A walk through historic Potsdam

Some 1,000 Jews, many from the former Soviet Union, call Potsdam their home.

POTSDAM UNIVERSITY – ‘the new nucleus of Jewish Studies in Germany.’ (photo credit: KARLA FRITZE/UNIVERSITAT POTSDAM)
POTSDAM UNIVERSITY – ‘the new nucleus of Jewish Studies in Germany.’
To stroll through Potsdam, Germany, is to walk through history. With its exquisite gardens and palaces, it is no wonder they call it the summer- time capital of Berlin, or “Berlin’s Versailles.”
On my arrival, I hurry over to the New Gardens, with the Cecilienhof Palace and its memorial to the 1945 Potsdam Conference. The palace hall – replete with the original furnishings – hosted the historic meeting among US president Harry S. Truman, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin.
Although tourists flock here, not too many people are in the room when I enter. My imagination pictures the “Big 3” representatives, as they were called during World War II. They sit at a roundtable, their respective flags in the center. I imagine them reading from documents and exchanging views.
What’s fascinating about the Potsdam Conference, which ran from July 17 to August 2, 1945, was that it was the longest of the Allied wartime conferences.
Churchill was replaced at the final meetings after the results of the British election were announced. Clement Attlee of the Labor Party was victorious and he arrived at Potsdam as the new prime minister.
The conference dealt not only with Germany, with whom hostilities had ceased, but with the ongoing war with Japan. Regarding Germany, three practical issues faced the conference, according to Gerhard L. Weinberg in his book, A World At Arms: A Global History of World War II. “One was the establishment of government machinery, the second was that of borders, and the third, reparations.” By the way, the French were excluded.
It takes only about a half hour by express train from Berlin to peaceful Potsdam, which from 1945 to 1989 was located in the former Communist state of East Germany.
For the history buff, a visit to this thriving tourist site is revealing. For example, every summer in years past the municipality flew the flag of the summer home of the Hohenzollerns and other German royalty. Frederick the Great (1712-1786) had his castles built in this mecca of the German military.
Indeed, Frederick’s bones – which the Germans had evacuated to West Germany to keep them out of the hands of the Russians at the end of the war – were brought back to Potsdam in 1991 and buried next to the remains of his beloved greyhounds at his magnificent Sanssouci Palace. The creations of Frederick, the father of Prussian militarism as well as a patron of culture and art, define the city’s character.
Another landmark is Einstein’s Tower at Telegraphenberg.
Built by Erich Mendelssohn in 1923, the structure – a major example of expressionist architecture – was used by Albert Einstein for experiments to demonstrate practical evidence of his theory of relativity. It still serves as a sun observatory and every architectural student in the world is familiar with the building.
The Albert Einstein Science Park – which includes the Potsdam Institute for Climatic Effects Research, the Potsdam Astrophysical Institute, the Potsdam Geo- Research Center and the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research – is open to visitors on weekends. The tower is about a 20-minute walk from the Potsdam train station.
Another tourist attraction is Einstein’s lakeside cottage at Waldstrasse 7 in Caputh, located about five miles southwest of Potsdam, where Einstein spent the summer months between 1929 and 1933.
Some 1,000 Jews, many from the former Soviet Union, call Potsdam their home. Potsdam University has become known for higher Jewish education and as the new nucleus of Jewish studies in Germany, especially since the Abraham Geiger College was founded there in 1999 to develop progressive Judaism in the country.
The Abraham Geiger College on the University of Potsdam campus is the first liberal rabbinical seminary to be established in Europe since the Holocaust. It is named for Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), a German Reform rabbi and scholar. Rabbis Walter Jacob and Walter Homolka are co-founders of the college.
About 20 students are enrolled at the college, while 162 students attend the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam, founded in 2013. Potsdam is also the home of the Zacharias Frankel College, affiliated with the Conservative Movement of Judaism, which is trains a new cadre of Conservative rabbis in Europe.
Potsdam’s Chabad House, directed by Rabbi Nahum Presman, provides the only kosher food available in the city at a small kosher grocery. The Jewish Gemeinde of Postdam holds services there. Rabbi Daniel Naftali serves the Jewish Gemeinde Stadt Potsdam, with its some 400 members is the largest of four Orthodox Jewish congregations in the city.
Gesetzestreure Judische Landesgemeinde Brandenburg and Synagogengemeinde Potsdam and Mitzwa are the other groups. Also, a branch of Hillel functions in the city.
Wandering through Potsdam, I came upon the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European Jewish Studies.
Located in an attractive, remodeled building on a quiet street, this has become an important research institute for European Jewish studies. Founded in 1992 on the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, it is named for the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Dr. Julius H. Schoeps is managing director of the institute, which is affiliated with Potsdam University and involved in the university’s Jewish studies course.
The first synagogue in Potsdam was built in 1748 on Ebraer Street. A synagogue at the Platz der Einheit was plundered and destroyed by the Nazis on Kristalnacht in 1938.
A visit to the Soviet Military Cemetery and War Memorial in Bassinplatz recalls that 25 to 32 million Russian soldiers and civilians perished in World War II, including Jewish losses of 1.5 million in the former Soviet Union. Among them were several hundred thousand Russian Jewish soldiers who died in combat to defeat Nazism.
I walk up the hill to the Jewish cemetery known as Judenberg, or Jewish Mountain. In the 19th century it was named Finksburg or Pentacostal Mountain. Opened in 1743, the cemetery was closed by the Nazis in 1943 and reopened only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In 1992, it again opened as a Jewish cemetery – but is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. only on Sundays. A sign informs visitors to cover their heads, while elsewhere in the city Jewish residents go about their daily life. The significance is clear: Jews are still in Potsdam.
Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press) and other works. Follow him on twitter @bengfrank