Who are you when you come to Berlin and who are you when you leave Berlin?

by Rabbi Jodie Siff

Who are you when you come to Berlin and who are you when you leave Berlin? The essential question our guide Julian asked us when we were trying to synthesize our experience. Every interaction is a time for transformation. This time, traveling with beloved members of RSNS, these moments, encountering our communal and personal past, gave the opportunity for great transformation.

There are few cities in Europe as powerfully evocative as Berlin. The city has become iconic for the key periods and experiences of modernity: (part of this text is from our itinerary, courtesy of Julian Resnick)

Berlin – The City of Enlightenment;

Berlin – The Roaring Capital of Weimar;

Berlin – The Capital of the Third Reich;

Berlin – The Frontier City of the Cold War; and

Berlin – The Capital of the New Europe

The name ‘Berlin’ evokes images of a city whose Wall fell so dramatically in 1989 heralding the end of Soviet Communism, changing the face of Europe, and, for some, symbolising the end of ideology itself. However, the truly remarkable aspect of this city lies not exclusively in its history, but rather in its ability to regenerate, rebuild and create new futures. A visit to Berlin today is a journey to a place that is rebuilding and in fact reinventing itself.

To a degree, the historical Berlin Jewish story is well-known and almost self-evident – the city has witnessed the very best and the very worst of Jewish history. The challenge for us was to connect the symbols of those stories with the present-day reality of a fast and regenerating community. In Berlin, the past very rarely stands still. Throughout the journey we pushed ourselves to look first at what we felt was the P’shat (on the surface) of the experience, the Remez (hint of something deeper), Drash (what does it all mean) to the Sod (the unknown mystery of what’s next).

Berlin the Iconic-P’shat (on the surface). We began as Jews had done in the past by taking a spazier (walk) to gain our physical connection to the history of the space. Our spazier included the Bebelplatz, Humboldt University, the Neue Wache, the Berliner Dom, the Judenstrasse, Marienkirche, Neptune Fountain, and the statues of Marx and Engels. The Siegessaule Memorial and the Brandenburg Gate concluded our day. All of these are the ancient buildings and spaces that formed both the upward mobility and the demise of our people. I didn’t know how I would react to witnessing the buildings that framed my nightmares. The memorial of the empty bookshelves underneath the Benelplatz, the main square where there were book burnings and round-ups mirrored my emotions. Empty.

Digging deeper-Remez (hint of something deeper). There was a Jewish layer of sites which begin to tell a complex story of belongings, of rejections, of great love and pain. The sites include the Reichstag, the Hackescherhof, the Otto Weidt Museum, the Oranienburgerstrasse Neue Synagogue, the Old Jewish Cemetery, Grosse Hamburgerstrasse, and the Jewish Museum. The duality of a Jew in Germany. It felt like the home that the Jewish community built was one based on culture. Jews adopted a cultural identity that allowed them to integrate and assimilate. On our walks in Berlin and scattered throughout Europe, planted in the streets and sidewalks of cities whose past is not forgotten, there are commemorative brass plaques that eternalize the lives that were lost in the great tragedy of the 20th century. Called the Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”), the shiny bronze plaques commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime in more than 1,100 locations in 17 European countries. They were the continuous wake-up call to what was lost.

Hidden in the suburbs. We headed out of Berlin, to visit places both beautiful and sinister. The “Bridge of Spies,” the Glienicke Bridge was the framing of our day. The restricted border crossing between the Eastern Bloc (namely Potsdam in East Germany) and territory affiliated with the Western powers (namely the American sector of West Berlin), the Americans and Soviets used it for the exchange of captured spies during the Cold War. We explored Sanssouci, the extraordinary gardens of the palace of Frederick the Great who created the strength of the Prussian military while mourning the loss of a life he would have wanted to live.

We stood in the house where the Wansee conference happened and the Final Solution was planned. We look at the exhibit through the lens of a German teenager today. Are the sins of the parents revisited on the child? We stood in memory of those deported to the ghettos, the camps, and to unknown places at Gleis 17, Platform 17 train station. The question we kept on grappling with was when people come to power, what do they become?

The most painful of memoriesDrash (what does it all mean). We headed out of Berlin to Sachsenhausen, the camp where the leadership of the Concentration Camps and the Death Camps were trained. This camp was the paradigm for all camps. What does a country do with the spaces now, like a labor/concentration camp? Destroy it, keep it as a memorial, create a new memorial in the same space?

The training ground at this camp is now a police academy and while at the camp we were watching through barbed wire while a police training experience was occurring. Hearing the calls of commands in German brought up all the intergenerational trauma that I had read about. It was impossible to hold all the despair and evil that happened in this one place. And then wrapping my head around the fact that there were over 1,000 recorded camps. The multiplication of evil.

When we re-entered Berlin, it was an afternoon of Monuments and Memory. Two in old West Berlin. The Monument to the Roma & Sinti People, circular with a cleansing water component and haunting music. The Memorial to the LGBTQ community, an off-kilter grey concrete block, with a peep-in movie reel and same-gender people kissing.

We journeyed to old East Berlin to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. 1271 raised concrete tombstones. Then to an empty parking lot. A non-memorial where Hitler’s bunk is thought to have been. We saw the last socialist mural. This is where in 1953 there was an uprising of the workers. We ended the day at Gestapo headquarters. With the background being the rubble of the headquarters and the Berlin Wall, and an exhibit called the Topography of Terror.

There is NO graffiti on any of these stone monuments. They are covered by a special substance that can easily remove graffiti. They later found out that the company that provided the material to cover and protect the memorials was the same company during the war made cyclone B gas. Again, what should they do? Can we hold evil and good at the same time?

The Cold War and the presentSod (the unknown mystery of what’s next). The Holocaust informed the Cold War. Checkpoint Charlie, East Side Gallery, and the Berlin Wall Memorial pushed us to ask the question of how countries get beyond tragedy. These memorials and artwork beg the question. What, why, and how do we remember. These memorials have the hope of Peace (planting of Rye) and the idealism of Reconciliation (the church built with the remains of the old church).

In the pouring rain, we concluded and framed our experience at the Wilhelm Gedenkskirche and the Spiegelwand. The Church was bombed by the allies. Pure destruction. Do we feel empathy for the Germans who were bombed? How do we relate to the other and then how do we relate to ourselves? The Spiegwand, the Mirror wall. It was constructed where there was a synagogue pre WW2. It was fully destroyed. The monument is the names and addresses of every Jew who lived here. We saw ourselves in the mirror. With the names of our communal ancestors overlayed on our bodies we are called to respond, we have the responsibility to remember.

Who are you when you come to Berlin and who are you when you leave Berlin? Whatever your Berlin is, transformation has to be at the core of a meaningful life.

What an amazing blessing it was, it is, to wrestle alongside of members of our RSNS community.

Rabbi Jodie Siff