Confused in Berlin

Train Station memorial

Berlin Gleis 17

A weekend in cold and wet Berlin has left me confused.

Can you (should you) make art out of suffering and if so what is appropriate where and who should pay?

Why do I find tourist maps offering tours of Jewish Berlin, tours of Nazi Berlin, tours of ‘fun time’ Berlin offensive … Are we doing the murdered Jews any favours by offering tours of a destroyed civilisation?

Should there ever be a time when tourists will come to Germany and not think about the holocaust that tried to wipe out the once flourishing Jewish presence there?

Well, actually, I don’t have any answers to these questions but they have all been refusing to lie low these last few days. When I looked vacantly at someone today as she asked how my trip had been I explained: I was still feeling rather churned up after my visit.

Oh Berlin is one of my favourite places, she riposted. The Berliners did so much to try and stop the Nazis you know…the big synagogue survived because a brave Berliner prevented the mob …

Stop, I said. I did not want anyone else telling me what to think. But perhaps she was right.

Were there in fact dozens of good Germans rendered powerless by fear and the need to survive who were merely forced into inaction by a tiny minority?  Some 55,000 Berlin Jews died in concentration camps, but approximately 80,000 escaped.  A visit to the small brush workshop run by Otto Weidt for blind Jewish workers moved me most of all partly because it seemed hardly to have changed. Surviving letters, yellow stars and photographs were in simple display cases the tables for the machines with which he made the brushes needed by the German army were in the places they had always been and the wooden floorboards in the secret room still so creaky that my heart lurched. I came as near as I possibly could in the prosperous 21st century to  imagining what it must have been like to hide in a tiny airless room entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers for a mouthful of food, news, clothes everything. A network verging on a hundred brave people was apparently, sometimes necessary to save one life bearing in mind all the bribes and blackmail and lying involved.

This room in a graffiti-rich, little renovated courtyard in former East Germany was an extraordinary survival with no artifice about it. But was it really: “One of many places in Berlin where non-Jews risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbours,” as one guide book stated?

Germany has for years been the most contrite of nations, admitting its guilt in numerous ways and welcoming Jews back.  Berlin today is a vibrant and growing community with thousands of Jews mostly from Russia and Israel now choosing once again to settle in Germany.

You can’t walk around this city without stumbling on a brass plate in any of the cobbled streets Stolpersteine indicating who once lived there and where they were murdered (yes, murdered no soft talking references to dying here) It is a private initiative paid for by anyone who cares, not the government – local or national. But this too has its opponents …should you be trampling on these souls, as some critics complain or since they have already been killed, what more can you do to harm them? Several of the monuments are on steps and one of the most moving for me was a cartouche of names visible on the upward tread of stairs in a once Jewish quarter indicating names and places of abode.  It is termed an installation, a term which I liked less and less…this can never be art. But alongside the steps and at the top are mirrors acting as an extra reminder. You cannot exit this particular U Bahn station without noticing something.

But by the time I came to Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish museum I was starting to feel uncomfortable. It is magnificent and clever but it is very definitely art and, what’s more, art subtly manipulating your responses. Why are the objects displayed in a cabinet with a circular glass surround?  The shape of the building is interesting as it traces a path leading to the Stair of Continuity, then up to and through the exhibition spaces of the museum, emphasizing the continuum of history. The second leads out of the building and into the Garden of Exile and Emigration, remembering those who were forced to leave Berlin. The third leads to a dead end — the Holocaust Void.

The Holocaust Void is cold and empty and unpleasant. But I left it of my free will after five minutes.

I think Berlin and those who have planned some of the memorials have on the whole done an impossible job with tact, sensitivity and feeling. I was moved by the small signs of a phone a pet or a loaf of bread placed on posts in the former Jewish quarter to remind inhabitants of the daily torments suffered by their erstwhile neighbours prior to deportation  (After the Nuremberg Laws they were allowed none of these) And surely few can fault the way German history is taught, even to the very young, actively fostering greater understanding in schools, a point movingly made in the TV interview with Judith (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit) Kerr this week to mark her 90th birthday. Her father was a leading theatre critic and Nazi opponent and her family escaped Berlin swiftly in 1933. Although her parents never fully recovered from the pain of exile she and her brother were resilient, looking on it as something of an adventure. Her book is now a set text in German schools as the film showed. It also filmed her walking along Gleis (platform) 17 of the Grunewald station. Here the memorials are devastatingly plain and simple, the message unadorned. The numbers and dates of Jewish deportees have been carved at the edge of the train tracks where unknowing Jews stood before deportations to Auschwitz, Minsk, Theresienstadt or Sachsenhausen. Fittingly this memorial has been paid for by the train company which profited from the human traffic.

Kerr stood there in 2013 pondering what fate would have unquestioningly befallen her family had they not moved out as fast as they did. All of us who have enjoyed her books owe her brave parents a huge debt.