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.
Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
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.
Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
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.
Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
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.
Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis
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.
I have to start by saying that the five-year anniversary of the course started out with a bang for a few reasons:
It’s the first time the course has been full. In fact, we exceeded the maximum enrollment limit of 16 by one student;
two of my students were able to secure funding to come conduct research—Judy Fisher, Feminist & Gender Studies Major ’20, 2019-2020 TriotaPresident, 2018-2019 Shannon McGee Prize winner, and Fall 2017 #FemGeniusesinBerlin alum came to conduct transnational studies of American Indigeneity; and Mekael Daniel, Feminist & Gender Studies Major ’20 and 2019-2020 Triota Vice President came to conduct transnational studies of Blackness;
and we were joined by my niece-cousin-boo from Memphis, TN, Kelsey Nichole Mattox, who turned 18 and graduated from high school recently. So, her presence was especially meaningful. In fact, she had never gotten on an airplane until she traveled here, excitedly letting us know, “I decided to go all the way!”
Judy and Mekael arrived the same day I did, and we trekked to Radebeul (near Dresden) to attend the Karl May Festival so Judy could observe, think about, and examine Native American participation in predominantly white festival culture in Germany, as well as white Native American hobbyism. Imagine the raised-eyebrows of every single one of my friends and comrades in Berlin when I told the about this—haha. Judy and Mekael also went to the Great Indian Meeting at the El Dorado theme park in Templin the following weekend to continue Judy’s work. Shoutout to my colleague, Dr. Santiago Ivan Guerra (Associate Professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College), for introducing Judy to the significance of hobbyism in Germany, illustrating the collective efforts necessary for critical theory work.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that it’s been a while since the #FemGeniusesinBerlin were so full of #BlackGirlMagic (2015was the last time, to be exact), and I couldn’t have been more excited about that. One adorable and powerful manifestation of that was Avi(a) leading several rounds of “Deep Truth, Truth,” a game that allowed her to bond with her classmates, especially her roommates, but also with Dana and I one day during lunch. “Deep Truth, Truth” starts with someone asking another person if they’d like to share a deep truth or what one might refer to as a “regular” truth. A “regular truth” could be anything from sharing your favorite color to a song that you hate; however, a “deep truth” is usually something that one might not share in a group like this, because lots of us don’t know each other well enough to be comfortable with that kind of vulnerability. Then, once the person being questioned decides what kind of truth they want to share, the questioner asks a question. After the question is answered, the person being questioned then gets to ask another person in the group a question. I got to ask and answer twice (one truth and one deep truth), and learned a lot about the students that day. Neat stuff.
In “short,” the2019 #FemGeniusesinBerlin were such a great bunch even though we most certainly hit a few snags along the way. Here are some (definitely not all) of the most memorable moments:
The weather hitting 90F degrees, something I’m pretty sure never happened in years past, and doing so several days each week.
Bella’s cube bear.
Mekael, Judy, and I being photographed by a stranger (with consent) at the Karl May Festival and finding the very poorly-filtered but very cute photograph on social media (posted with consent).
Lauren’s RBF and fierce modeling skills.
Avia’s phone fan and ridiculous pranks.
Zander playing Captain Save ‘Em, and gettin’ hollered at all along the way.
Nicole being almost entirely silent then shakin’ up the space with the loudest, most hilarious laugh you ever did hear.
Vang asking to sit on our roof (which would most certainly result in his untimely death), asking about transporting beer back to the U.S., telling us he got “hemmed up by 12” (which turned out to mean he was approached by some ticket-checkers on the subway and allowed to continue his trip with a mere warning…side eye), telling folks about sex stores, and gettin’ hollered at for almost every single thing all along the entire way.
Discussing the advantages and risks of comparative analysis.
Dr. W. Christopher Johnson, Assistant Professor of History and the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto and husband of our Course Associate Dana Asbury, coming for a visit and joining us for a few sessions.
I could go on and on and on. I will never forget this group. Such a great summer through it all, which led to my new phrases: Must be June. Must be Berlin.
2019 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index: Click hereto view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to see more pictures and videos!
It’s been a while since I contributed to “Some Final Thoughts.” So, bear with me, please, as I shake some of the rust off.
Despite earning tenure and promotion to Associate Professor this spring, this year had its rough spots—some worse than others, especially the death of one of my closest aunts. Because of that, a few people—some who I thought were close to me and others who I knew weren’t—recommended that I cancel this course. In some strange way, I’m glad they did, because it reminded me of two very important things:
A lot of people who compliment me on this course have no idea what it is, what it does, and/or what it means—not just to me but to my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.
This course means a lot to me and my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.
My faith in the course was rewarded by a great group of students. They were thoughtful, kind, patient, interested, curious, and outright hilarious. I had so much fun with them, and I miss them already even though it’s only been one week since the course concluded. I could fill this page with memories:
Charles declaring, “Those two left at the same time.”
Me and Charles, singing, “If you liked it, you shoulda put a ring on it.”
Laila’s hilarious faces and hand gestures—I wish I could type the sound she made to complement her monster face and hands.
Dana’s and my “cheese fight.”
Our first long-distance trip in the course.
The constant references to John’s future run for Senate.
Sarah’s broad-shouldered dinner jacket.
The search for mom jeans and the finding of a pair “in pristine condition.”
Dereka’s new nose ring.
And as always, we had such a great time with and learned so much from everyone in Berlin who gave their time and energy to the course. Best of all, I think everyone knew just how much we appreciated them, because these students made every effort to ensure that from start to finish. If you haven’t yet, please check out the student podcasts (index below) and share them with anyone you know who may be interested in what we study here.
2018 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index:
Click hereto view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see more pictures and videos!