Facing The Past

by Patricia Goldblatt January 29, 2018


the-memorial-to-the-dead-jews-in-europe-across-from-the-reichstagThere are so many emotions to contend with when visiting Berlin.

My mother’s family came from Poland, most of them before the War, so there are snippets of past lives of people I never could have known, but like a whiff of perfume or the eeriness of déjà vu, I still experience a connection. For example, the story of Zenik, the barber who had papered his walls with useless money, attempting to hide it from the Nazis, yet unable to save his first wife or son taken to the camps. And my name, Pesach in Hebrew, for my grandmother’s first cousin, one of three sisters supposedly the most strikingly beautiful, all lost to the flames of the gas chambers.

As our roots were planted in the soil of Europe, I have been drawn back there time and again, yet avoiding Poland, as if fearing to find the disappeared source of my family as a heap of scorched ruins re-established and whitewashed into a promise of forgotten yesterday. So when the third leg of our summer trip presented either Warsaw or Dubrovnik, we chose the later, anticipating beauty rather than sadness. And, although I never knew if my ancestors had German connections, we headed towards Berlin, which I discovered had been scoured and cleansed, rendering it remote from the unspeakable events of the past.

Many years back, in the 60’s, I had traveled as a university student interested in untangling a historical past and learning more about the country that had allowed such atrocities to not only occur but spread throughout Europe. I had flown into Munich (Munchen)  at midnight and was kindly offered a bed in a dorm by girls on the plane. When I wandered the city with a map, a smiling man in a long black coat insisted on helping me safely navigate my way. But resting near the schloss in Heidelberg, I had overheard a gaggle of old women knitting and yearning, how different life would have been if “the Fuhrer” was “still alive.” Stung by the words. I’ve never forgotten the wistful nostalgia in their voices.

And finally when I headed to Dachau back then and observed how sanitized the camp had become in spite of the twisted sculptures at the entrance, I listened to a few Americans demure, “It wasn’t so bad” And I knew it was time to leave.

But because my hustband is fascinated by and a student of politics and the wall was now down, I felt we must return this summer in 2017 and let him see for himself wondrous Berlin.

But for a Jew, in spite or perhaps because of the insurrection of the spotless, aesthetically beautiful renovations of a rebuilt Berlin, it is an incredibly tough journey. Sightseeing includes the previous world now transformed. How bizarre to note Checkpoint Charlie as American soldiers in uniform flagrantly pose with Cokes in one hand and cigarettes in the other. At least The East Side Gallery that runs along the old Berlin Wall is a home to 118 artists’ visual protests, imaginative designs and commentaries that unite and recall the worlds of then and now, their fanciful imagery of kissing politicos and lesbians.

The Memorial to the Dead Jews in Europe across from The Reichstag is a fitting tribute, if, in deed, there can ever be a way to acknowledge murder. There are 2,710 blocks of concrete purposely, unspecified. I ask, “Are the blocks to indicate coffins? Individuals? Communities? Cities?”

Here, brazen teenagers leap from slab to slab, some parents posing their babies against the drab stone background. What an extraordinary landscape for parents to perch their wiggling cherubic children! I, incredulous, wonder if they can be so unaware of the history, the slaughter commemorated by these blocks. “The laughter and athletic hijinks do not honor the dead,” I grumble.

Or perhaps I am wrong, for these people continue to breathe and are able to participate in life, even defying the strict protocols of a too traditional society. But as I am a Boomer and schooled in decorum, I cannot help but wonder at this living validation that these gurgling infants will endure and grow up where others were slaughtered. These tourists – or more likely – comfortable locals are merely playing amidst the stones. Fittingly, it is raining, gloomy and overcast, but the lack of respect is overwhelmingly disturbing for me.

Later at The Jewish Museum in The Garden of Exile, more slabs, now oriented vertically rather than horizontally arranged in lines, purposely slightly tilted to provoke a feeling of dislocation or even giddiness.

The concept at The Jewish Museum intrigues with the ideas of axis, voids and alleys. Small exhibits showcase the stories of the murdered, personal artifacts of silver spoons, treasured worn photographs and stories of ironic hopeful outcomes. I’m reminded of the heaping mountain of children’s shoes at The Washington Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem’s circling candles in the Children’s Chapel – places where laughter is stunningly absent, high-pitched innocent voices silenced because of our despised ancestry.

However, on the magnificent streets of Berlin, I’m frozen before the huge lush buildings framed by cast iron railings, decorated with Greek bas relief, twinkling with mosaics or framed by blazing clumps of red flowers, Art Nouveau, Bauhaus and modern design, all offering themselves as a splendid version of an eclectic architecture that obscures the rubble of the past. These recast buildings once honored regimes and emperors and proclaimed to the world the power and vision of a future without Jews, my origins.

I recall how the Reich under Hitler pretended to provide protection and custody and commandeered the language of justice to hold and remove undesirables from towns, cities, the entire country. The Nazis bent word and phrase for the purpose of evil. It troubles me mightily and I’m thinking about history lessons that decimated the Germans as losers in the Treaty of Versailles, the path being paved for Hitler’s self aggrandizement that resulted in the murders of more than Jews – jazz musicians, the infirm, the elderly, homosexuals, nuns, gypsies, political opponents, Catholics, etc., etc. Did I truly expect that all broken bits would remain to speak, bearing unimpeachable witness to the horrors of the past, save a few statues or a preserved crumbled church?!

But on the ashes of empires and buildings destroyed by bombs, a new Phoenix has risen. And yet this is not to disparage beauty or require children to inherit the blasphemous sins of their fathers or grandfathers who petted the family dogs.

Narration on the hop-on and off bus is sanitized as well. When we were on the spot of the Opera Square where so-called “dangerous” books were burned on May 10, 1933, the narrator in my headset explains that there is an empty room beneath the square at street level to commemorate the night. No mention of Kristallnacht or its impact on the bearded men rounded up or shopkeepers slandered as liars or worse. Passing the main train station, the mellifluous voice informs that the trains travelled all over Europe. I notice the destination “Auschwitz” posted on a board outside the station and imagine families separated, children pulled from their pleading mother’s arms, chaos and astonishment, destinations unknown. Too late known.

At the German Historical Museum, we experience another version of history, more honest. I reflect through the actual use of uniforms, clothes, explanations and posters. I particularly respond to Katherine Kollwitz’s banned art, a rallying icon for antiwar protests and despised by Hitler. There, too, is Hitler’s desk, formerly Hindenburg’s, laughable that such a little man wanted such an immense desk to display his power. But then, are they not ALL little men? The men who fled and hid in Argentina or in plain sight, evil masters afraid to show themselves.

And yet, The Topography of Terror Museum reinforces that the “Volk” or common people  played a huge part in initiating a rolling non-stoppable machine of terror and destruction and death. This airy open space in the museum enumerates specific names and fates, too many unpunished even after Nuremberg and a resurgence in Germany to bring the perpetrators of doom to trial.

Still, the exhibition here makes us comprehend the deep complicity of the
“volk,” the clever manipulation of language by Hitler, the staging of events, the use of radio and rallies to further the cause. Using staged events, Leni Riefenstahl’s talent to film rallies, twisting language to put people into protective custody where they could be dislocated, tortured, killed or used as scientific experiments. Wall after wall provides documentation, photographs, hideous proof, letters and official orders that attest to the desire to eradicate Jews forever. We observe the henchmen on the US’s “Time” covers, and the gatherings of more committed Nazis while our people continued to be deported to camps, shot through the head or stood before their open graves: the absolute hatred of Jews central.

I am reading Philippe Sand’s “East West Street” that pinpoints Lwow or Lviv in Poland as the focus of Hans Frank, chief exterminator of the Jews. “East West Street” also introduces me to other occupants of the town, some like Rafael Lemberg,  Herschel Lauterpacht and Sand’s own grandfather, Leon Buchholz, who escaped the fate of their families, a handful who endured despite the best intentions of the National Socialist Party. Sand presents Lemberg and Lauterpacht’s contrasting attitudes on crimes against humanity and the concept of genocide, and how these concepts played a role at Nuremberg, impacting the fates of later day dictators, even today.

But it is the spreading virus of hatred by the puny misfits like Frank, Himmler, Eichmann from country to country, unstoppable from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Denmark Greece and Hungary that holds me in awe. From Amsterdam, a flyer boldly calls out, ‘If we do not stand with the Jews, how will history or G-d judge us?’ Like Anne Frank’s innocence obliterated. How in deed?

It is an unending gruesome documentation, a conundrum as damning as the information, the history vital to an understanding of events. Names, outcomes, machinations, actual typed documentation all are here. We learn the denouement of the unbelievable 20th century drama on the perpetrators of the crimes, terribly many with light or no jail sentences – so we depart disgruntled at the result of crimes against humanity, sickened really.

Although this is exacting and comprehensive, it is a long go – several hours and like most viewers, we began to read less and less. Too much for the mind to take in. We are overwhelmed by the facts, no narratives soften or speak to the individuals’ plight.

There is no charge or guide or headset, especially a headset that might condense the information. The floor is very hard and after two or so hours, our legs are tired, our minds exhausted.

What to say about Berlin? The present beauty rebuilt on the bones of evil? We cannot stop time and stay frozen in the past. We must move on, but as the mourning psalm we chant at funerals.

We Remember Them

At the rising sun and at its going down; We remember them.

At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter; We remember them.

At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring; We remember them.

At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer; We remember them.

At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn; We remember them.

At the beginning of the year and when it ends; We remember them.

As long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us as We remember them.

But is it enough?

Like my visit in the 60’s, I am eager to leave Germany, contemplating this is no place for a Jew.


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