Sunday, November 19, 2006

Troubled Berlin

Several years ago I visited two civil rights museums, in Birmingham, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee. Both are excellent museums, but very different. The Birmingham museum has a wealth of information about the oppression of Afro-Americans in the US South, but it is an optimistic place that seems to want to bring racial groups together in harmony. The Memphis museum, by contrast, is an angry place. Located in the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down, it confronts racism and condemns it.

I was thinking of those two museums when I was in Berlin this week. Berlin's Jewish Museum is another great museum. Housed in a remarkable building designed by Daniel Libeskind, it provides a fascinating view of two thousand years of Jewish history in Germany. As I moved through the chronology approaching WWII, I grew increasingly apprehensive, waiting for the whammee of information about the holocaust. It didn't come. There was the lead-up to the holocaust, and then there was the aftermath. The holocaust itself was barely mentioned.

This is in stark contrast to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, which is almost too much to bear. At the end of the exhibits there is a meditation room that I needed to use to recover before leaving the building.

Berlin's recent history is troubled, to say the least, having been the center of the Third Reich until just 60 years ago, and then an occupied territory - divided into sectors that were run by the Soviets, Americans, British and French. There seems to be a general lack of trust in the populace - at least, there wasn't a lot of smiling or friendliness. It's a beautiful place and I'm not sorry I spent a week's holiday there, but it feels alien (unlike Frankfurt and Weisbaden, where I spent the previous week).

My experience at the Jewish museum got me wondering about how Berliners cope with their history. That history is still raw, despite the 60 years since the end of the war. I saw many buildings that had poorly patched bullet holes from World War II. The Kunst Bibliotek (attached to the Gemaldegalerie, an old master's museum) is a mess of bullet holes. The bombing at the end of the war left many buildings patched or reconstructed. (Evidence of the Soviet era is found in the museums of the old East Berlin, which are full of reproductions. My guide book would diplomatically say, "This piece was misplaced during the period following WWII. The original is on display in Moscow.")

After my experience at the Jewish museum, I decided to make a search for public acknowledgement of World War II. My guide book told me of a place called the Topography of Terrors, built on the site of Gestapo torture chambers, but it turns out that public controversy has kept the building from being constructed. There is a temporary open air site (with not even an awning); tellingly, the parts dealing with WWII are in German only, and the parts dealing with trials held after the war are also in English.

There is a small modest memorial to Berlin Jews at Gedenkstatte Grosse, but it contains no information, just a statue.

I visited the Holocaust Memorial, and it is big - a small city block - but there are no signs or any words whatsoever, just hundreds of coffin-shaped concrete rectangles. There is not even a sign saying what it is. While I was there, kids were playing hide and seek among the rectangles.

I went away and did some more research, finally discovering that the Holocaust Memorial has an underground interpretive center. I went back to the site but had some difficulty finding the entrance, and eventually found it only because a school group was gathering at the entrance - which was nothing more than a small hole in the ground and steps, with no signs.

The interpretive center is very impressive. It chronicles the Holocaust by year, and then provides personal information. It details what was done to Jews, Roma, disabled people and political opponents. It tells of the development of the gas chambers, first used on the handicapped. One room contains letters written by victims, some thrown through the slats of boxcars. One contains brief slide shows of dozens of towns in Europe, telling how many Jews lived there in 1933, what happened to them, and how many were left in 1945. It is strange to find this huge archive of material hidden underground.

Coming from a slave-owning Southern family, I have first-hand experience of people being defensive about the horrors perpetrated by their ancestors, and I can sympathise with Berliners to an extent. Most of us have blood on our hands. The colonial era ended just 40 years ago, with horrors perpetrated by colonial powers. Our great-great grandmothers were denied human rights. Our ancestors fought many bloody wars, both for their countries and their religions.

But the negligible public acknowledgement by Germany's capital city of the world's greatest atrocity seems irresponsible and unhealthy. It's troubling. It fits with many other things: war reparations being paid so late, war criminals left unprosecuted for decades. While I was in Germany I read an article about the largest archive of Nazi prison camp records, which has only just been opened to researchers, despite decades of pleading by holocaust victim's families to learn what happened to their loved ones. One sad tale among the millions is of a Dutch man who was arrested for owning an illegal radio. His family, now all dead, was never able to get the archive to give them information about him, despite the archive having his personal effects and a first hand account of his fate.

When we say "never again" to the Holocaust, we should also say "never again" to the way we handle the aftermath.


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