Taking Down The Wall of Religious Intolerance: Jewish History in Berlin

Photo Credit: Olivia Calvi

By Olivia Calvi

This morning we had the opportunity to explore some of the hidden histories of Berlin with a woman named Carolyn Gammon took us on a walking tour about Jewish history throughout East Berlin, and opened our eyes to why the waiter at the restaurant taking our order seems to have a bit of resentment for us. We’re people whose President wants to build a wall. A wall that will divide families and fulfill greed for power driven by hatred and discrimination. Of course, what is becoming our reality existed for the Germans generations ago. And they are still feeling that guilt and recovering from that hate. Over seventy years after the Holocaust ended, recently built Jewish museums and memorials ensure that it is something the Germans will never forget.

Along these lines, one of the first things Carolyn pointed out to us while walking were little brass plaques in the ground, each representing a German Jew that was murdered during the Holocaust. Carolyn informed us that these small squares were usually placed in front of the house where the individual lived as a ritual of commemoration. Along these lines, in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany,” Sabine Offe suggests that these memorials were placed because of the guilty feelings passed down through the generations. People are told they can shine these plaques with their shoes as a sign of respect so that the brass does not turn brown and the names of the deceased can still be clearly read. These memorials lie throughout most of the city.

Photo Credit: Olivia Calvi

Next, Carolyn took us across the street to the Burning Book memorial. It is a piece of glass that covers a hole in the ground. When you stand to the side, you see bookshelves that have enough space to hold the 20,000 books that were burned. When you stand on top of the memorial, you can only see the reflection of yourself. I viewed this memorial as a warning to future generations to really take a look at who we are and the destruction we have the ability to cause. Next to the glass lies a plaque was a quote from Heinrich Heine, which translates to “if you start burning books, you will end up burning people.” It’s far too reminiscent of the books being banned in the U.S. and the textbooks riddled with creationist ideas that teach young teens that abstinence is the only form of sex education. Religious and political censorship leave children uncertain of their past or their future. I can’t help but think the fundamentalist right is well on its way to burning the people of the U.S.

This extreme religious intolerance is what led us to the most humbling part of our tour: a Jewish cemetery torn down by Nazis with only a few salvaged tombstones remaining. When the Nazis occupied East Berlin, they saw to it that every synagogue was burned and every cemetery destroyed. We learned that in Germany, the term Nazi is not used because it is too short and “sweet.” Germans only refer to them as National Socialists, because the German word is extensive and has a connotation of disgust. The cemetery sits on a street that was referred to as Tolerance Street before the Nazis occupied the area, because of the open dialogue and shared space between the Jewish and Protestant communities. When the Nazis invaded, the street became known as Death Street. Carolyn made it very clear that the plaques located at the cemetery use strong language in German, because referring to the deaths as killings instead of murders would be doing an injustice to the Jews whose lives were lost. Since the community has come back together, it has regained its original name. Under Nazi rule, communities were forced to come together against anti-Semitic groups. Along these lines, in “We Don’t Want to Be The Jews of Tomorrow: Jews and Turks in Germany after 9/11,” Gökçe Yurdakul and Y. Michal Bodemann examine the Turkish and migrant groups that helped lead initiatives against anti-Semitism and demonstrated to show their solidarity with Jewish Germans against Nazi terrorism. Similarly, the people of East Berlin who called that community home refused to stand for the intolerance and instead chose solidarity.

Photo Credit: Olivia Calvi

Just down the street from the cemetery is a school founded by and named for Jewish German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn who strongly believed in religious tolerance and had a dream to create a school where Jews and non-Jewish students could study together and learn from each other. The school, established in 1778 and reopened in 1993, currently enrolls students of all religions. Those from non-Jewish backgrounds take Hebrew and Judaic studies, learning from a young age what it means to be open-minded and accepting of a community different from your own.

As a religion major with the goal of a career as either a prison or military chaplain, there is really nothing I “geek out” about more than churches and religious places of worship. I was glad, then, when our tour took us to a Protestant church that was one of the only remaining buildings from medieval Berlin. Inside the church there is a donation box for an initiative between the Jewish, Islamic, and Protestant communities in Berlin. The initiative is called House of One, and they are raising money to build a religious center that can hold services in all denominations—a great opportunity for people who seek a shared community of multiple religious belonging. I think faith is one of the most interesting things about humanity, because people build shrines and monuments in honor of gods they believe will bring them salvation or peace in this life. I was raised Unitarian Universalist, a liberal faith denomination that does not have a specific dogma but instead is committed to building community and ministry around issues of social justice. While I identify as agnostic, I believe a person’s beliefs, religious and otherwise, tell you most everything you need to know about a person. It is only when religion is misused and becomes combative that a strong sense of religious belonging brings destruction instead of beauty.

Photo Credit: Olivia Calvi

On that note, I was intrigued to learn that on September 13, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the congregation on Tolerance Street in East Berlin. That day he preached: “No man-made barrier can erase the fact that God’s children lie on both sides of the wall.” I don’t know if I believe in MLK’s God, but I do believe in his sentiments. The 7th and last principle my faith is based on discusses the significance of the interdependent web of life. We are not all the same, and we most certainly do not have the same religious beliefs. But we are all human. Trump’s ideas to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and his attempted ban on Muslims are blatantly racist. As Carolyn told us, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently opened Germany’s doors to one million refugees—an economically advantageous choice that Trump was quick to call a catastrophic mistake. Along these lines, in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women In The Holocaust,” R. Ruth Linden writes: “It seems to me that the history of the Holocaust, like all of history, is a collection of stories […] the stories we write, tell, or paint about Holocaust victims and survivors, and the plots we give these stories are mirrors of our own era.” As students, we learn about history so that we don’t make the same mistakes, but Linden’s words point out the problem with America: we don’t pay attention to the mistakes of others. It is going to take a lot of work and admission of guilt to mend America’s mistake, and if one thing is certain, there will always be work to do. At least for the time being, I’m happy to be in a country that can actually call itself a democracy.


Olivia Calvi is a rising sophomore from Los Angeles, CA. She is double-majoring in Religion and Classics at Colorado College, and hopes to also attain a Feminist & Gender Studies minor. After college she plans on attending Seminary to eventually find herself in a career as a military or prison chaplain. She wholeheartedly believes in the Denver Airport conspiracy theory and has recently made the discovery that she is terrible at navigating public transportation.

Jewish History Walking Tour

By Amanda Cahn

IMG_0193At nine this morning, Carolyn Gammon found our class outside of Humboldt University in East Berlin. All of us sat on the cement, tucked into a corner of half-shade and half-sunshine. We first walked into the courtyard of the university, where we sat on benches and she began by saying, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” In the context of the tour, this meant that there is always a lot that we don’t see or learn when we take tours. She also connected her saying to recent political events. For instance, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey, publicly critiqued Germany for committing the first genocide of the Herero and Namaqua in the 20th century. This information was not publicized a great deal, and Carolyn believes that the media is intentionally suppressing this information. This clearly set an interesting stage for our tour about the Jewish history in Germany, as it encouraged us to think about the kinds of narratives we learn and those that are suppressed.

Our thinking about this continued when we learned there was a recently constructed statue of Lise Meitner behind the benches on which we sat. Meitner discovered how to split the atom, and is considered by some to be deserving of the Nobel Prize. However, she most likely did not ever receive it due to her identity as a Jewish woman. We found the same theme of privileging certain identities when we entered the university building. In the large entrance room of the second floor, photographs of male German scholars lined the walls, celebrated for their accomplishments. We had to walk into the small hallway on the side to see the photographs of female German scholars, who seemed almost hidden in comparison. It is noteworthy that many of them were Jewish as well. The photographs appeared to have been added to the collection as an afterthought.

Next, we exited the building back into the heat and crossed the street, finding ourselves in front of another beautiful building. It turned out to be the courtyard in which the Nazis burned over 20,000 books in 1933. It was a demonstration of power, as well as a way to control what knowledge was and was not circulated. After the book burning, those in danger who were able to began to flee the country. Now, a memorial exists at this site, which includes an underground room, visible through a glass sheet, that has enough empty bookshelves to hold as many books that were burned. There is also a plaque showcasing a quote from Heinrich Heine‘s Almansor: A Tragedy (1823), which can be translated to, “Where they burn books, they will also burn people.”

Next, we walked to the statue of Martin Luther, who was the leader of the new Protestant church in the 1500s. What was most intriguing about this part of the tour was learning that Luther became extremely anti-Semitic after he failed to convert many Jews. For instance, he published a 900-page tome entitled On the Jews and Their Lies, which led to a lot of violence toward the Jews. However, his statue still stands in Berlin, because few people actually think about him in that light. As Carolyn said, “Germans are good at remembering 20th century anti-Semitism, but not earlier accounts.”

IMG_0203Afterwards, we visited a park which had previously been a synagogue, before it was bombed. Nearby, there had been a pre-deportation prison. When the propaganda minister wanted to remove all of the Jews from Berlin, they were taken there as a surprise, right when they arrived to work one morning. Because they were Jews married to non-Jews, 2000 white, non-Jewish women peacefully protested, because they wanted their husbands to come home. The men were released, which just goes to show how much of a difference white, non-Jewish Germans might have made if they had tried to stand against the Nazis, because if the women had not fit the very specific identity requirements of the Nazis, they likely would have been murdered.

After our break, we learned about the small gold plaques in the ground called stumbling stones that commemorate  Holocaust victims created by artist Gunter Demnig. There are 55,000 placed all over Europe. The first ones  we saw commemorated a 2-year-old and 12-year-old who were murdered at Auschwitz in 1943. In “The School Lives of Jewish Children and Youth in the Third Reich,” Marion Kaplan writes, “By July 1941 about 25,000 Jewish children and youth under age 25 remained within the borders of pre-1938 Germany. Close to 20,000 under the age of 18 were murdered” (49). The way in which Nazis murdered so many young children really demonstrates how much they had dehumanized the Jews.

After this, we walked to Berlin’s oldest Jewish cemetery, which is now a green space like the park, because the Nazis removed not only the gravestones but the bodies as well. According to Carolyn, many say to “beware of the green spaces” in Berlin, because they are often sites of past atrocities. Along these lines, outside of the cemetery, there is a sculpture that represents Ravensbrück, which was a concentration camp for  women and children. Regarding concentration camps, I was surprised when Carolyn said that many people in the concentration camps were actually slave laborers who weren’t Jewish and that we just hear more about  Jews more because the Nazis killed half of the world’s Jewish population. Along these lines, in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust” Ruth Linden claims,

The tendency, evident in Holocaust scholarship of 1960s and 70s, to privilege the experiences of one group (in this case, the ‘strugglers’), while turning our gaze away from other groups. In this way, Jews outside of the ghettos and camps and non-Jews persecuted and murdered by the Nazis (namely, Sinti, Roma, homosexual men, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hutterites, people convicted of crimes, and Slavs), have become marginalized in Holocaust discourse (24).

On the one hand, I don’t think it’s at all okay that the other groups were often left out of the discourse, since it could be easily interpreted as the message that their lives don’t matter as much. On the other hand, I do understand why the Jews have been the focus, since it was the Nazi’s most successful attempt at “wiping out” an entire community.

IMG_0200Throughout the tour, I kept thinking about how the German-Jewish history has affected Germany even in the contemporary period. In the “Foreword to the English Language Edition” of Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, Audre Lorde asserts that in 1990s Germany, there was still a “dormant neo-Nazi element,” which resulted in the continuation of “aggressive racism and anti-Semitism in Germany” (xii). Twenty-six years later, Carolyn said that she believes Germans are facing their crimes against humanity. However, they need to extend their acknowledgement to other victims as well, such as the Afro-Germans for whom there is no Holocaust memorial.

We ended our tour outside of the Neue Synagoge, which was one of the targets of Pogrom Night (also referred to as Crystal Night). The Jews have always had to fight to survive, and I thank God that the Nazis were unsuccessful in wiping us out. It is terrifying to think about such atrocities, but absolutely necessary in order to try and prevent history from repeating itself. All in all, it was an extremely educational tour, and I think that everyone in the class was appreciative of the opportunity.


CahnAmanda Cahn is from Portland, Oregon and a rising senior at Colorado College, with a major in Feminist and Gender Studies and a minor in Spanish. She is passionate about advocating for reproductive rights and has worked with Planned Parenthood teaching sexual education in public high schools, as well as analyzing statistical data from their various sexual education programs. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and spending time with friends.

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The “Alternative City” Tour

By Blaise Yafcak

Boros

Boros Bunker

On Friday afternoon, we met Rob, the tour guide, at the Brandenburg Gate and embarked on an “Alternative City” tour of Berlin. Rob started us off with a brief history of Berlin. He told us that the Berlin Wall went up around West Berlin and that the mayor wanted people to move to West Berlin because the city was poor. So, the mayor enacted a law eliminating national service if you lived in West Berlin, which attracted “the punks and artists.” After the wall came down, many people moved from the West to the East because it was cheaper to live in the latter.

Stencil Art

XOOOOX Stencil Art at Boros Bunker

After this introduction, we got on the U-Bahn and began our tour of street art and gentrification. We began in the neighborhood of Mitte, a “punky” neighborhood, according to our tour guide. The first building we looked at was one that had been a Nazi air raid shelter during World War II. The bunker then became a make-shift prison during the time of de-Nazification, and then ended up in the East when the wall went up. The building was then used as a storage facility for dried and exotic fruit, primarily bananas. The building changed hands many times, and eventually, many years later, it was rented out for techno parties—patrons of the club said that the building still smelled of bananas. About ten years ago, a man named Christian Boros purchased the bunker, built his house on the roof, and used the bunker to house his personal art collection. Visitors can now come and view Boros’ art collection in the old bunker.On the outside walls of the bunker, we got our first introduction to Berlin street art. According to Rob, Berlin was a breeding ground for street art since the city boasted the longest wall in the world (actually, the Great Wall of China measured over 5,000 miles in length, while the Berlin Wall was only about 70 miles). Nonetheless, Berlin does have quite the collection of street art or “guerrilla” art, as Rob called it. One prominent artist, Mr. Six, has taken it upon himself to paint yellow sixes on the corners of as many buildings as he can. There were many theories as to why he painted the number six: six means failing in the German school system, so he may paint the number on broken down buildings that are failing; six also sounds a bit like sex (haha!). However, Mr. Six finally provided an explanation as to why he has chosen the number six—he wants to make the internet faster. As of now, Mr. Six has painted over three quarters of a million sixes on buildings, and has been arrested over seven hundred times.

Astronaut

Astronaut / Cosmonaut by Victor Ash in Kreuzberg

Rob then showed us what gentrification looks like in Berlin in the form of a small courtyard in the center of a building filled with cafes and shops and a small park. He took this chance to briefly explain some of Berlin’s laws: in Berlin, if you occupy a building for more than three months, you own said building; prostitution legal here; and when it’s hot, Berliners head to parks in East Berlin and take all their clothes off. It was unclear whether this was truly legal or not, much like smoking in public spaces. Apparently, there is a ban on smoking in outdoor restaurants and similar spaces; however, such places still provide ashtrays at tables, and it’s hard to sit outside and not get a face full of smoke from the Berliner sitting at the next table over. Street art is also illegal in Berlin. There is a maximum penalty of three years in prison for creating street art, but more likely, the artists are simply fined and ordered to remove the art. There is an anti-street art team comprised of 21 individuals who go around the city and paint over street art. However, they paint over the art in random colors that do not match the original color of the building, making a convenient frame for the next batch of street art.

Rob then introduced us to the “stumbling stones.” These are small bronze colored stones set in the cobblestones in front of buildings. The stones were created in the 1990s by an artist named Gunter Demnig as a way to commemorate those killed during the Holocaust. Demnig believes that a person is only forgotten once their name is forgotten, so these stones are ways of keeping the names alive. The stones are placed in the ground outside of houses where victims of the Holocaust resided, and state their name and brief information about when the person lived in the building.

Babies

Street Art by BLU

We then moved on to the neighborhood of Kreuzberg, where we saw more street art, including a large painted astronaut and BLU’s mural of a baby made of babies eating a baby. Apparently, the latter is meant to represent the world coming together, but it looks more sinister than that.

The tour finished at the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall, located just over the river on the East side of Berlin. This portion of the wall is heavily decorated, as artists were invited to come decorate the wall and are still doing so. The art changes every few months, and is currently quite colorful. We, then, got some ice cream after our 3.5 hour tour, and then headed home to rest.

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Blaise IIIBlaise is a rising senior at Colorado College studying Biology and Feminist and Gender Studies. She likes road trips, coffee, and Harry Potter.