A very, very brief tour through Berlin’s Jewish history

This afternoon, I took a not-so-brief tour of Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind. During the Second World War, Weidt used his brush- and broom-making workshop to rescue Jews who would otherwise be sent to concentration camps — and mostly deaf and blind Jews, who would have faced tough odds if deported. Weidt persuaded the authorities that their work was essential to the war effort, and when that failed, he bribed the authorities. His workshop, in the old Jewish quarter in Mitte, is now a museum.

I won’t go into too much detail on the workshop itself, but thought I’d share a couple of photos that shed slivers of light on the city’s Jewish history.

One of the most prominent monuments to Jews who died in the Holocaust comes in cobblestone-sized form, scattered throughout the city. Here’s an example of the Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” from a sidewalk in Mitte:

These small brass plates are found in front of the buildings where Berlin’s Jews lived before they were deported. Here, for example, we find Stolpersteine to commemorate the Kozower family, ranging in age from one to 49. They were deported in 1943 to Theresienstadt, and from there to Auschwitz, where they died. The idea of the stones is that unlike centralized memorials, which can be visited once and then forgotten, they are repeatedly stumbled over by residents and visitors, a constant reminder of the Holocaust’s victims.

The first Stolpersteine appeared in Cologne in 1994, followed by Berlin in 1995. There are now nearly 3,000 Stolpersteine in Berlin. Given that 95 percent of Berlin’s pre-war Jewish population of 160,000 either was killed or fled, the project is still incomplete, and will necessarily remain so. But it nonetheless manages to be quite thorough when little documentation of the country’s earlier Jewish population remains.

(A quick aside: I don’t bring up the subject of the Holocaust just to harp on a tragedy you’re all already quite familiar with. Quite apart from the Holocaust itself, I find the question of historical memory in Germany completely fascinating. No monument to victims of the Holocaust in Germany can exist solely as such: It’s also inevitably a reflection on German attitudes toward the past. Every memorial therefore has multiple layers to pick apart — as the next photo shows.)

Just around the corner from those Stolpersteine is this memorial to Jewish Holocaust victims. There are a few layers of interest here, beyond the sculpture itself. First, it’s placed on the site of a former upper-middle-class Jewish nursing home, which was cleared out by the Nazis and converted into the central rounding-up-point (I’d say glorified prison, but really the conditions were much worse than at a typical prison) for Jews who were slated for deportation to camps to the east.

Second, behind the fence lies the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin. The Nazis ransacked the cemetery and dug trenches there for protection from shrapnel. After the war, the dead bodies from the neighborhood were tossed into these trenches, and the resulting mass graves made it no longer just a Jewish cemetery. It was slowly restored to order, but it’s only been in its present form for the past few years.

And third is the fence itself. In the past twenty years, security around Jewish cites in Berlin has increased considerably. In response to vandalism (and worse), there are now fences and security guards in front of most Jewish buildings. (Evidently patterns of violence against Jews in Germany follow events in the Middle East closely, and the second intifada led to tighter security measures in Germany.) Next door to the cemetery is a Jewish high school, with a high fence around it and a guard around the clock — neither of these existed twenty years ago. Much as the German people have done a remarkable job of sorting out violence against Jews in their memories and schools and institutions, every so often you get a reminder that this chapter of German history is not quite over yet.

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4 Responses to A very, very brief tour through Berlin’s Jewish history

  1. Noah says:

    The diversity of styles of monuments is pretty wild in berlin, which I liked since one may speak to you more than the others on stylistic grounds, even if they are all reminding of the same history. On a different note, when you were are Otto Weidt’s workshop, did you see the man with the amazing mustache? Its such an amazing piece of facial hair that it completely removes the gravity of the exhibition

    • aaronwiener says:

      Yes! I somehow didn’t make the connection to the mustache guy you’d mentioned. But damn, what a mustache!

      • aaronwiener says:

        Also, he never once smiled. I sort of wonder if a mustache that amazing isn’t a huge burden, one that can’t be removed simply because it’s too perfect. It’s really a selfless act on his part, walking around with that thing for the sake of all passersby.

  2. SLF says:

    Thoughtful commentary!

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