It was midnight and I was halfway across the Atlantic Ocean by myself, feeling somewhat apprehensive. Most of my luggage was filled with kosher for Passover packaged food. I was traveling almost four thousand miles from my New York home to history-rich Berlin, not knowing what to expect.
My journey had started when I heard about an opportunity to go abroad with my grandparents. Being an avid traveler and explorer, I eagerly persuaded my grandparents, who live in Israel, to bring me along on their trip to Germany.
I had been to London and Paris with my grandparents; Berlin, they warned me, would be a different experience. This trip was not going to be a typical “go on vacation, relax, dine out” sort of holiday.
As we pulled up to the hotel in the eastern part of Berlin near Alexanderplatz, I immediately spotted the futuristic, strange-looking Fernsehturm, the Berlin Television Tower.
The building, which I visited later, looked as if it had come straight out of a science-fiction movie. On the way to the local Chabad for the Seder, I noticed a small gold block set in the middle of the sidewalk in front of an apartment building.
I saw a name at the top, and under the name there was a sign – “DEPORTED 1943, MURDERED IN AUSCHWITZ.” Someone, 72 years ago, had been forced out of their home and murdered just because they were Jewish while the whole world stood by and watched. I immediately stopped and looked carefully at the block and the building.
At that point, nothing else mattered to me.
When we finally reached the Chabad House, the community greeted us warmly and welcomed us to their Seder. Normally, the Passover Seder is a dreadful obligation where I have to sit at a table for hours before eating. This ritual feast can last up to several hours, depending on your custom. This year, however, attending the Seder seemed a privilege. Seeing those gold blocks reminded me that millions of murdered Jews would have been only too happy to sit at that very table.
The following morning we ate breakfast at the hotel. There is nothing like smelling the fresh, warm scent of baked rolls and pastries – only to have to load up your plate with fruit. After arriving back at the Chabad House for services, we were only eight men and had to wait patiently to form a minyan.
This was very unsettling for me, because back in New York, the synagogues are always full on holidays.
The next day, we made our way to the Alexanderplatz metro station and boarded a train for the suburb of Wannsee. Before I continue, I must say I was impressed by Berlin’s transportation system is. It runs on the simple concept of honesty. For all my trips on the subway, trains and trams no one checked my tickets.
You simply hop right on and get to your destination (although there are occasional agents who come by every now and again and check everybody’s tickets).
Wannsee is a gorgeous small town right on a lake. We visited the beautiful villa where in January 1942, the infamous Wannsee Conference took place. This is where Nazi officials met to solve the “Jewish Problem.”
The very fact that we were being described as a “problem” and a nuisance is quite horrifying to me.
This meeting called for the extermination of the Jews in Europe. I clenched my fists as I looked down at the table, where these ruthless Nazis decided to exterminate men, women and children without a second thought, as if they were rodents. Sitting in the room where the conference took place I was startled and horrified at how these inhuman officials could decide the fate of my people in a casual 30-minute meeting.
Waiting for the bus back to the metro, we struck up a conversation with a very pleasant German woman. After explaining to her the purpose of the trip, she told me something I will never forget. She said her father was an SS officer and a Nazi commander. This woman was so disgusted and ashamed of her father and his actions that she vowed she would never bring forth life and have a baby, voluntary sterilizing herself. Every day she had to live with the past with the regret and humiliation that her father caused her and her family.
Back at the hotel the following day, I had my usual breakfast of matzos and fruit, which in light of the history surrounding me was beginning to taste a lot better. We got on the subway and made our way to the Jewish Museum of Berlin.
The most memorable exhibit was Shalechet (Fallen Leaves), by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman, of more than 10,000 open-mouthed faces roughly cut from heavy, circular iron plates, which cover the floor. The masks look as if they go on forever.
But when put in perspective with six million Jews, this is a mere fraction.
The masks are in all different shapes and sizes, which shows the different ages and types of people, including innocent children, who were wiped out by the Nazis.
Following the museum, we went to the Topography of Terror, located on the site of the former SS headquarters.
Walking though the exhibition, I saw photos of Jews being deported to their deaths while young Nazi commanders laughed away and continued on with their daily lives.
One picture I will never forget was a photograph of young Nazis, men and women, joking and laughing at the Auschwitz death camp. I can’t understand how someone could be this inhuman and coldhearted while millions of innocent people were being murdered on the same grounds.
On our way back we stopped at Unter den Linden, one of Berlin’s main streets, and the Brandenburg Gate. As we passed the gate, my eyes were immediately drawn to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The monument consists of 2,700 concrete pillars designed to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The pillars seem to stretch forever and they look a little like blank tombstones. Visiting the information center, which relates the fate of specific people as intimate stories, helped me connect on a much more personal level. Also, I was impressed that this memorial lies in the center of busy Berlin.
Everyday when thousands pass by, they are reminded of the millions who were victims of the Nazi regime.
Then came the trip’s most memorable and emotional experience.
After an hour’s train ride to Oranienburg and a 15-minute cab ride, we arrived at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Before entering the camp, we went to see a small exhibition displaying objects that belonged to murdered Jews. There was a giant container filled with hundreds of shoes in every shape and size. It once again showed how the Nazis did not hesitate to kill children or newborn infants.
As I walked through the gate with the infamous Nazi slogan Arbeit macht frei
(Work makes you free), I shuddered, as the place seemed like something out of a horror movie. It suddenly all became a reality. I knew that through this gate and many other similar gates in concentration and death camps all over the Third Reich, hundreds, thousands and, indeed, millions of my people had walked through en route to their deaths.
In the barracks we saw the disgusting and horrifying conditions to which the Jews and political prisoners had been subjected. Hundreds were crammed into a small room and often up to four or five people had to sleep in a twin-sized bed.
We also made our way to Station Z, the execution center and the gas chamber. The horror this place possessed was inexplicable and something that needs to be witnessed first hand. I stared at the ovens where human bodies were cremated into ash and dust, solely because of their religious beliefs. Slowly, I made my way out of this place of horror.
As I walked along the cold, hard ground, I suddenly spotted a beautiful yellow flower in the field of gravel and ash. To me, this flower symbolized hope. Even in such a cold, terrible place filled with death and destruction, a flower could still grow.
The flower represented the future; the flower represented the Jewish people. Through years of hatred and racism, we continue to grow and live on just like that very flower. At a time and age like today, where Jewish people are being targeted all over the world, it is important that we have one another. No textbook can teach me the lessons and truths I learned on this trip. The atrocities we face every day are a reality.
The sad truth is that in my public high school in New York, many kids do not know what the Holocaust was. We must remember and never forget to ensure that it won’t happen again. And most of all, we must be like the flower and continue to grow and love even in a time of hate and death.Thanks to Carol Novis for her helpful comments.
The author lives in New York and accompanied his Israeli grandparents to Berlin. He may be contacted at email@example.com.