A Jewish friend who used to live here once commented that, in Berlin, it is impossible to walk more than a few blocks without bumping into another Holocaust memorial. This year, on the 80th anniversary of the Nazi rise to power and the 75th anniversary of the Kristalnacht pogroms, the entire city is part of a “theme-year”;a memorial to the lethal seeds that were planted here.
“Diversity Destroyed. Berlin 1933-1938-1945. A City Remembers” is the way in which Berlin is teaching its residents and visitors precisely how the diversity and democracy of Weimer Germany so quickly gave way to the rise of the brutal fascism that led directly to ghettoes, concentration camps, and extermination centers. In addition to the permanent Holocaust memorials, there are temporary exhibitions, lectures, films and other programs. These are publicized all over the city on kiosks, in subway stations, in the newspapers. It is impossible to avoid them.
On erev Tisha B’Av, the first full day of our weeklong vacation here, we happened upon the Topography of Terror Foundation’s outdoor photo exhibit. It documents the Nazi power grab in 1933; how the old elite, who decided that National Socialism was the surest protection against encroaching Communism, handed the reins to Hitler. There are photos of this old guard, and of the leaders of the imploding Weimer Republic who were all destroyed in the process—imprisoned, executed, or driven to suicide. The faces, names and brief biographies of these people stare down at the crowds. Some glance briefly; others study them—commenting to one another in German, English, Russian, Polish, Italian or Chinese.
The exhibit is displayed in front of the section of the Berlin Wall that remains as a reminder that we are standing at the very place where the Iron Curtain once stood. The names of people who were killed as they attempted to feel from East to West are always on display there, as are photos of the murder of 18 year old Peter Fechter, Peter Fechter,
who bled to death in full view of international media after attempting to scale the wall.
In Berlin, the whole world is still watching. That is because one must work extremely hard to look away.
My grandmother lived in Berlin in the 1920s. She studied piano at the conservatory and, as I watch the young artists and musicians who have reclaimed 21st C Berlin, I imagine her life here. By the end of the decade, her parents brought her back to Danzig, declaring Berlin unsafe. By the time Danzig was occupied in 1938, my grandmother had married, moved to Prague, and given birth to my mother.My grandparents and mother managed to escape to the USA. But the great-grandmother whose name I bear, and almost all of my grandmother’s immediate and extended family, were murdered in the Holocaust.
Walking through Berlin, it seems that the mecca for artists, the safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers, and the guardian of memory are woven together in a tapestry that is difficult to unravel. With my feet on this ground but my mind and heart focused on the Trayvon Martin murder on other young people who have died for being Black, I cannot help but wonder how different the USA might be if the seeds of the genocides and other evils perpetrated under the rule of law were always in our faces like this?
I grew up with images and stories in my faces. As a child, I overheard hushed conversations in German, Russian and Yiddish about Wiedergutmachung. Reparations. Restititution. Literally, attempts to “make it good again.”
It is impossible for the USA to make certain situations “good again” because so many of its own crimes—against the First Nations who lived on Amercian soil, and against the Africans who were kidnapped, tortured, and sold as chattel, and against the latter’s decendedents for whom “liberation” meant share-cropping and Jim Crow—were evil from the start. But what if the USA addressed this openly, honestly, and chronically—wherever a racial injustice had occurred?
In 2004, I found myself driving through Charleston, S.C. and wanted to see the place where the largest slave market in America had stood. I asked white several locals, none of whom knew what I was talking about. I wanted to vomit at the fact that such ignorance was possible. What if the city made it impossible?
A few years later, on a historical tour of Black Miami led by scholar and activist Dr. Marvin Dunn. I started wondering what America would look like if it took a cue from Germany:
What if the department store that allowed Black women to work there, but never to try on clothing (the only fitting rooms were for whites only) had a monument explaining life under Jim Crow?
What if the Miami Beach hotels, which allowed famous Black musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to perform but not to sleep, had plaques explaining what life was like in Jim Crow Miami Beach?
What if the Indian casinos, on what remains of Indian land, required non-Indians to learn about the reservation system, and the genocides that preceded it?
What if the cities of Charleston and Boston collaborated on a permanent exhibit about the triangle slave trade at their ports?
This is not to suggest that the American Indian genocide, the Slave Trade, and the Holocaust are one and the same. Rather, there have been many and varied changes in the continuous human tendency to make racial divides among human beings, declaring some groups as subhuman.
I just can’t help but wonder whether America could become America again, to paraphrase Langston Hughes, if we were forced to look long and hard at these cruel and unusual aspects of American history on a more regular basis, where they occurred. When these places begin to feel as claustrophobic to Americans and guests of every race and creed as the center of Berlin feels today, perhaps then we can build an anti-racist USA.