Reflections on the city of Berlin, Germany, as it was on the eve of World War I, after World War II, and today; the Maerkisches Museum, the Holocaust Memorial, and the Jewish Museum.

–S. Kraemer, "Berlin Then and Now, Pt. I" in (2011)

Berlin: Then and Now, Part I

On the wall in my writing area is a small black and white photo of two adults dressed in 1940’s era clothes.  The woman wears a dark dress with a large white scalloped collar.  Her head is crowned with a rakish hat.  He wears a double-breasted suit and a fedora.  She smiles proudly.  His serious expression seems about to break into a smile.

Between them, clutching her grandparents’ hands, stands a little girl of about three in a pigtails, squinting at the sun.  To their side standing guard is a chow dog.  His name is Teddy.  Gifted as he was with  a dog’s keen sense of its surroundings, a few years later Teddy will be the one to notify the family,  with a nudge and a whimper, that the grandfather, lying in his sickbed, has died.

The little group is standing on the sidewalk of what is a broad European boulevard, once flanked by elegant houses and shops and busy with pedestrians.  But now this boulevard is virtually barren of other people or vehicles, or anything at all except paving and the unadorned fronts of buildings that stare at the camera with dark, empty spaces where there had been windows.

This is Kurfurstendamm,  Berlin’s Fifth Avenue, in 1947.  When World War II ended for Germany in May of 1945, 75-85% of the city had been destroyed by Allied carpet bombing.   Roughly 40,000 tons of shells fell on Berlin in the last 14 days before surrender on May 7, 1945, a bombardment of civilian targets that gives ‘gratuitous’ a whole new meaning.  Few living then or now would accept that the devastation, German civilian deaths (estimated at 2.5 million, primarily from “collateral fatalities” and the famine of 1945-46) were sufficient penance for the horrors inflicted upon many more millions by the Nazis and their morally obtuse followers.   Some tragedies are beyond the scope of “healing”  or “closure,” the brass coins we toss into the murky waters of our human cruelties.

The grandfather in the photo could remember an earlier time in Berlin at the threshold of World War I.  “Berlin,” wrote Barbara Tuchman in The Proud Tower (1962) was “the natural enemy of Munich and Bavaria.”  Germans from the south thought Berliners cynical and depraved.   The city was either loved or despised as the New York City of central Europe, and for comparable reasons: It was a center of intellectual and cultural life, much of it nourished by Jewish scholars and artists, a crossroads of cultures, and leftist politics.

During the 1920s, before Hitler’s ascent to power, Berlin was the center of a renaissance described by Otto Friedrich in  Before the Deluge (1972). Some of the century’s most gifted figures in the arts and intellectual life–men and women like Sol Hurok, Artur Schnabel, Rudolf Serkin, Yehudi Menuhin and the Zionist and civil rights leader Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who were driven out by the Nazis—remembered the city with affection and sadness.

To see some of the grandfather’s pre-World War I Berlin,  today’s visitor can wander into the Maerkisches  Museum.  This neo-Gothic red brick structure stands beside a quiet garden on the banks of the Spree River.  It resembles a church,  with its huge square red-brick tower startling passersby when it first appears between the trees.   Once inside one might hear the bell, accompanied by the deep rumbling sound of wooden wheels rolling over stone, that announces another step in the gradual rotation of a large circular stereopticon.  Its elaborately carved red mahogany cabinetry nearly fills the room.  At each of the  several individual viewing positions spaced evenly around its sides  a visitor can sit and peer  at 25 successive  ‘3-D’ photographs of the urban bustle and ceremonial traffic of Berlin during its own ‘gilded age’ at the end of the 19th century.  In one image a young man in a homburg hat appears to have stepped suddenly into the foreground as if to speak to the viewer.

Also astonishing in its immediacy is the face of a life-sized wooden figure of the Virgin Mary standing in the museum’s great hall.  She is surrounded by the mute company of other wooden medieval figures.  Her face is unlike most of the other faces one sees on the countless medieval sculptures populating western Europe’s historic places, for this young woman beams an affectionate, this-worldly radiance.  With her relaxed posture, she seems an icon  released into life.  There she stands, balanced at the far edge of medieval Catholicism,  welcoming the coming of Christian humanism and the northern Renaissance.

It in no way disparages the Maerkisches Museum to observe that its medieval religious carvings and delightful stereopticon, capturing for posterity the busy Potsdamer Platz of the first capital of the German Empire (1871-1918), intimate the intellectual prelude to the Third Reich.  They are like a theater’s scrim.  Absent illumination they conceal the ideas which, given the right historical moment, would play out as among the millenium’s greatest tragedies.

For all the intellectual emancipation from early Christian dogma and Papal authority that Europe experienced during the 16th and 17th centuries, and for all the liberalization of intellectual life during the Enlightenment, European Jews were not relieved of their stigma as enemies of Christianity. Driven out of England, France and Germany in the 14th and 15th centuries,  eventual emancipation came to them in much of Europe only in the decades after the French revolution.  Not until after German unification in 1871 did emancipation finally came to Germany’s Jews.  The decades of cultural and economic assimilation that followed came to naught, however.  Germany’s defeat in World War I and fear of Bolshevism after the Russian Revolution provided new pretexts for  a revival of virulent anti-semitism.

Compounding cultural stereotypes that became so perilous for Germany’s Jews was the doctrine of the mystical “state,” a political doctrine that the young man staring back at us at the Maerkisches Museum would have learned at the University of Berlin.  There, students (including American students for whom a German doctorate was de rigueur) learned from the heirs of G.W.F. Hegel that humans are destined by history to strive toward an ideal unity embodied in political form.  There could be no individual identity outside of a historically transcendent cultural, ethnic and political nationality.  The step from this mystical and all encompassing view of human destiny to Aryan exceptionalism and imperialism was short indeed.

But as American pragmatism taught, ideas have consequences, and can be known by them.  The horrendous consequences of Germany’s intoxication with the notion of its Aryan destiny are memorialized in Berlin in an array of  2,700 unmarked concrete plinths of various sizes, set in orderly rows on undulating pavement.  Beneath the assemblage of slabs, which covers the area of a small city block near the Brandenburg Gate, is a small museum with exhibits illustrating the Holocaust.

Although the absence of markings  on the slabs  is deliberate, lest the memorial appear to be a cemetery, some—walking thoughtfully through it—might recall the old Jewish cemetery in Prague.  And others,  very young and less wise and affected, have found it a perfect place to play hide and seek.  Berlin is full of ironies, and this is certainly one:  Survival for millions of European Jews was in fact a most deadly game of hide and seek.

Communities finding themselves alien in a world in which they are “not like us” can be torn, as they struggle for survival, between assimilation and separateness.  It is this which the concrete slabs of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, opened in 2005 after much controversy, seem to represent most of all.  Architecturally it is utterly out of place among the more conventionally modern or rebuilt Wilhelmine structures that surround it.   At the same time the rows of similar (though not identical) slabs are nameless, faceless, characterless.

Also architecturally out of place is Berlin’s Jewish Museum, but its dramatic design is far more eloquent.  The building tells its own tale of discontinuities in its dramatic zig-zag outlines—a feature that is retained in the shapes of its windows and  interior spaces.   Its underground corridors, sudden voids,  irregularly shaped rooms,  and Garden of Exile with tilted stelae blanketed in vines and olive trees are the perfect architectural setting for the story the building tells.  In its exhibits visitors can see and contemplate the shards of the history of a remarkable people, a story of life and loss, again and again.  Daniel Libeskind’s extraordinary building shares nothing with the Maerkisches Museum—except its foundations.

(Please continue to Berlin, Then and Now:  Part II)

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