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Saturday, July 26, 2014

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Confronting history in Berlin

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For many Jews, and more especially those in the older demographic, the very prospect of going to Germany arouses feelings of ambivalence, if not consternation. For some, even setting foot in the land that spawned Hitler’s Reich and the near total annihilation of European Jewry would be unthinkable. There is, of course, the competing viewpoint that encourages Jews to visit the country, if only to see how a new generation has grappled with its past, to listen, to learn, and, above all, to remember not only those who went to their deaths but also those who heroically risked their own lives to save the precious few who were able to evade the Nazi onslaught.

I recently had an opportunity to spend some time in Berlin, primarily to attend a conference. I was there for just a few days, but they were a days filled with overwhelmingly mixed emotions. At first glance, the city is like many others in Europe, with a distinctive architecture, tree-lined boulevards, efficient transportation, eclectic eateries and bustling commercial districts. Since 1990, when the infamous wall that cut through its core was demolished, there has been extensive construction and development to make its reunification as seamless as possible and, at least in the eyes of the visitor, it’s apparent that such efforts have been successful.

Yet despite its urban makeover, Berlin has also been referred to as a city of ghosts. Germany’s wartime past, and perhaps most particularly the decimation of its Jewish community, has cast an eternal shadow on its capital city. So much so that it’s difficult to pass one or another train station or open square without seeing reference to, or sometimes just imagining, such locations as assembly points for those who were deported to the Nazi extermination camps.

Several Holocaust memorials dot the city. Most notable among them is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located just a block from the Brandenburg Gate, and the nearby Jewish Museum, with its distinctive shape, “reminiscent of a warped Star of David.”

But aside from these more prominent structures, there are, in both East and West Berlin, a multitude of smaller landmarks that poignantly memorialize victims of the Holocaust. So whether you choose to explore the Jewish cemetery where philosopher Moses Mendelssohn is buried (and which was desecrated by the Nazis), or wander through the restored workshop of Righteous among the Nations, Otto Weidt, who protected many physically disabled Jews from the Gestapo, or spend some time at the sites of destroyed synagogues or community centres, you’ll find solemn tributes to those who perished.

It’s recognized that, unlike most other countries where Jews were persecuted during the war, Germany, in principle and policy, has chosen to confront, rather than dismiss or rationalize, its role in the Holocaust. In fact, what struck me most powerfully when visiting the various memorials in Berlin was the presence not so much of tourists, but much more so of groups of young Germans, particularly of school age, who were obviously there to be educated, to reflect and, I suspect, to somehow try to come to terms with that dark and ignominious page in their history.

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