by Bridget Hanley
The heroes of the Holocaust…yes, they exist.
Can you, reader, name one Jewish person remembered from the Holocaust? Anne Frank? Ok, that’s great. Now, one more. Got one? Nope? I wouldn’t have either before today. This is embarrassing to admit but true. There were, however, heroes of this era, people who worked against the persecution of Jews whose names and stories are often not given the recognition they deserve. This blatantly contrasts the more well-known horrifying and villainous actions of the Nazi Germans. That is what I aim to shed light on in this blog.
I was amazed by all we learned from our guide, Adam Schonfeld. I was not surprised by the disgusting treatment of anyone that did not fit the “perfect homogenous mold” at this time. But I was incredibly awestruck learning about the tales of Herbert Baum, Otto Weidt, and Inge Deutschkron, and others. I hope to briefly show why these people and their stories should not be drowned out by the acts of their perpetrators. I came to the conclusion that while the tragedies of the Holocaust must be learned, respected, and mourned, this should not subsequently erase the resistance within that time period that must also be studied, appreciated, and celebrated.
After starting at the Brandenburg Gate and Max Liebermann’s house, we moved on to Bebelplatz, which is surrounded by Humboldt University, the State Opera building, and St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, where we were greeted by some light rain. There, we learned about the 1933 Nazi book burning organized by the National Socialist Student Union at Humboldt (then Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität). We also saw The Empty Library, a memorial in the center of the square that subtly commemorates the burning. The Empty Library is an underground display with no signs letting you know it’s there—there are simply empty white bookshelves you look down into. The emptiness of the shelves and the piece as a whole represents the void Adam helped contextualize when he asked, “How do you remember something that does not exist?”
While at this stop, we also learned about Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), a man who was a doctor…a Jew…and gay. Hirschfeld founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee in 1897, the Institute of Sexual Research in 1919, and the World League for Sexual Reform in 1921. Still his work is overlooked by those who think more about the sexual liberation movement in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. While he was on one of his tours abroad, Hitler raided his home in Germany leaving him to know he would never be able to return. His institute was also raided, and his books were burned at Bebelplatz. All of the progression he created was erased and had to be started from scratch by others years after the end of World War II.
After making a quick stop at the Neue Wache, a memorial that vaguely commemorates all victims of all wars and tyrannies, we headed for Museum Island. While admiring them from the bench outside, we were instructed to look at this somewhat odd cube structure with block letter writing on it. It is a discrete memorial created in the 1980s in remembrance of Herbert Baum (1912-1942). Baum was a working class Jewish electrician, and as a teenager, he was very politically engaged. In 1936, his family decided to flee to Brazil in fear of Hitler’s rise. It was very expensive and difficult to leave, so he opted to stay behind to fight for Jewish liberation. He was a forced laborer at Siemens and was able to meet other Jews and create friendships. He and his friends began to sabotage their assignments, steal from the company, and work together as means of survival. These plans turned from survival strategies to a movement in 1942. At the time, there was massive German support of the war efforts, and the supporters were planning an exhibit to dehumanize Jews. Bahm began losing hope, as there were fewer and fewer Jews left in Berlin or even all of Germany. So, in an acceptance of his fate, he stole electrical equipment from Siemens in an attempt to destroy the exhibit. This was his way of showing that even though many Jews were losing hope, there were still people alive and fighting. The attack was arguably unsuccessful, as the explosions did not cause much damage and one million Germans returned to the site the very next day. Additionally, Baum and nine others between the ages of 20-23, including four women, were charged with “conspiracy to commit treason” but were prosecuted as Jews. He was, to no surprise, found guilty and sentenced to death. However, he committed suicide while incarcerated before his sentencing. He risked it all to fight against the Nazis and give hope to and light a fire within other Jews still trying to survive.
Next, we went to “Block der Frauen,” a memorial remembering non-Jewish German women who protested for the release of their Jewish husbands in 1943. When their husbands did not return from work one day, it was assumed they were taken by the Nazis. These women then used their privilege to protest. And guess what? It was successful! These women were German citizens the police could not do much to while still trying to retain the respect and support of German citizens. So, they released the men. And guess what else? This was the only known visual protest of Germans against the deportation of Jews. This makes me wonder, why did no one else step up? While these women were important, as they did stand up for the freedom of Jews, I hesitate to group them with the other heroes we learned about. They were more positioned to succeed because they were white German citizens. For this reason, their story tends to be romanticized. In reflecting on this story and the memorial, then, we should think deeper about those that had the opportunity to do something and did not.
Our last stop was at the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin that had stopped being used in the 1820s, more than one hundred years before Hitler came into power. Still, Hitler’s ultimate goal of the extermination of all Jews meant leaving no trace. So, as forced labor, Jews were forced to remove the caskets and tombstones. After a brutal fight in the streets in 1945, 2,000 civilians died, and their bodies were buried there. German bodies. Likely anti-Jewish ones. Replacing the Jewish spots in the grave—the Nazis took every single thing that they could from them.
After lunch, we headed towards the Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt. In two groups, we walked through the building that was discovered by four students working on a project in the early 2000s. It had been completely abandoned fifty years before that. The museum was formerly a workshop where brooms and brushes were created owned by a partially-blind German man named Otto Weidt. He employed approximately forty vision-impaired Jews, extending their lifeline as the Holocaust progressed. For years, he insisted the workers were essential because of their heightened sense of touch due, bribing police to ignore what he was doing and selling equipment to the military. While he was still arrested numerous times, he continued to escape the police and, even when ultimately being caught, faced no punishment. Inge Deutschkron, a workshop employee, later devoted her life to sharing her story and the stories of Otto Weidt and the other employees. As the Inge Deutschkron Foundation writes, “A long life of fighting for justice and against anti-Semitic and right-wing tendencies in our society has come to an end, we are losing a combative friend.” She passed away five months before her 100th birthday on May 9, 2022, just three months before we visited and learned about her heroic legacy.
Hitler’s reign was one that, although hard to learn about, must be remembered. However, what we learned from Adam made me come to a new personal realization that I hope you also recognize. While the tragedies of the Holocaust deserve to be mourned and respected, the achievements must also be praised and celebrated. Hirschfeld was once photographed while in drag and was committed to gay pride when it was illegal! Baum fought for Jewish liberation even after being separated from his family to show the Jews had not given up! Women had a successful anti-deportation protest! Weidt built a workshop to keep Jews alive and aided Deutschkron in her escape to freedom! And she fought against anti-Semitism her whole life to advocate for those who could not! They were utterly incredible. That is not to say all Jews were either selfless or heroes. Some worked with the Nazis to expose other Jews to save themselves. And that does not make them evil people. Only complicated. Human. Still, there were heroes of the Holocaust whose diaries are not read in elementary schools and whose stories aren’t told in Hollywood movies that still deserve to not have their experiences and resistance recognized.
Bridget Hanley is a rising junior from Washington, DC. She is a Business, Economics, and Society major at Colorado College (CC), and this is her very first Feminist and Gender Studies course. This is also her first CC study abroad course. She is really enjoying it so far, and she is looking forward to class discussions, tours, and reading her peers’ blogs. She is very excited to be in Berlin for the first time and cannot wait to continue exploring the city.