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.

Beware of the Green Spaces: A Jewish History Tour

By DeAira Cooper

IMG_8761It’s Hump Day! The week is almost over, and you would think that we’d recovered from jet lag by now, but it seemed to be at its peak today. We took a three hour walking tour about Jewish history and the Holocaust with our amazing tour guide Carolyn Gammon. One of the first points that Carolyn made, which I found to be very interesting and surprising, was that there are no memorials for Black victims of the Holocaust in Germany. The Black experience in Germany had been written out of history until about thirty years ago, which is fairly recent. In “Knowledge of (Un-) Belonging,” Maisha Eggers writes, “The term Afro-deutsch (Afro-German) was coined in 1984 by Audre Lorde (1934–1992) together with a group of Black women activists in Berlin. This is considered the moment at which the Black movement in Germany was born.” (3) As far as Black race relations go in Germany, they still have some work to do seeing that there is only one Black man serving in parliament out of about 300 people. Carolyn then went on to make a very important thought-provoking point; claiming that whenever going on a tour, we should always have in the back of our minds the question, “What am I not seeing? What is the information being withheld or in the literal sense has been taken out the picture?” Throughout the tour, I constantly found myself referring back to these questions.

IMG_8759According to Gammon, the anti-Semitic discrimination of Jews dates back to over 800 years ago when Jews occupied “Jew Street,” because they weren’t accepted by the rest of the German population. Their only jobs involved working for the Royal Court because they were excluded from all other jobs. They also couldn’t own land and had no access to permanent rights to citizenship. Anti-Semitism actually stemmed from antagonism towards monotheism, and Judaism is one of the three main monotheistic religions along with Christianity and Islam. The introduction to this new way of thinking about religion was problematic for the Romans and Greeks, who, historically, had participated in polytheistic thought.

IMG_8748One important figure in Germany’s Jewish history is Moses Mendelssohn, a Jewish modernist who believed strongly in tolerance, strength, and equality for all regardless of religion. Mendelssohn gave the parable of the ring when asked about which monotheistic religion was the greatest. This parable was about a father with three sons having to choose which one of his sons would take his inheritance. Instead of just giving the ring to one of his sons, he decided to duplicate the ring twice so that each son would have a ring not making one of them worth more or better than the other. Once each son received their rings, they were confused that each of them had a ring and had to find a way to lead their families together in harmony. This parable is symbolic, because it shows that neither of the three monotheistic religions are better than the other and that it is possible for those practicing these religions to live with one another without discrimination or a hierarchy.

IMG_8746Mendelssohn also quotes, “beware of the green spaces,” which is significant, because most green spaces in Berlin probably have a significant story behind them in that many used to be a cemetery, synagogue, or house. Many Jewish museums exist because of these spaces. As Sabine Offe writes in “Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany,” “On a pragmatic level, the existence of the majority of museums is linked to the fact that former synagogues, Jewish schools, or houses formerly owned by Jews that had survived the pogrom in November 1938 and the war were ‘rediscovered’ during the 1970 and 1980s” (79). The story behind the Jewish cemetery we saw on our tour really struck me, because it was destroyed by the Nazis. Not only did they destroy the cemetery, they also excavated the graves. Even the deceased Jews couldn’t live in peace. Still, Mendelssohn’s legacy lives on today at the Moses Mendelssohn high school, which teaches Jews and non-Jews together and teaches them about Judaism and tolerance. In “The School Lives of Jewish Children and Youth in the Third Reich,” Marion Kaplan writes, “Because children spend so much time in school, unprotected by family, Jewish children continually met face-to-face with the repercussions of Nazism there.” (42). This high school gives hope that one day Jews and non-Jews will be able to live in peace with one another and learning from each other.

IMG_8745I can definitely say that my peers and I were very surprised by most of the information we learned today. We’ve all studied the Holocaust in our school systems, but never in the context of where it took place. Today, we walked the same streets that the murdered Jews and other victims of the Holocaust walked. It’s mind-blowing to think that people were being killed in those streets and taken out of their houses. That reminds me of one last comment Carolyn made today, “Everyone was part of the Holocaust via a perpetrator, bystander, or victim.”


DeAiraDeAira Hermani is a Chicago girl living in Colorado. She is an Anthropology major and double minor in Theatre and Race & Ethnic Studies. She enjoys acting and doing comedy, and performs all types of comedy, including short and long-term improvisation, short skits, and sketches. She also writes a lot of her comedic sketches and monologues, and enjoys singing. You can often find her harmonizing with her friends or just creating new music. She’s just a down-to-earth lady always looking for the positives in a world full of negatives. She tries to stay optimistic at all times, and because of this, you’ll probably find her with a group of people making them laugh.