Jewish Berlin

I have always been hesitant about going to Germany. The history of the Holocaust never made it an ideal travel destination in my mind. But last month, Michael had a conference in Germany and I tagged along. I surprisingly enjoyed the country, which prompted our decision to travel to Berlin last weekend. My mind was also put at ease because Germany is probably the most pro-Israel European country, staunchly supports Israel in international bodies, and was an active mediator in the return of Gilad Shalit.

I will do another blog post, hopefully in the next day or two, about all the fun things we saw and ate! However, I will focus this one on our Jewish journey in Berlin. After a little sightseeing we went to the Jewish Museum. The building is one of the more architecturally interesting buildings I have ever seen. It was designed by Daniel Libeskind who also won the competition to be the master plan architect for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site. The building is designed to look like a warped Star of David. There is a “void” that cuts through the Museum. It is an empty space that represents the loss of Jewish life in Europe and everything else that goes along with the loss of life. Before the permanent exhibition of the Museum starts with the diaspora and the Jewish migration to Germany, you walk through hallways with no direction and no “right” way to explore. The halls represent different stories. One is the Stair of Continuity, which leads to the main exhibit. Another hall, the Garden of Exile and Emigration, remembers those who were forced to leave Berlin. Last is the Holocaust Void, which dead ends into a dark space where you can hear some street noise and which allows in just the slightest bit of natural light. One of the voids is filled with 10,000 iron faces. Each one is different and they are piled up in a dark room. They represent the lives that were lost in the Holocaust. It was pretty heavy to walk through the exhibit, yet there were no apologies or justifications for the Holocaust. You were just left with a sense of the enormity of what was lost. The permanent exhibition contains exhibits on topics ranging from the role of Jewish women in 1700’s Germany, an explanation of Jewish laws including keeping kosher, and the birth of more liberal Judaism. One of the more interesting things was the display of a Christmas or holiday tree that a Jewish family may have had in its home in the early 1900’s. People considered themselves both German and Jewish and having a holiday tree went along with that. The Museum, of course, culminated in the Holocaust and the birth of Israel. It was nice that the Museum did not focus entirely on the Holocaust. Michael and I have done lots of traveling this year and many Jewish museums focus almost entirely on the Holocaust and don’t spend much time discussing Jewish history before or after. Jewish history in Europe didn’t start there and didn’t end there, so it is often frustrating when museums make it the focus.

Leaving the Museum was still emotionally heavy. Therefore, I was happy it was Friday night and we had plans to go to Shabbat services. It seemed like it was a nice way to complete the story. We went to services at the New Synagogue, which is a functioning Conservative synagogue. Most countries seem to have only Orthodox services, so it was nice to be at a Conservative synagogue and sit next to Michael. The synagogue was the largest in Berlin and was built as a liberal congregation. It suffered significant damage on Kristallnacht and was subsequently accidentally bombed by the Allies. The building was left in ruins and was rebuilt after the city of Berlin was reunited. The building on the outside was reconstructed, but the sanctuary was not rebuilt. The majority of the synagogue building is now currently used as a museum. Services were in a small chapel on the third floor. The synagogue seats around 100 people and there were very few empty seats. The majority of the people seemed to be Germans, but there were a handful of tourists. Most of the tunes were familiar and it was pretty amazing to be in Germany singing Friday night prayers in a room full of fellow Jews.

A trip to Berlin isn’t complete without a visit to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Unlike any other Holocaust memorial I have been to there was no list of names, camps or any specific information. It looks like hundreds of horizontal graves. The ground and concrete slabs are of different heights. You are supposed to walk through it and it is disorienting. The walkways between the slabs are narrow and you can’t walk through side by side. Also, from every angle or place in the Memorial it is possible to see the edges. It is meant to give the sense that there is no hiding. The concrete slabs represent the stones that Jews lay on graves when they visit. Overall, I found it thought provoking and very different than other memorials. But, personally, I didn’t find it as moving as those that communicate a story. However, everyone seems to have an opinion on it and it is something that you will remember.

From Russia with Love,


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2 Responses to Jewish Berlin

  1. Meems Ellenberg says:

    Another wonderful blog, Heather. The architecture of the New Synagogue is most impressive. You write so movingly of davening with other Jews in Berlin, of all places. Even though I am not very good any more about attending svcs here, I make it a point to attend when we travel. Your photos are wonderful, as always. Looking forward to the menu section of this travelogue.

  2. Julia Levy says:

    fascinating experiences – the memorial sounds very moving.

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