where Quentin Tarantino filmed the chilling strudel-eating scene in “Inglourious Basterds.”)

Born in 1967, Katrin is bright, youthful and engaging — and I sensed immediately that she, of all people, could help me make sense of my last four days.

Many years ago, Katrin met an Israeli Jewish man, Dani, fell in love, and together they had a son. The impetus for her book, she said, was to be able to explain to their son why one part of his family tried to kill the other part.

“There was a legacy of silence,” she told me. “Many of us are told our grandparents were never involved. Everybody was hiding a Jew. Everybody was in the Resistance.”

Katrin’s book got a lot of people thinking not just about the Holocaust, but also about their own families’ personal involvement.

I ask Katrin about the ubiquitous presence of small monuments, intimate memories. Why not just one big museum or memorial?

I wondered if spreading the memory is not so much about remembering the victims as it is about distributing the guilt. Or maybe it’s because, as Jeffrey Lewis wrote in his novel “Berlin Cantata,” “We Berliners erect plaques so as to sleep better at night.”

In Berlin, Katrin said, the key is decentralizing memory.

“You have to remember,” she told me, “that the victims were mostly in Poland, but the perpetrators were concentrated here.”

I recalled an astonishing fact I’d learned at the Jewish Museum: Before the war, there were just 160,000 Jews in Berlin, 550,000 in all of Germany — the equivalent of the Jewish population of Los Angeles.

“From this decentralized way of memorializing, you keep coming across very small things, but they are so touching,” Katrin said.

Katrin’s son is 13, and he has begun to learn of his family’s two sides. Katrin did not change her name, in part as a way to come to terms with her family’s past, but she is grateful her son has been spared from carrying its burden. His challenge, she said, is to reconcile his family history. I asked her how that’s going for him.

“I was afraid in the beginning,” she said, then added with more than a touch of maternal pride, “but he seems to deal quite well with the contradictory sides of history.”

In that case, I think, Berlin is the perfect city for him.

For photos and travel information, see this column at jewishjournal.com. For Berlin food finds, check jewishjournal.com/foodaism.

Follow Rob Eshman on Twitter @foodaism.

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