There’s a pervasive poison that penetrates this place; there’s an affronting beauty to it.
I am referring to Wannsee, just outside Berlin, the setting for the conference on 20th of January 1942 that determined The Final Solution. Here the architects of darkness constructed their deathly shadow plan, here they killed any humanity that lived within them, here they planned to destroy our people, here they demolished the world as it was and disfigured the word as a vehicle of engagement and connection.
Today the large and spacious estate with its gracious rooms and generous garden that runs down to the lovely lake has been converted into a memorial and educational centre. There’s a hotel next door and other stately homes stud the desirable lakefront. Many of these were once owned by wealthy Berlin Jews as their weekend and summer retreats. There’s also a wide promenade at the bottom of the garden where you can stroll, jog, take a dip, watch the large barges filled with tourists sailing by or take a trip on one of the numerous pleasure yachts. In the large garden the elms and oak trees reach out gloriously to embrace the clean air and rich birdsong… In short it’s a vacation location; laid back and simply beautiful.
Should we be surprised that evil could be created in a place of such beauty? After all, it was in the splendid Garden of Eden that the seeds of discord were sown, it was in the still unspoiled plains east of Eden that murder was conceived and Cain cast his long shadow over history. The same human heart that can love with such vigour can hate with such venom; perhaps that’s what the psalmist meant when he cried out: “Many are the thoughts in the heart of man… “. Yet even knowing this, having lived with the shadows of the Shoah my whole life (it took my father’s entire family) and living now in a community of survivors, I was not prepared for Wannsee.
Perhaps it was the cold, clinical accounts, the incontrovertible evidence that here these 15 men drafted a document that would lead to genocide, mass killings of a civilian population on a scale never seen before. There was the confrontational reality of the place, the copy of the document itself in the very dining room it had been signed… And then there were the numbing and numerous displays (in German, Hebrew and English) of photos and information boards on the process leading towards that fatal conference date.
Maybe it was the banality of it all – here they sat and argued the wording (should it include Mischlings or Jews married to non-Jews?); here they took a break to drink and eat, take in the air from the balcony. In a 90 minute meeting followed by breakfast as the invitation from Heydrich phrased it. It was eerily like the king, Achashverosh and Haman (in the Book of Esther) who concluded their genocidal plan and then sat down to drink and eat.
On the other hand perhaps it was just the simple, horrible reality of incomprehensibility. Ultimately, there is no way of really understanding the depth of human depravity, the cruelty of a human heart; there is, as Adorno put it, no poetry after Auschwitz. To invert the popular saying: without faith there are no real questions of God but with faith there are no simple answers. Sometimes those who believe are just left with deep and troubling unanswerable questions.
Notwithstanding the sense of despair and despite the pervasive presence of the Shoah in Berlin and Wannsee itself, I left Germany with some hope still intact. There is something hopeful in the way that Germany is preserving the memory of the Shoah and the way it has not only accepted responsibility for its horrific past, but is also educating its citizens (and the many visitors to Berlin) on how to own the past and create a better future. Yes, there are still neo-Nazis and anti-Semitic right wing fascists in the country, but the government itself runs the stunning Jewish Museum, the evocative and very public Holocaust Memorial and Museum, and the cutting edge research and educational Topography of Terror Centre. It was at this Centre we met Florian, a young non-Jewish German researcher who is passionate about educating students and the German public about their past. It was down the road from the Wannsee Site that we met a group of middle aged German women deeply ashamed, if not penitent, about their country’s scarred history. They work as volunteers at the Lieberman Villa at Wannsee. This was the summer home of the renowned Jewish artist (president of the Academy of Arts and honorary citizen) Max Lieberman. This ‘lakeside palace’ he built was where some of his finest paintings were created. The villa and garden have been lovingly restored, not only as a tribute and apology to the artist, but as a statement by the Berlin City Council. A statement articulated by these volunteers, one of regret for the sins of the past and hope for a better future.
Finally it was this spirit that caught our attention on our last night in Berlin when we came across a mural created by children across the world on a wall outside the Jewish cemetery in the heart of the old Jewish area of Berlin. The cemetery was razed by the Nazis and is now bare and forlorn but for a couple of rescued tombstones. One of the tiles in the shape of the globe has the message: chalom shel shalom חלום של שלום (a dream of peace); another has a painting of an old, fragile white dove with the words: although she is old, she still has hope. Our people is old, the world is even older, but the hope implanted by God at Creation is older still…