Monday, May 22, 2017

Gedenksstaette- Places of Thought and Memory

This entry picks up on day 11 of my journey back to Germany after I last visited in 1995. From 1993-1994, I studied at Freiburg University during my Junior Year Abroad program at the University of Michigan.  This time, I'm visiting Munich and Berlin, two cities I didn't have the opportunity to spend time in before.

Walking through the Jewish Holocaust Memorial site (near the Brandenburger Tor) was a disorienting experience, to say the least.  The ground was slanted, a feature that's hidden from one's sight when looking straight across.  Coffin-shaped towers grow upward, built out of cold slabs of concrete, but their height wasn't evident unless you're walking through. From a few inches above the ground to what seems like 20 feet high, the towers stretch along a square city block. The memorial site was in stark contrast from the glitzy tourist section near the city gate that surrounded it.  (...such as the party-cycles going by and blaring "Apple Bottom Jeans.")

Janet encouraged us to walk through on our own. We didn't have a plan of where to meet up.  I noticed that I felt impatient about waiting for others at the end. Then it hit me that I have a choice. From my 21st century vantage point, as a European woman born as a citizen of the U.S., I have security about my daily existence and being able to continue my relationships into the future.  I was compelled to think about what it would be like to be stolen from community and family and brought to a concentration camp, herded onto trains like cattle. Victims of the Holocaust didn't get convenient answers. There was almost no hope for survival and finding your family members afterward would be a game of slim-to-zero chances.  Going through the memorial, thoughts like "What should I be feeling?" were  replaced with, "How do I feel?" Along with my feeling that it's risky to walk at nightfall as a single woman, the height of the towers and the experience of falling toward the slabs while navigating across uneven ground made me want to stick to the periphery.  The conclusion that I drew, which seems to be of intentional design, was that while there were no walls preventing the visitor from entering or exiting, there was no escape for the people who were murdered inside the walls of the concentration camps.

On Tuesday, I visited the Jewish Museum of Berlin, designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind.  I could have easily spent an entire day, but I managed to spend about 4 hours.  To say it was fulfilling would be rather strange.  To learn about the Holocaust is really like dwelling in the heart of misery itself.  It was only fulfilling in the sense that learning about the daily lives and traditions, language, and values of the Jewish people lent itself to a sense of balance in understanding what happened not just as a stand against genocide, but a stand against the grain of thinking that leads one to devalue the lives of others.  How does a whole society get misled to the level that Hitler's followers were from his earliest forays into the public eye? In my opinion, this is a question that we should never stop asking.

I was reminded that Jews in Europe went through persecution during periods occurring far prior to the Holocaust, including the Crusades in 1096 when massacres were led in communities of the Ashkenazi- Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. There are accounts of peasants ruthlessly slaughtering defenseless people, attacking Jews while in synagogue, and storming royal buildings to massacre the Jews.  In 1348 - 1350, during The Black Plague, the epidemic was blamed on Jewish communities. Jews were taken as scapegoats, being said to have caused the disease by deliberately poisoning wells.

Stories of discrimination, following Enlightenment, also came forward. While less dramatic, they were nonetheless alarming.  Prohibited from taking jobs with professional craft guilds, as non-Jews could do, many Jewish men earned their living by peddling wares.  Through the city streets and the countryside, they traveled through the week and returned on the Sabbath to rest and see their families. Some had greater success at subverting the limits on life brought about by laws enacted against them, by entering fields like merchandising, banking, teaching and medicine.  There was a time, after World War I, that legal discrimination against the Jews decreased, as several new measures were passed.  Of course, these positive changes would not last.

I chose to enter on the ground floor first, where the basement was subdivided into 3 axes going across the building diagonally, containing Voids, which the architect intended "to address the physical emptiness that resulted from the expulsion, destruction, and annihilation of Jewish life in the Shoah, which cannot be refilled after the fact. He wanted to make this loss visible and tangible through architecture."  The Axis of Exile led to the Garden of Exile. Built on tilted earth, with tall rectangular towers, green olive plants grew on the very top, where birds chirped high above and the wind gently rustled through. One can imagine what it was like to look out beyond the walls of the concentration camp, toward freedom.  Like the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europasstanding in this space was immediately disorienting. Outside, of the garden, there are simple displays of Jewish families and their stories.  

Another "Void" was Shalekhet or "Fallen Leaves," a steel-girded room in which small metal plates with children's faces resting in layers across the floor: Memory Void and Schalechet installation by Menashe Kadishman

One has a sense that Germans have worked hard to foster a sense of tolerance.  It was also good to experience, through German theatre and art, that issues are being grasped and processed head-on. Through my informal observations getting around in Germany as a tourist, immigrant communities are highly visible across the areas I visited, from suburbs near Munich, to the young people drawn to the city streets of Berlin.  It's impossible for me to speak from a recent immigrant's point of view, but it appears that the German people are welcoming them and making efforts to assist them. There's a sense of Nachbarshaft (neighborhood) and Gemeinschaft (community) "Sie kommen nachbarlich gut miteinander" is a way to say, "They get on well as neighbors."

While riding on the trains and reading throughout the trip, I read the novel All the Light We Cannot See by Pulitzer Prize Winner Anthony Doerr.   It added to the Stimmung (mood) that followed me through my time in Germany, 20-plus years after I first visited. In the novel, circumstances unfold in two different settings in France and Germany during the pre-war years. From the intimate perspective of its protagonists, no one knows who the good guys really are, and confusion surmounts.  They get drawn up in circumstances they cannot control.

Americans certainly lost family members in WWII, but our grandparents and great grandparents didn't survive bombings, famine, and military occupation like the people of Western Europe did.  In the U.S., we haven't experienced war on our soil in centuries.  The circumstances of contemporary life are completely different now, but tragedy might still unfold under  a new guise. Upon returning to American soil, I feel newly invigorated to resist against tyranny here and abroad. Of central importance to me, "The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant." ~Maximilien Robespierre

P.S. Many of us learned of the Holocaust through the eyes of one little girl, Anne Frank.  Life magazine celebrates "The Diary at 70" this month. I'll be picking up a copy today.

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