By Nikki Mills
As I’ve spent the past week navigating this city, there’s one thought I can’t seem to shake: What might this moment feel like if I was standing on this street 80 years ago?
Last Tuesday started in frantic bus-catching and bus-missing. Nora and I thought we planned out a calm morning of café musings and decedent parfait, only to find out that we were busless at 9:10 am and 25 minutes away from a 9:30 am walking tour about Jewish History and Culture with Carolyn Gammon. Some disgruntled words were exchanged (none too disgruntled that we couldn’t laugh about it later) and by 9:38 we found ourselves running to our classmates. I managed to avoid eye contact with Heidi for a full 30 minutes. In all that time spent frantically searching for a means of transportation, I hadn’t taken time to prepare myself for what I was about to experience. A “Jewish History Tour w/ Carolyn Gammon” our syllabus read. A Jewish History Walking tour in the capital of Germany. As Gökçe Yurdakul and Y. Michal Bodemann aptly put it, Germany “is the last country in which Jews would want to live” (2006). It was exactly this haunting memory that attracted me to Germany this summer. For most of my life, I have admittedly harbored some prejudice against all things German: German cars, German music, even German beer. I wanted to confront that prejudice head on, and collide I did.
Last Tuesday, arriving at the Jewish History Tour w/ Carolyn Gammon sweating and panicked from the public transportation fiasco, I didn’t allow myself to process what I now have the luxury of processing. I knew on some level that Tuesday would not simply be a stroll around Berlin pointing and discussing history. It was a history of me, my ancestors, their murders and murderers. It wasn’t until I was standing on Bebelplatz in front of the Humboldt Universität Law School doors, the very place that Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda for the Nazi party, stood on the evening of May 10, 1933 burning thousands of books, that it struck me. As Carolyn spent a few minutes recounting that evening, all I heard were the cheers of thousands of young people as book by book were tossed carelessly into the fire. I could hear those same cheers as Jew by Jew were tossed carelessly into the fire pits of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Could anyone else hear the cheers? I tried to hold in whatever it was that so desperately needed to come out in that moment until I saw the memorial to the book burning, set into the Bebelplatz plaza created by Micha Ullman. It was an empty room full of empty bookshelves to hold the souls of the 20,000+ books burned that night on Bebelplatz. Emptiness. So often the modus operandi for holocaust memorials. From that moment on, I could no longer hold back my tears. We continued to Grosse Hamburger Strasse Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery that holds no bodies. Dug up and thrown out as if they were weeds to be cleared, the plot of land was the only piece of them remaining. I needed to mourn but didn’t know how. I felt so young and so lost. In a cemetery with no bodies, I left with a bigger pit in my stomach than any other cemetery had ever left in me.
We finished the tour around noon, and I decided to delay lunch a few more hours. I felt the need to retrace our steps. My heart was open and bleeding, leaving a stream through the streets of Berlin. My limbs were in Bebeleplatz. My knees, the cemetery. My feet, at the base of Martin Luther. And my neck strewn along death street. I needed find them, to piece myself back together and salvage what I could of the other 6 million souls. I headed back to “Death Street,” to the cemetery, to the remains of the Alte Synagogue destroyed on Kristallnacht, and to Bebelplatz. As I walked, I was gathering. I gathered myself, my sister and brother, my mom and dad, my nana, my grandma, my grandpa, my aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, everyone I had taken along with me. I mourned and cried and persisted on my pilgrimage. But there was no way I could find everything. I left my heart on “Death Street.”
I then decided to devote some time to the Jewish museums we passed earlier on our tour. The Silent Heroes Memorial Site is tucked away in a graffiti-filled alley way just outside Hackesher Markt. The front door is easy to pass by in the whirlwind of color and activity in this small alley, but worth the stop. When I walked in, the person sitting behind the desk looked confused. “Are you open?” I peeped. Their face relaxed, “Yes.” It doesn’t seem as if this museum gets many visitors, but it’s purpose and message are vital to the Jewish history of Berlin. The museum is not huge or particularly “gaudy;” it is a simple database collecting as much information as possible about the “Hidden Heroes” of the Holocaust—the people who risked their lives, the lives of the friends and family, to save a few Jews. I sat down at a long table covered in new-agey computers. I typed in the only name I could think of: “Oskar Schindler.” There he was, and there was Emilie. This free space holds troves of information, and I would recommend anyone who has time between their alternative graffiti tour and Berlin history walking tour to pop in.
Fittingly, immediately to the right of the Silent Heroes museum lies a silent hero. The Museum of Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind, another equally small space, holds some of the actual workbenches for blind Jews who worked in his shop. Otto Weidt was able to hide and protect blind Jews (himself a partially blind German) for a large portion of the war. In the museum, there’s a picture hanging behind one of the workbenches. It’s a photo of about 30 or 40 people, all blind Jews expect for a little Otto in the bottom right corner. Some of the people have a number correlating to a key on the side with their name and fate after the war. Most were killed in Auschwitz. Some didn’t have a number. I took a moment to mourn for them.
Friday evening, 30 minutes to Shabbat, I boarded the 245 bus to Oranienplatz. I walked past hostel bars and Asian-fusion restaurants, past loud American tourists and quiet panhandlers, until I reached the one building slightly out of place, a massive ornate building proudly sporting a Star of David atop its picturesque dome. The Neue Synagogue. I walked up a red carpet to a metal detector. I showed my passport and purse while a woman skirted around me. “Good shabbis,” she smiled as she disappeared into the next room. My soul filled. I entered the synagogue, now museum, and continued up three flights of huge marbled stairs. I found a sign that pointed right, “synagogue,” picked up a tallit and prayer book, and found myself in a very small very plain-looking room. It didn’t seem to match the ornateness of the outside. I received a few more good shabbis and sat down in the back. I was one of eleven. Forty minutes into the hour service that I remembered where I was. I remembered that I was the stranger in the room. Being the stranger suddenly felt okay, almost comforting, because I wasn’t, we were all Jews and all shared a common language. As I walked out, I asked the young man behind me what it’s like to live in a place so saturated by the history of the Holocaust. He laughed—laughed!
“How long have you been in Berlin?”
“Well stop your tears! It’s time to have fun!”
Nikki Mills hails from the swampy Washington, D.C. area, and treasures the moments she gets to spend in sunny Colorado. She’s an Anthropology major and Political Science minor, but in an effort to leave her comfort zone and still explore issues close to her heart, she’s chosen to take her first official Feminist & Gender Studies course this summer. On campus, Nikki can be found hanging from ropes in the climbing gym and attending Shabbat dinners at the Interfaith House. Throughout school and beyond, she hopes to continue working hard for the disregarded in our society and find creative ways of moving past this particularly vile moment in U.S. history.
4 thoughts on “A Young Jew’s First Week in Berlin”
So much to process in so little time. Worth coming back to explore, starting with the “laugh” after your question, “What it’s like to live in a place so saturated by the history of the Holocaust?” What IS it like? I think about that daily when I’m in Europe. So many questions. Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a time machine…
Thanks so much for reading!
I found this narrative incredibly honest and personal, so moving. Thank you for confronting your preconceived bias and sharing your new level of experience and understanding!
Thank you for reading!