Remembering sometimes comes in expected ways. Communities’ sing and pray, build monuments and raise stones, set dates and stand with bowed heads. Remembering sometimes comes unexpectedly. It steals up on you as you pass through a wooded park and your own shadow plays hide and seek between blotches of branch and patches of sun.
Visiting Berlin recently was for me mainly a journey of memory. Many visit Berlin for business, or to bask in the atmosphere of ‘cool’ that has become the branding label for the German capital, or to shop in the countless shops and stores of all shapes and sizes and tastes. I visited Berlin to remember.
This recent trip was my first-time visiting Berlin.
How can you remember a place that you have never visited?
Memory is a kind of professional hazard. Tour guides and educators make their living by choosing a landmark, gathering in a circle with their group, and conjuring the spirits of times past, and people who are no longer with us. Tour guides and educators see stories, hear voices, imagine scenes of what-once-was. They are modern-day shamans encouraging others to consider the story as a learning moment, as a life lesson, as an invitation to join a story much larger than each of our own individual lives.
Walking from our hotel on the edge of the Tiergarten – today Berlin’s largest green lung and until the 19th century a royal reserve and hunting ground – my wife and I passed a bus stop. The bus stop was not unusual. Industrial metal framed glass sides and narrow metal benches. The typical glass panels display posters – an exhibit in a local museum, an announcement for a new film, an advertisement for the latest sale at the same stores that line most large international city streets. As we passed the bus stop, I caught a glimpse of a familiar face and stopped. At this Berlin bus stop – and I saw the poster plastered at several other Berlin bus stops – Adolf Eichmann stared out at me. One side of the bus-stop described Eichmann’s central role in the planning and implementation of the murder of European Jewry. On the opposite glass panel, Eichmann could be seen sitting caged in the glass box designed for his Jerusalem trial for crimes against the Jewish people and humanity. At the bus stop, I whispered to myself Gideon Hausner’s opening words at the 1961 Jerusalem trial, “”When I stand before you here, Judges of Israel, to lead the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, I am not standing alone. With me are six million accusers.” I am aware that most people pass this bus stop without breaking stride. We had to stop. I could feel my heart pounding confronting the demonic visage – a poster encased in glass.
Passing the bus stop, we arrived at the Wittenbergplatz tube station. Outside the station was a large wooden sign. Raised high off the ground on green metal poles, the sign reminded me of a camping site or a hiking trail announcing safety regulations or outlining the path route. Immediately recognizable were the names – Auschwitz, Stutthof, Maidenak, Treblinka, Theresienstadt, Buchenwald, Dachau… The site had no specific connection with the history of deportation. The sign was not meant to link the site itself with a specific date. The marker is part of the ongoing effort of contemporary Germany to contend with the crimes of the Nazi regime and the role of the German people in those darkest of years.
East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz is a shabby central square and shopping zone. Hovering high above the square is the Berliner Fernsehturm, the 203-meter television turret, observation tower, and orientation point that can be easily seen from almost anywhere in Berlin. On the edge of Alexanderplatz, walking along Schillingstraße, is a narrow glass sign. Like many of these modest sites, this sign is also easy to miss. As we walked by, another familiar face – and I emphasize the distinction – caught my eye. From out of the glass, I recognized Moses Mendelsohn and the cover of his epoch-making philosophical work and demand for religious toleration – ‘Jerusalem.’ The father of the Jewish enlightenment and known through out Germany as ‘the Jewish Socrates,’ Mendelsohn’s personal and family journey was emblematic of the history of German Jewry. Historically, regardless of how various scholars and ideological factions evaluate Mendelsohnn’s impact, the emergence of the wide variety of modern Jewish projects to make sense of the place of the Jew in the modern world – from assimilationism to reform, conservative, modern orthodoxy and through Zionism. None of these identity strategies would have emerged without Mendelsohhn’s historic role as an intellectual pioneer who imagined a new Judaism, a new kind of Jew, and a new relationship between the Jews and European society and culture. At a sign that could be easily passed by without noticing, once stood the house where Moses Mendelssohn made his Berlin home.
At Museum Island – a monumental collection of palatial museums designed to emphasize 19th century Germany’s international reach and Berlin as an international cultural capital – we visited the Pergamon Museum. Jewish benefactors from Berlin’s cultural and financial elites provided a significant portion of the financing for the museums and contributed to the impressive collections.
Entering the inner sanctum of the Pergamon Museum, the roof rises and a central hall is revealed. Blue and green tile work – mimicking precious Lapis Lazuli – rises 14 meters from the floor and spans a palatial hall. Dragons and bulls and lions walk the walls. They snarl and growl and warn the visitor to tread lightly as the Gates of Babylon are approached. Excavated by German archeologists and re-assembled in Berlin, the Ishtar Gates are part of a larger story of colonial powers and the entitlement that allowed Germans, British, French, and others to assume that they were the rightful heirs of histories that belonged to a vast variety of indigenous peoples across the globe.
The awe that I felt standing dwarfed by the Babylon gates built by Nebuchadnezzar II (604-5562 BCE) was not only because of the power of the art itself. I knew that these were the gates that were seen by my people – by the Exiles of Judah and Jerusalem following the destruction of the First Commonwealth by the Babylonian Empire. Staring at colossal walls dedicated to the Babylonian gods – Ishtar, Marduk, and Adad – the refugees from Zion could not help questioning where was the God of Israel when Judah was laid waste. An indigenous people were ripped from its homeland by overwhelming imperial force and stood mourning that loss in front of the Gates of Ishtar. Their captors taunted them and forced them to sing about Zion lost. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137) Ironic and painful to remember that ancient exile and destruction at the Pergamon in Berlin. It was strangely comforting to recall Heinrich Heine’s poem on Yehudah HaLevi. Heine was one of Germany’s premier poets. Only Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stands alongside. He was both a convert to Christianity out of convenience and a proud Jewish son. In his homage to Yehuda HaLevi, he recalls the Babylonian conquest, “By the streams of Babylon we sat down and wept for Zion, hung our harps upon the willows. That old song—do you still know it?”
When we finally arrived at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – in a tremendous square a very short walk from the Brandenberg Gate – it was a moment of tears. Amos Elon calls his searing history of German Jewry – “The Pity of It All.” Those few words struck hard as we walked the suffocating alleys of the memorial. At the end closest to the park – adjacent to Hannah Arendt Avenue – a German couple left a rose on a stone the height of a grave marker. I took out a Hebrew Bible and read aloud the words of Ezekiel and his vision of the Valley of Dry Bones – the same text found in the Geniza adjacent to the Masada synagogue. The Hebrew words echoed across the grey cement slabs.
“And I was told, “O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone; we are doomed. Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said the Sovereign God: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel.” (Ezekiel 37)
Ezekiel’s memory of the destruction of Israel by Babylon led him to envision the rebirth of a people who had been discarded on history’s dust bin, nothing but a pile of discarded bones in a desolate valley. Beyond the incredible creative power of the German Jewish story, and the horrors of the Holocaust, I could not help but also think about 2023 in Israel. Returning home as a people to Zion bears with it an obligation to the ages to guard, cherish, and develop as promised from Ezekiel to Israel’s Scroll of Independence. As the Baal Shem Tov teaches, ‘The road to Exile is paved by forgetting.’
‘The only city in the world where the right to vote is granted to the dead…’ Yehuda Amichai famously penned the above aphorism about Jerusalem. With all respect to the differences, I left Berlin feeling that Amichai’s words ring true – at least to a certain respect – about Berlin as well.