Seven days in 'Jewish Germany'

Holocaust tourism will always be a somewhat uncomfortable affair.

September 17, 2007 07:37
Dresden Synagogue 88 224

Dresden Synagogue 88 224. (photo credit: NATHAN BURSTEIN)

For at least another dozen generations or so, flying into Germany will remain an unsettling experience for Jews, even if the Jews in question haven't experienced a single moment's turbulence. It's also a feeling, for better or worse, that will stay with most Jewish travelers as they continue on their trip, which in my case was a seven-day tour of "Jewish Germany" organized by the country's Tourism Ministry. Wilkommen, in other words, to the Germany of 2007, a place actively seeking Jewish visitors and hoping to show off, if that's the right expression, the remnants of a culture it almost wiped out. As magazines and newspapers were busy pointing out this summer, contemporary Germany enjoys a flourishing economy and perhaps unprecedented international prestige. "Jewish Germany," by contrast, remains a haunted place, quiet and solemn and only partly filled with the synagogues and graveyards the Nazis didn't manage to destroy. It's certainly an unconventional choice for a vacation. But although it's understandably not for everyone, the Germany of the current moment offers much to Jewish travelers - more than to many others, even, owing precisely to its charged, complicated history. Holocaust tourism will always be a somewhat uncomfortable affair, and some people will inevitably be repulsed by the thought of it - a reaction that is, of course, completely their right. For this traveler, however, the trip proved ultimately rewarding, a chance to see where Germany stands now in relation to its past, and to pay my respects to the communities and individuals who were obliterated. BERLIN For history-minded Jewish visitors, one of the key pleasures of a trip to Germany is knowing that your mere presence would make Hitler and his accomplices even crazier - if, that is, they weren't already busy burning in hell. Still, it's a place where even routine behavior can take on a certain emotional resonance: Eating in one of Berlin's stylish restaurants, for example, can become a guilty reminder of the starvation imposed on earlier generations. Ravaged by war and then divided by the victors, Berlin maintains more public reminders of the Third Reich than perhaps any other German city. In the reunified capital, it's possible quite literally to trip over the past, thanks to the installation of thousands of small "stumbling blocks" that protrude from sidewalks to remind pedestrians of the city's history. Marked with Holocaust victims' names and birthdays, as well as the year and place in which they died, the blocks number roughly 11,000 across Germany, though the large majority are found in Berlin. Walking around the city, it becomes possible, somewhat perversely, to understand Berlin as the doppelganger to Judaism's own capital: Just as many people have trouble believing in Jerusalem as a real, physical location - and not just a place of legend like Atlantis or Camelot - Berlin can also be difficult to imagine. But it is in fact a place where people work, sleep and play, and seeing it in living color - and not just in black-and-white film footage - has unquestionable value. For the first-time Jewish visitor, Berlin contains endless surprises, though some are surprising mostly because they at first seem so mundane. The house still standing at 56/58 Am Grossen Wannsee Strasse, for example, so like the others around it, is in fact the site of the infamous Wannsee conference, the place where Hitler's elite worked out the details of European Jewry's destruction. (Then as now, the picturesque, lakefront Wannsee district remains a highly desirable area - enough, in fact, that local gossips claim Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have bought property there.) Quiet and contemplative, the building's atmosphere belies the mass killing planned in its conference room, which stands not far from the fireplace where Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich toasted each other with cognac after designing their history-altering Final Solution. Laden with photos and educational materials in English, German and Hebrew, the so-called Wannsee Villa features a guest book near its exit where many visitors have written, as they have at other such sites, "Am Yisrael Hai" (The People of Israel Live). A short drive away - and worthwhile precisely because, unlike Wannsee, it isn't famous - is the Gleis 17 Memorial at the Grunewald railway station. Situated at the meeting point between two quiet, upper-middle-class streets, the station served as a deportation site for the Jews of Berlin, who were quite openly trucked and sometimes marched past the well-to-do residents of the neighborhood before being sent on their way to Theresienstadt, Lodz and, eventually, directly to Auschwitz. Trains still pass through the Grunewald station, though Gleis (track) 17 is no longer used. A stark gray wall running parallel to the track showcases indented human silhouettes, an artist's effective rendering of lives rubbed out. Plaques bearing information about human "transports" from the station show that they continued until March 1945, even as Stalin's troops closed in on the eastern side of the city. Berlin's most famous Holocaust memorials convey their own sort of power, though not one always absorbed by locals. The refurbished New Synagogue - actually a partly rebuilt version of the city's main pre-war synagogue - sits on Oranienburger Strasse, at night a popular strolling ground for prostitutes and their clients. Those in the mood will be deeply affected by the bleakly suggestive Holocaust Memorial - a dark field of 2,700 mausoleum-like structures located within walking distance of the future US embassy and the Brandenburg Gate. (Those not in the mood during my visit included a small group of pre-teens who, regrettably if predictably, saw the memorial as an ideal spot for a running, shouting game of hide-and-seek.) Lingering opposition to a Jewish presence in Berlin still isn't hard to find - it didn't take much digging on one evening to learn the strongly xenophobic views of one young resident, who evidently felt perfectly comfortable describing her problems with locals of Middle Eastern extraction, be they Turks, Arabs or Israelis. ("Though you all seem very nice," she added.) At the "Wives of Jewish Husbands Memorial" on Rosenstrasse - named for hundreds of non-Jewish women who successfully protested for their husbands' release - someone else had spray-painted the words "Sieg Heil," also writing the name of the gas used at Auschwitz to get his or her message across. But being in Berlin is in part about choosing what to focus on: whether to concentrate on students of Turkish ancestry who refuse to participate on school outings to the comprehensive Jewish Museum, or on the fact that the museum greeted its four-millionth visitor in June. (Nearly half the visitors are German, museum officials note, and the vast majority are believed to be non-Jewish.) Like the country more generally, Berlin remains an ambiguous place. Anonymous thugs still write disgusting things in public places. But nowadays, at least, there are also Germans like the one guiding my group through the city - well-informed, thoughtful people who express genuine anger, as well as embarrassment, when incidents like this occur. They then call the police, who are charged with coming to repair the site and investigate its defacement. DRESDEN Has any city's public image been transformed and retransformed more completely than Dresden's? Widely considered one of Europe's most beautiful cities before the war - it was known to some as "Florence on the Elbe" - Dresden became the symbol of Germany's self-inflicted devastation in February 1945, when the city underwent perhaps the most famous firebombing of the war. Immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, the city quickly became a symbol of East German communism after the war, a bleak center of destruction made all the more miserable by its rulers, who rebuilt only 26 of the 700 buildings demolished in the bombings. Much of the rubble was left in place as a testament to the suffering of Dresden's people or, depending on your interpretation, as a reflection of their wickedness. Flooded at war's end by ethnic Germans fleeing the Soviet advance, Dresden today is home to four-fifths the population it had in 1945. (Berlin, not coincidentally, also has a smaller population today than it did before the war.) But after decades as an emblem of Soviet-bloc stagnation, Dresden is blossoming once again, and can serve as a convenient, historically rich spot on tours of either Germany or Central Europe. Equidistant from Berlin and Prague - it's about two hours by train in each direction - the Saxon capital is four hours from Budapest and quickly returning to its former glory. Sixty years after its destruction, the city's most famous building, the Frauenkirche church, reopened in October 2005, drawing more than 2 million visitors in the 23 months since. After withstanding the city's firebombing, the badly damaged church collapsed the next day, with the resulting ruins kept as a monument until reconstruction began in 1993. Nearly identical to the original church, the new building is beautiful both literally and as a symbol of the city's restoration. Ten minutes' walk from the Frauenkirche stands the former site of another religious building - Dresden's synagogue, burned to the ground on Kristallnacht. A new synagogue - the first built in what was the former East Germany - opened in 2001 on the anniversary of the pogrom and is located within easy walking distance of the old site. In contrast to the Frauenkirche, which was built as a replica of the original building, the new synagogue is designed in a distinctly different style, one highlighting the still tentative existence of Dresden's Jewry. Numbering 5,000 on the eve of the war, Dresden's Jewish population had built its previous synagogue almost like a church, hoping the appearance of the building would strengthen the community's credentials as fully German. (The city is home today to slightly over 700 Jews, the large majority from the former Soviet Union.) Built across a courtyard from a small Jewish community center, the new synagogue in many ways resembles a giant mausoleum - imposing, quiet and somehow empty of life, even when a small group of visitors enters the facility. (Unlike at the Frauenkirche, tours of the Dresden synagogue must be arranged in advance by e-mail. Services are not offered regularly, and a member of the Jewish community expressed doubt that more than two bar mitzva ceremonies had been held in the previous year. "It's a lot of old people," he said.) The contrast between the unassuming Jewish center and the proud Frauenkirche is striking. The buildings are connected in one surprising way, however, both adorned with religious symbols saved from their predecessors' destruction. Worshipers at the Frauenkirche can direct their prayers toward a cross pulled from the post-firebombing rubble; at the entrance to Dresden's new synagogue is a Star of David - salvaged after Kristallnacht by a city firefighter, who then secretly preserved it in his house until after the war. FRANKFURT and WORMS German street signs can be unexpectedly eye-catching, be they in Berlin (David Ben-Gurion Strasse, Yitzhak Rabin Strasse) or in a small place like Worms (Judengasse, or "Jews' Lane," a euphemistic name for what was once the town's tightly packed ghetto). In Frankfurt, the Nazis went on a name-changing spree not long after taking power, altering the names of 150 streets even as they prepared to enact far more significant changes in the lives of the city's 32,000 Jews. (Roughly 8,000 live in the city today.) Not far from Frankfurt's municipal Holocaust memorial stands the Bonneplatz, a site marked with no fewer than five street signs documenting the location's various name changes since its designation as the Judenmarkt (Jews' Market) in 1885. By then, Frankfurt's Jewish history already stretched back more than 800 years, going at least as far as a rabbi's written instructions in 1074 about how to observe Shabbat when attending a trade fair. Located in Germany's southwest, the Frankfurt region attracted Jews from opposing sides of the Diaspora, drawing migrants from Spain, Italy and southern France by Charlemagne's time and later bringing those fleeing persecution under the czars. As in Berlin and Dresden, local tour guides demonstrate extensive knowledge of formerly Jewish sites, which in Frankfurt can be seen on a walking tour between the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Museum Judengasse. Located above the remnants of the historical Jewish ghetto, the museum offers well-presented artifacts "rediscovered" after the war, with displays including a mikve and foundations left from the area's cramped housing. (On seeing the ghetto, which was locked on Christian holidays and at night, Goethe was moved to remark on the alley's smell, but not on the living conditions of its people.) Jews' long history in the region is implicitly measured by the destruction of their property, and nearby Worms - an hour's drive away on the Rhine - can claim the first burning of its synagogue in 1096, an attack carried out by Crusaders bound for the Holy Land but unable to contain their zeal. The city's Jewish cemetery reached capacity, ominously, in 1938, the same year arsonists destroyed its synagogue on Kristallnacht. Rebuilt in 1961, the modest but immaculately maintained new synagogue stands next to the mikve and not far from the city's Jewish Museum. Another short walk away is a building once known as the Rashi Yeshiva, named for the talmudic scholar who finished his studies in the city sometime around 1065. Unaware of the cataclysm lying ahead, the Jews of Rashi's time clung to values recognizable today - values immortalized in Hebrew on the city's oldest surviving Jewish gravestone. Fill your life with work and prayer, the gravestone suggests, but don't, heaven forbid, die at 26 and still single. Perhaps the most effective Jewish matchmaking advertisement in all of medieval Europe, the gravestone's inscription broadcasts for all eternity the identity of the deceased, a young man named only - apprehensive Jewish singles take note - as one "Jacob the Bachelor." It's details like these that inject Jewish Germany with whispers of life, suggesting in small pieces what a rich culture eventually was lost. Remnants of that culture now sit preserved across Germany, waiting in silence for those who come to remember.

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