In my short (yet seemingly lengthy) time in Berlin, I have learned so much about Berlin’s rich history and the amends it has made and continues to make in response to its hand in the many horrors of World War II. Berlin is a city unlike any other in how it goes about the creation of museums and memorials to the placement of those museums and memorials and to the extensive symbolism interwoven into each museum and memorial. Our team, Team Bravo, has had the last three days to explore the city of Berlin to learn more about its role in World War II and the Cold War, and to ask some questions as we spend time examining each site.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe has been by far been one of the most impactful moments of my time in Berlin. This memorial covers an entire street block and is filled with 2,711 concrete slabs, of varying heights, that represent the more than six million Jews that were massacred during Hitler’s reign. The slabs increase in height the further you wander into the memorial, and with it, comes the feeling that you are slowly being overwhelmed. As I walked towards the center of slabs, the sounds from people on the street, honking cars, and even the sound of someone walking a few feet away were dampened, and I began to feel very alone as the slabs towered over me. The uneven ground was further cause for uncertainty as it sloped up and down causing me to trip. I can only help but wonder how much more overwhelmed and uncertain each Jew felt at the beginning of each day, wondering whether or not they would return home that day as their persecution increased. With the increasing persecution, the Jews were slowly headed towards a disaster that could not be stopped.
Later that same day, our entire group went for a night adventure where we got to experience the same memorial. Except this time, it was in the dark of night, with light only being provided by the hotel and street lights. We went out into groups of three and four and ambled through the memorial. I don’t proudly proclaim my fear for the dark, but this was pretty dang scary. As we walked through the memorial, I felt more and more uneasy the longer we walked on, and I was quite relieved to reach the rest of our group at the end. When we reconvened, our group began to discuss why this memorial was here, why it was the named the way it was, and reasonings for the way the memorial had been built.
Not only is this memorial placed near the heart of where the Nazi’s controlled their operations, but it is placed on prime real estate in the center of Berlin, near the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, and the US Embassy. I believe that the memorial’s placement signals Berlin’s effort to really show how much they desire to right their wrong in that they could’ve sold the property to the highest bidder yet decided to create a unique memorial for the main victims of their terror. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe also employs strong rhetoric. The word “murdered” is as blunt as it gets and implies the killing of an innocent people, who did not deserve the cruel treatment they received. Among the many slabs in the memorial are spots on the outside that are skipped and left empty. This simple act honors the many Jews who might be excluded from the estimated six million. Not only does this memorial honor six million Jews, but the empty spots honor the many Jews forgotten because of missing deportation lists and the impossibility of having an exact count of the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust.
The museum below went onto build on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by personalizing and humanizing the many lives lost. The museum included many real stories of individuals Jews who faced persecution and eventually lost their families and their lives in the brutal concentration camps. In the Room of Dimensions, there were several excerpts from letters written by Jewish victims to their family or anyone that would listen. One quote particularly stuck out to me. Judith Wischnjatskaja wrote:
“Before I die I want to say farewell to you. We want so much to live, but
they won’t let us, we will be killed. I am so afraid of this death, because
the small children are being thrown alive into the pit. Goodbye for ever.
My warmest kisses for you.” -Your J
In the letter transposed and sent to the museum, the author removed the word, pit, and changed it to grave because it sounded too harsh. Instead, the creator of the museum chose to include the word as to convey the letter’s full meaning. Again we see Berlin fully show their darkness rather than just hiding it. In the next room, the Room of Families, fifteen different Jewish families, from 13 different countries are represented by vertical hanging slabs that continue from the above memorial. Although this doesn’t cover each country that had Jews killed, it reveals an honest attempt to showcase just how widespread Germany and Berlin’s terror spread.
The memorial’s design and museum below bring so much life to a people the people of Berlin once thought inferior. The memorial and museum counter the Nazi’s views of Jews as an individual group. By making each slab to be a different height and creating an extensive museum below that is filled with relatable personal stories, it humanizes the Jews, and reminds us that each Jew was a unique human being.
Thanks so much for an amazing time Berlin. And thanks to Team Bravo for the wonderful, thought-provoking conversations that have taught me so much in the last few days.
Onward we go.