Berlin, from whose center emanated so much destruction and death in the 20th century, has reinvented itself and today, stands as a modern and cultural metropolis.
Despite the recent Christmas market terrorist attack, Berliners are pretty resilient.
Tourists will still flock to this city because it is a mecca of art and music with three opera houses, more than 150 theaters and stage companies, 800 choirs, nearly 200 museums and collections, several hundred communal and private galleries and more than 200 public libraries and numerous other cultural institutions.
No wonder my guide Ronnie Golz compares Berlin to New York, San Francisco, Washington and Chicago combined.
“New York, because Berlin is the cultural capital with concert halls; San Francisco, because it is the most liberal, open-minded and tolerant city in Germany, including a large LGBT community; Washington D.C., because it’s only a political capital, not industrial nor financial; and Chicago, because it boasts incredibly new architecture by world-famous architects.”
Berlin was always avant-garde in the arts, Golz reminds me. Today with more than 3.5 million residents, including an ever-growing Jewish community with a large number of Israelis, the capital remains high on the list of tourist destinations in Europe, including those who cruise the Baltic and are bused down to Berlin for a day of sightseeing.
Like any traveler, I have my favorites in this vibrant and energetic city. I saunter over to Potsdamer Platz, the city’s main intersection before World War II and where Europe’s first traffic light was installed in 1924. Here rests a huge plaza surrounded by modern skyscrapers that attract thousands to its restaurants, shops and outdoor cafés.
A “melting pot” in the middle of the city is the Spandauer Vorstadt. The old Jewish quarter has become Berlin’s Soho or Greenwich Village of New York City fame, points out guide Ronnie Golz.
Located in this area is Beth Café, located at Adass Israel synagogue, 40 Tucholsky St., 10017. Tel 40-30-78-13-135. The café serves Israeli specialties.
Looming large in the heart of the metropolis is the stark, scarred archway called the Brandenburger Tor, today an outdoor attraction for residents and visitors alike. Gaze at the site and imagine with disgust another era when the Kaiser and later Nazi legions led this country into two disastrous wars.
An icon in Berlin is the Reichstag, the home of the German Parliament. Stop and stare at Norman Foster’s triumphant rehabilitation of the Reichstag, which replaced the wrecked dome with one of glass to symbolize the hoped-for transparency of parliamentary democracy. Make sure you mount the ramp in the dome to view the Russian graffiti. Ironically, emblazoned into the walls of this building is the scrawl of Soviet troops who liberated the Nazi capital and posted the flag of the USSR over the Reichstag in May, 1945. Stand at the top level of the dome for a magnificent view of Tiergarten Park. (Book on line far in advance for tour).
Not far from the Reichstag is a remnant of the Berlin Wall, another symbol of tyranny.
From 1961 to 1989, the Wall, constructed by the East German Democratic Republic, divided the city.
Travelers flock to “Checkpoint Charlie,” now strictly a tourist site. Actors dressed in Allied uniforms pose for foreign photographers, many of whom were born after Berlin was divided during the Cold War.
Checkpoint Charlie stood at the famous crossing point on the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Berlin.
Berlin does not hide its past. Near the Reichstag stands the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by Peter Eisenman, the monument consists of 2,711 large concrete slabs or pillars of different sizes, set in a wavelike pattern on an expansive two-hectare field.
Whether at this monument or the various monuments throughout the city, the visitor will be reminded of the evil the Nazis perpetrated on the world as well as the city that planned the murder of six million Jews and many others.
Population figures of Jews in Germany today range from 117,000 (core Jewish population), to 225,000 Jews with one Jewish parent, to 275,000 as defined by the Law of the Return, according to Israeli demographer and statistician Sergio DellaPergola.
Noting the large influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, it is said that about 85% of the Jews in Berlin are Russian-speaking.
Estimates of the Jewish population of Berlin range from 10,000 to 25,000 including Israelis. Many Jews do not register with the Jewish community.
Berlin Jewry is extremely proud of its Jewish Museum designed by the noted architect, Daniel Libeskind. Approximately 750,000 persons visit yearly and millions have walked through its doors on Lidenstrasse 9-14 since its opening in September 2001.
The exhibits emphasize that this is a museum of two millennia of German Jewish history. While the museum includes the Nazi period, officials stress that it is not a Holocaust museum. Yet many Jews of Berlin consider it just that because of the building’s design and its “Axis of the Holocaust,” which ends in the confined space of the “Holocaust Tower.” This writer first visited the museum before exhibits were placed in it. Even then, it was one of the most remarkable buildings I ever encountered.
Visitors drive out to the House of the Wannsee Conference, Memorial and Educational Site, Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58, D14109, in the Wannsee section. This was the site where on January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, of the NS Reich Security Main Office, chaired a meeting to organize and implement the “Final Solution.”
The famous German Jewish writer Joseph Roth, journalist and author of such classics as The Rudetsky March and The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth, begins a 1921 essay about Berlin entitled “Going for A Walk.”
He wrote: “What I see, what I see.”
As in 1921, a traveler to Berlin in 2017 will have much to see!
Additional Points of Jewish Interest
At least a dozen synagogues serve Berlin Jewry. A famous one is the Neue Synagogue Berlin- Centrum Judaicum in Oranienburger strasse, 30, in Berlin Mitte. With its Moorish style, this synagogue stood as the largest and grandest place of Jewish worship in all of Germany. Saved from major damage in Kristallnacht, it was partly destroyed by bombs in 1943.
A Reform movement of Judaism congregation, Sukkat Schalom is located at Herbartstr 26, 10457.
A famous synagogue in the former East Berlin is at Rykestrasse, 53.
In Charlotenburg services take place at the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue, no 53.
Jewish travelers visit the JCC in Fasanenstrasse, just off the fashionable Kurfurstendamm.
A strictly kosher restaurant is MILO restaurant, located on the ground floor of Chabad, at Munstersche St.6. 10709.
Tel: 030-212-808-30. email@example.com, www.chabadberlin.de. A Chabad student center is at Wilmersdorfer St. 96. http//www.berlinjewishstudents.de/about.
Kosher Life Store is situated at Brunnenstrasse, 31 a.10119, Berlin.
Ronnie Golz, Tel: 30-321-76-86-. Mobile: 49-177-321-76-86. firstname.lastname@example.org. Guide, lecturer, teacher, he conducts private limousine tours to Jewish sites. His Jewish tour takes the traveler to synagogues, community buildings as well as Holocaust memorials, including Wannsee and if requested, Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He offers a private walking tour through the Jewish Quarter.
Guide Nirit Ben-Joseph, who lived in Israel and speaks Hebrew, can be reached at cell phone 49-177-797-38-92. email@example.com, or http//nirit-berlin.de/ home-english.html. Since 1999, she has been a freelance guide at Wannsee, Centrum- Judaica in the Neue Synagogue, and in Sachsenhausen. She conducts tours to Jewish community sites.
Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press); and A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, and A Travel Guide to Jewish Caribbean and South America (all Pelican Publishing Company). Follow him on Twitter @bengfrank
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