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A Berlin Experience

A Berlin Experience

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Published by Mel Goodman
An account of a British Jew visiting Berlin for the first time.
An account of a British Jew visiting Berlin for the first time.

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Published by: Mel Goodman on Oct 05, 2008
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05/09/2014

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A Berlin Experience
Of all the major cities in Europe
, Berlin looms large in significance,especially for us Jews. From the 7
th
to the 10
th
of December 2006 Ros andI participated in a tour to the city of Berlin organised by The Movementfor Reform Judaism. Our guides were two Israeli forty somethings.Jeremy Leigh, British born, whose background is as an historian andeducator. Julian Resnick, South African born, educator and administrator.They had thoroughly researched the Berlin Jewish story and the resultwas a complete experience. Our party of 32 included two rabbis of whichone was our own Stephen Katz accompanied by his wife Sandra. Theother Shoshanna, was accompanied by her unborn twins travelling incomfort.
Day One
found us arriving at the hotel during the late afternoon. We boarded our very comfortable coach warmly dressed ready for thechallenge. That evening by way of introduction we stood onKurfurstendam ,the main shopping street of Berlin, in the middle of aXmas market, opposite the ruined spire of the Kaiser Wilhelms Kirchewith the new glass tower by its side.We then saw a number of icons that represent Berlin. The preservedsection of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the old crossing pointfrom West to East, and the Brandenburg Gate. Each stop connected toimportant changes in history and the changing face of modern Europe.Finally, most moving of all, we stood under the night sky, among thehundreds of stone monoliths, the Memorial to the Jews of Europemurdered by the Germans (Holocaust). This memorial, recently finishedwas designed by Peter Eisenman. I found it most significant that theliterature provided states “Germans” and does not hide behind the word“Nazis”. The site is that of the old Gestapo headquarters and is withinyards of both the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag.
Our opening dinner
that night was at a large restaurant in the Art DecoHackescher Hof complex. This was in the cosmopolitan heart of one of the Jewish centres of pre war Berlin. Naturally the discussions continuedover our excellent meal.
The next day
saw us examining the site of the medieval communityaround the Rotes (Red) Rathouse (Town Hall). We were reminded howwe alternately prospered as traders and money lenders and subsequentlysuffered massacre, executions and expulsion. The road beside the TownHall is the Judenstrasse.
 
By the eighteenth Century the Jews of Berlin prospered and lived in thearea known as Gross Hamburger (Big Mac). We walked into what seemeda secluded park with mature trees. This was an 200 year old cemeterywhich the Nazis had ploughed over. One solitary grave has been replaced,and was piled with stones. It is dedicated to the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsohn. In his time he was called “The Jewish Socrates”.However like so many others at that tim his children were baptised.
Thence to the Synagogue
in Oranienburgstrasse. This beautiful Baroquestyle domed building was erected mid 19
th
century, and could seatthousands of Reform Worshippers. Sadly it was partially destroyed onKristallnacht 1938, although partly saved by the Berlin Fire Brigade. Partof it has now been restored and serves as a Schul, Museum and Mikve. Iwas puzzled when I saw a poster from the 1880s advertising Havdala on aSunday night. For a period Shabbat was moved to Sunday so that Jewscould be seen to conform as good Germans. We returned to this Schullater for Shabbas evening service. We were treated to a young femalecantor with a sweet voice. The congregation was swelled by our group aswell as a group from Venice so the room was pretty full. School Germancame in handy as the sermon on Jacob wrestling with the angel was all“auf Deutsch.” We ate together in the Kadima , Jewish style restaurantnext door. In case you are wondering, they did serve Matzo Ball Soup.
Saturday morning service
, with our new draft Siddurs, was held at thehotel and led by Rabbi Stephen. There was also some lively discussion.
The Berlin Jewish museum
is an iconic piece of modern architecturedesigned by Daniel Liebskind. It is one of the most exciting Jewishmuseums I have ever visited. It specifically tackles the issue of Jewish/German identity through the ages. Some Jews lived in Koln(colonia) in Roman times. There were Jews living in the area of Germany 1000 years ago, especially in Worms, Speyer and Spandau.. Anatmosphere of their life is achieved through films, exhibits, sounds andthere is a particularly poignant commemoration of the Holocaust. Oneenters a metal walled, dimly lit irregular shaped space where the sound of the city is excluded . The space tapers upwards into nothingness.Some of us then revisited the Holocaust memorial to see the exhibitssituated underground. Here we were reminded of actual families who perished during that horrific period. They have researched as much detailas they could find to keep their memory alive.
 
Timed tickets for 
Sir Norman Fosters Reichstag/Bundestag
restorationmeant that we did not have to queue for entry with the masses. Foster retained the graffiti drawn by Russian soldiers in 1945 as a poignantreminder of those days. The magnificent glass dome contains walkwaysup and down, from which the public can see the debating chamber below.The view from the top takes in the panorama of Berlin old and new. Thescene is dotted with tower cranes, where new construction is taking placeon a grand scale. We toured most of the building with a helpful guide provided by the Bundestag. It was interesting to see how close the publicgalleries were to the debating chamber.Finally that day, we walked into the square between the Opera House andthe library of Humbolt University, Bebelplatz. This should have been a place always associated with Deutche Kultur, but here was the site wherethe Nazis
“burnt the Books”.
Not only Jewish books were burned butalso those considered to have been influenced by Jewish thoughts andideas. Madness. The memorial to this event is a glass window let into thecentre of the cobblestones. It contains pale white empty bookcases on allfour sides.The theme for our final day was “Jews confronting German Memories”.The
Wansee Villa is where “The Final Solution”
for the destruction of European Jewry was finalised. Himmler, Eichman and their croniesrelaxed over canapés and cigars whilst deciding the fate of millions.Among the papers was a list of European Jewry country by countrytotalling 11 million. It sent a shiver down ones spine to read “England33.000”.They decided to use hundreds of trains to ship Jews from all over Europe to the death camps in Poland .These were given priority over eventhe war effort. We discussed the questions of human behaviour, good andevil, our attitudes to modern Germany.
Grunevald Station/Gleis 17
Memorial followed. Everybody present wasvisibly moved standing on the platform, some distance away from themain station. Here , e so many had boarded the railcars bound for Sachsenhausen, Bergen Belsen, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz. The Nazis even found a few remaining Jews to move out in early 1945, whenthe war was almost over. The train numbers, dates, destination andnumbers of Jews transported are cast in rusting iron on the edge of the platform.Finally in the town hall square of Steglitz, in the middle of a bustling fleamarket we came to the
Spiegelwand (Mirror Wall
). This is a memorial

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