Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

Birthright Germany, Part 6: Pilgrim of Treptower Park

Our long last full day in Europe began at the New Synagogue, magnificent when built in the 1800s and mostly wrecked during the war. Now partially restored and used mostly as a museum, it shows glimpses of its former grandeur through models and photographs. The heavy security inside and out reminded me, as if I needed reminding, of the endless threats to anything Jewish in Europe.

Europe 09-2014 1953-edit

More than any other site we saw in Germany or Prague, the New Synagogue bore a foreboding air of ruin and loss. Synagogues in Prague and Dresden were rebuilt and in use; at this site, we saw only the past, not a future, although we did duck into the space used as a synagogue for a quick look. I especially noted a High Holiday calendar from a bar mitzvah in 1907, giving the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur dates from 1890 to 1950. How many people at that bar mitzvah in Imperial Germany lived to see 1950?

Naomi and I then separated for several hours, so she could do some shopping  while I wanted to visit Soviet war memorials. This resulted from my other sense of European connection, Russia, through my paternal grandfather who had been born in the Ukrainian shtetl of Vishnivitz. The Jewish experience in Russia and the Soviet Union always intrigued me. But for well-timed immigration to St. Louis by my great-grandparents, I could have been there. Mike, our Kiwi tour guide from the day before, had marked the main Soviet memorial in East Berlin’s Treptower Park area and I was determined to make a pilgrimage there.

I had reasons beyond the personal. With the Berlin Wall down and the No Man’s Land between East and West erased, Berlin has few truly visible signs of the cataclysms that marked the city from the 1930s to the 1980s. Museums cover the horrors, from the Nazis to the Stasi to the lost Jewish civilization, but those exist at a step removed from the reality that existed. As much as I liked Berlin, it felt at times antiseptic, scrubbed. Treptower Park, I sensed, would be something very different. Built under Stalin in the late 1940s, the memorial would be a direct, unmediated contact with the Soviet side of the Battle of Berlin, how the Russians viewed their victory in what they called the Great Patriotic War.

After four train transfers that carried me from touristy Berlin to something grittier and blue-collar looking, I finally entered the park through a stone arch. Placards with details about the memorial, written in English, Russian and German, lined a walkway to the statue of a kneeling woman, symbolizing the Motherland. Someone had placed a rose and a carnation at her feet. From there I turned to get my first view of the memorial, a vast field flanked by sculpted displays showing, in visual form, the stages of the war, from the June 22, 1941 attack by the Germans through the final victory (tactfully omitting any reference to the 1939 non-aggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany).

Call it the Stations of the Cross of an atheist state, from peril to sorrowful triumph.

Europe 09-2014 2024-edit

Statements by Joseph Stalin could be found on the opposite sides of each display. The eight displays on one side of the field were in German, eight on the other side in Russian.

Europe 09-2014 2035-edit

At the end of the field stood a statue of a warrior with a sword, cradling a young girl in his arms and looking out over Berlin with a determined look on his face. The statue stands on a three-level white base, with a final memorial within the bottom tier, with a “Last Supper”-like tableau of Soviet civilians flanking two kneeling soldiers holding a wreath with the word “Slava,” or “glory,” on it.

Europe 09-2014 2062-edit

The pilgrimage to the Soviet memorial provoked the same dual emotions as other moments during Birthright Germany. I visited the USSR in 1987 and have read about its horrendous history, its anti-semitism, and the suffering of its people at the hands of both the communists and the Nazis. The monument embodied that suffering on the grounds where the war in Europe ended, where the Red Army defeated the Germans.

The Red Army took the millions of casualties, liberated the death camps and finally crushed the fascist beast in its Berlin lair, as the propaganda language of the era declared. Not a specifically Jewish place, the monument still honors a juggernaut that included 500,000 Jewish soldiers. As I visited the memorial in Russia’s Berlin, I silently honored their sacrifices and courage.

In its sheer size and didactic purpose, the Treptower Park memorial succeeded in putting its stamp on Berlin. Whatever happened in the world — the USSR vanished, East Germany vanished, new orders arose — it forever marks the landscape of Berlin and testifies to the horrors there. Here and at other memorials in Berlin and Dresden, the Red Army smashed its imprint on the country with the permanence and emphasis of flaming meteors.

Ivan was here.

Europe 09-2014 2066-edit

Naomi and I reconnected under the Brandenburg Gate, which must be the Berlin equivalent to meeting at the clock in the main hall of Grand Central Station in New York. We strolled to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, with blank gravestones of different heights towering over visitors like the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” After the Soviet memorial, I had returned to an explicitly Jewish setting. We ended the evening with dinner–at a Turkish restaurant, one outpost of an emerging world order.

Europe 09-2014 2169-edit


About the Author
Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.