May 12, 2012
Today we got off to an early start on our tour of Berlin. First, we took the bus to see the Brandenburg Gate, which is a very significatnt monument for our study tour. On the evening of January 30, 1933, when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, the Nazis staged a huge celebratory torchlight procession that passed through this gate, soon followed by an official parade featuring Hitler and Reich President von Hindenburg, attended by foreign diplomats and observers. Everyone on the study tour found the Brandenburg Gate to be absolutely beautiful. The unique architecture was stunning with all of the details.
Down the street from the Brandenburg Gate we went to see the Reichstag. This was important for the study tour because it was this building housed the German parliament, or Reichstag. This building also portrayed stunning architecture. It was the burning of this building by an arsonist that gave the Nazis their main excuse to ignore civil liberties, upend the democratic institutions, and swiftly establish a dictatorship.
On the side of the Reichstag, there was a memorial which honored members of the parliament, mostly Communist and Socialist deputies, died in Nazi concentration camps.
Jewish Museum Berlin
Today, after visiting the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, we went to the Berlin Jewish Museum, which was built to tell the story of German-Jewish culture and progression in Germany. The building itself was built as a new extension of the original Berlin Museum; the Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, is in an abstract and modern style. This design is meant to encourage thought and discussion, not just of the exhibits, but of what impact the museum has on its visitors.
One of the most meaningful parts of the museum was the “Memory Void,” an open hall filled with 10,000 iron faces, which are meant to be walked upon by museum visitors. As the visitors walk across the faces, the sounds of the iron clanging beneath their footsteps is magnified by the size of the room. The “Memory Void” exhibit was created to represent the most innocent victims of war and the Holocaust: the children; for this reason, I found this to be the most touching part of the museum.
As one walks across the exhibit and the faces clang, one cannot help but feel moved by the installation. Each person in our group brought forth a different opinion as to how we felt about the experience, and why we felt the way we did. One person was reminded of the sounds of railroad tracks, while another thought of the number of children who were victims of war. Daniel Libeskind, the museum’s architect, deliberately inserted “voids” into the structure, empty spaces that represent the voids of Jewish people in German society.
Another wonderful exhibit was the one on Moses Mendelsohn, one of the pioneers of Jewish enlightenment in the 18th century. While he was an observant, devout Jew, he encouraged Jews to improve their lives by integrating into society and taking active part in the larger culture. I believe him to be a revolutionary man, and that he changed the way Jews understood their role in European society.
The Berlin Jewish Museum had an immense amount of information to offer, and I can safely say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and immersion in the exhibits. It helped shift the focus from Jews as just being victims of the Holocaust, a categorization that, while true, is not the only aspect of Jewish history and culture. It also helped to remind us that everyone has a past, and how these histories are important.
Walking tour: Book Burning Memorial
One of the first sites we visited after lunch (in a restaurant run by Humboldt University, where our guide teaches history) was a memorial to the National Socialist burning of books. On May 10, 1933 National Socialist students burned books in front of the Royal Library and near the State Library. The books were those of free publicists, philosophers, scientists, and socialists. They burned 20,000 to 25,000 books, and this only a few months after Hitler cam to power. At the time, there were over 700,000 books in the Royal Library and over 2 million books in the state library. Despite the importance of this event, especially at the heart of an institution of higher learning, the monument was not opened in 1994. It is a kind of anti-monument. Near explanatory plaques on the ground of Bebel square, a plate of glass level with the ground (which one can walk on) reveals a completely white room underground full of empty bookshelves.
We then walked briskly across Museum Island (where we happened upon a grand wedding in progress) to a monument in Rosenstrasse. Rosenstrasse was a place where an unprecedented public protest took place. The protest was held by 600 to 1,500 non-Jewish women whose Jewish husbands were being held in a former Jewish community building that had been taken over by the Gestapo in preparation for their deportation. Worried that such civil disobedience might spread, especially since the war had taken a bad turn at the recent Battle of Stalingrad, the Nazis actually released the men on March 6, 1943. This monument was established in 1995 at this location on Rosenstrasse. There was no news reported by the Nazis about this protest of the Jewish women. This memorial is important in that this was the first and only public protest against a deportation of Jews in Germany.