Tracing Jewish history in Berlin

Berlin unveils memorial to murdered Jews

By Phyllis Steinberg

As an American Jew, the murder of six million Jews by Hitler during World War II in Germany kept me far away from this European capital.

But curiosity to visit Germany six decades after the Holocaust, and the fact that the country recently dedicated its “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” increased my interest.

I flew on Lufthansa Airlines from Miami to Frankfurt to Berlin on a comfortable and pleasant flight with superior service and meals, but I must admit that I had butterflies in my stomach, when the pilot said “Welcome to Berlin” in German and then in English.

I enjoyed my stay in Berlin and I would highly recommend “Milk & Honey Tours” for those wishing to discover Jewish Berlin. There is so much Jewish history in the city and Noa Lerner, co-founder of the company, runs experienced and knowledgeable tours. Her guides speak fluent English as well as other languages, and are well informed on Jewish history in Berlin.

My guide was Thorsten Wagner, 35, a Danish Christian student working on his PhD at the Technical University of Berlin. His undergraduate work was in German literature and political science with a strong interest in Judaism. So much so, that he went to Israel and volunteered for a year at ALYN, a facility for the handicapped in Jerusalem.

My visit to “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” was quite memorable. The Memorial was designed by American architect, Peter Eisenman and is built in the vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin. There are 2,711 concrete stones, all of varying heights. The pavement beneath you is uneven and as you walk through the Memorial you feel that you are lost in a giant maze. Perhaps the symbolism here is that this is how the Jews of Europe felt during the Holocaust, lost in civilization.

The visit to the Memorial is not complete without venturing below to the Education Center which traces the history of Jews in Europe and describes in detail through photos, interactive computer exhibits and displays, the history of the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews in Europe.

Jewish Berlin must include a visit to the Jewish Museum Berlin, which was finished in 2001. The building was designed by American Architect, Daniel Libeskind. The Museum, with its unique architectural design, presents two thousand years of Jewish history through many interactive exhibits. The building is unique and although it is not a Holocaust museum, the Holocaust is reflected in special places throughout.

I had thought that the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” was the first Memorial to the Jews in Berlin, but actually there are many memorials throughout the city, all reflecting a desire to remember what happened in Germany during WWII. And hopefully, not to repeat that horrific history.

My guide from Milk & Honey Tours took me to the Bavarian Quarter in the area of Schoneberg, a residential area where many Jews lived prior to the Holocaust. In 1988, the City Council held a competition among artists to design a memorial to the Jews who had once resided in Schoneberg. Throughout the city there are street signs. On one side is a picture, perhaps of some groceries. On the other side of the sign it says, “Jews in Berlin are only allowed to go grocery shopping in the afternoon between 4 and 5 p.m., July 4, 1940.” The signs are located throughout the city as a permanent reminder for the people living in Schoneberg today of what happened to Jews during the Holocaust. They see the signs in front of the stores they shop in and when they go to the subway.

Another moving memorial to the Jews in Berlin is located in the upscale section of Berlin in Grunewald. Here is a train station, where 55,000 to 60,000 Jews were deported. Track 17 is no longer used, but serves as a Memorial with the cement leading to the track showing figures carved out and missing from the sculpture wall to represent the missing Jews.

The House of the Wannsee Conference, Memorial and Education Site located in the Wannsee section of Berlin serves as a memorial to the Jews. It was here that the Third Reich made the extermination of the Jews of Europe, the official German policy.

Dr. Wolf Kaiser, director of the Wannsee Memorial, has been at the center since 1991. A trained historian, Kaiser grew up in West Germany, was a teacher and is a member of the Task Force of International Cooperation on Holocaust Remembrance and Research. Many school groups and tourists visit to discuss issues about discrimination and learn more about the Holocaust. There is also a vast library on the second floor.

It was here in this beautiful mansion, that the Third Reich decided to eradicate Europe Jewry and now it stands as an educational memorial to the Holocaust.

There are many more places of Jewish interest in Berlin as well as 29 museums, several Jewish synagogues and a large Jewish community, the majority of which are Russian Jews who immigrated to Germany after World War II. . It is estimated that there are about 12,000 Jews in Berlin who belong to the Jewish community and another 5,000 who aren’t registered.

The history of Berlin is closely linked to the history of Jewry. Today, 15 years after the reunification of Germany, Berlin is being reaccepted as a setting for Jewish life and the threads of Jewish history and culture are slowly being woven together.

While I was in Berlin I stayed in two outstanding hotels, both of which, I would highly recommend for tourists visiting the city.

The Hotel Adlon, located opposite the famous Brandenburg Gate stands in the heart of Berlin. The new “Memorial to the Murdered Jews” is located outside the rear entrance of the hotel. Elegant and luxurious in every way, the Adlon is the place where the rich and famous stay and movie premieres are held.

The Regent Berlin located at the historic Gendarmenmarkt, in the historic heart of Berlin-Mitte. is walking distance to the fabulous shopping on the Friedrichstrasse. It is a perfect location to explore the city. I enjoyed the high level of personalized service and comfort at the Regent, which was formerly the Four Seasons. The restaurant, Fischers Fritz with Chef de Cuisine, Christian Lohse, features gourmet seafood specialties that are sumptuous and elegantly served.

Lufthansa Airlines flies from New York and Miami to Berlin via Frankfort. There is a synagogue in the airport in Frankfort. The airline serves kosher food if requested. I ordered vegetarian meals and thought they were outstanding.

Photos by Phyllis Steinberg and Berlin Tourism.

Sources:

Milk & Honey Tours: www.milkandhoneytours.com
Berlin: www.berlin-tourist-information.de
The Regent Berlin: www.regenthotels.com
The Hotel Adlon: www.Hotel-Adlon.de
Lufthansa Airlines: www.lufthansaairlines.com

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