For the last week I was staying in Berlin, on a trip with my program, which marked the end of our pre-semester. We all stayed together in a youth hostel, where the computer (singular) functioned like a phone booth, and I had little more than five minutes per day on the internet, so you will have to excuse my week long absence. Though Berlin itself is an exciting city with an endless amount of interesting and eye catching places, the aspect of it that made the largest impression on me was the treatment of both the topic of the Holocaust, and also Jewish people today.
The German attitude toward history is a little different than in the States. They not only try to make history a part of your daily consciousness, but they also don’t try to cover up or erase parts of the past. This was at least true of Berlin, and came as a little bit of a surprise to me, because compared to Munich, Berlin is much more concerned with recent history. This is a hard concept to verbalize, so let’s get to the examples.
Being on an “educational” trip, we obviously took lots of tours around Berlin snapping photos of everything we saw, just like typical tourists, and that was when I noticed all of this. Throughout the residential streets within the city of Berlin, I tripped a couple of times on certain stones. This, surprisingly, wasn’t because of my clumsiness, rather because of golden stones that stick up a little higher than the rest of the ground. On them is a name of a Jew, who was killed in the Holocaust, and the stone has been placed in front of the house where they lived by a Berlin artist. Our tour guide explained to me that they are called “stumbling stones,” and the idea is for you to literally stumble on them and remember those people. People can purchase the stones from the artist, if they know the story of a family member or friend, and he will place them in the ground. As we continued on the tour I couldn’t help but stop and read each stone that we passed.
As we made a stop to talk about some of the houses on a particular street, our tour guide also pointed out another individual piece of artwork in remembrance. On the side of one house, scattered across the wall, are placards with names on them. This particular artist found out that a house used to be located next to this one, but it was bombed. The names on the wall are the names of the people that used to live in the house before it was destroyed. It amazed me that these artists took the time to discover the stories of others and then share it with everyone in the community today.
But, it’s not just individual artists that make this kind of effort; I was also a little surprised at just how much the German government itself does to remind everyone of the past. As we jaywalked across the street to a square across from Humboldt University, we were greeted by light coming out of a square hole in the ground. Upon further investigation we saw that the light was coming from an entirely white room, with bare shelving, underneath the plaza. This is a monument marking the place where Hitler held his infamous book burning. Surrounding the small square of light are metal placards in the ground explaining what happened in that location. I was most struck by the quotation from Heinrich Heine on these placards, which said “Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”
We also spent a portion of the tour getting lost in the Holocaust Memorial, which is an entire city block of Berlin full of nothing but stone blocks and columns. As the columns get increasingly taller and impossible to see over and the ground begins to move in small hills, it is easy to become absolutely lost within the memorial. That is, in fact, exactly the point, because it is intended to symbolize how difficult, unstable, and unclear life was for Jews in Germany.
After our tour, we went to visit the Reichstagsgebäude, which is the head governmental building, where their legislative body meets. Before listening to an extensive explanation of the building from a monotone tour guide, I made a quick trip to the restroom. On the way I noticed that portions of the stone wall were unfinished and had what looked like Russian graffiti all over them. I asked one of my professors once I returned what that was, and apparently that is left over from when the Russians stormed the building during the war. Just like they left small pieces of the wall standing, and parts of buildings destroyed, Berlin has chosen not to cover up that piece of the past. I was, and am still amazed at that particular mentality, because none of those places draw a lot of attention to themselves, but rather serve as simple reminders of what has happened.
The final, most active, and to me most surprising reminder of WWII in Berlin is the police presence outside important Jewish landmarks. On one tour we stopped in front of a breathtakingly beautiful synagogue, which like many buildings, still has a destroyed portion in the back. But the building itself, or how much it survived were not what amazed me, it was the daily police force present in front of the building that completely floored me. Not only do they always have a police car and two officers across the street from the building, but they also have bollards in front of the synagogue so that cars can no longer be driven into it. This same thing happened again later in the trip when I visited the Jewish Museum. As we approached the building I noticed two police officers standing off to one side away from the building. The police are never doing anything particularly active other than keeping an eye on people moving in and out of these places, but simply having them there made a large impression on me.
Even today when I talk to people about Germany they really only associate Nazis and beer with my new home, so seeing this historical side of Berlin and the treatment of the topic today was refreshing and enlightening. I enjoyed seeing the many ways that individuals and the government as a whole are approaching it today.