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< Echoes of Memory

The Berlin Conference

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By Susan Warsinger

When I heard that the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants Conference was going to be held in Berlin, Germany, I felt very ambivalent about going. I was hesitant because my memories as a child born in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, were still painful because of the atrocities that the Nazis committed there. I felt uncomfortable listening to the German language and was suspicious about Germans my age and older. When new acquaintances asked me where I was born, I usually responded that I had been living in Washington, DC, for a long time. Only if they pushed me and asked where I was born did I reluctantly tell them. I did not want them to think that Germany was my “homeland,” because I never thought that it was. On the other hand, I was enthusiastic about going to Berlin, because I wanted to confront these feelings and finally get over them.

In my long lifetime I have been almost everywhere in the world, but never to Berlin. This conference was my opportunity. My friends Katie, Dora, Tamar, and I planned the trip together and after many e-mails and phone calls, we set out on our journey six days prior to the conference so that we could explore Berlin together. The first thing we planned was to visit the Holocaust museum, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas). This visit was a most moving experience. This stunning place of remembrance consists of a grid of more than 2,700 concrete pillars reaching out to the sky, planted into undulating ground. The abstract field can be entered from all sides and offers no prescribed path. We spent a lot of time there and took many pictures that we sent home to our families. There are a lot of museums and memorials in Berlin dedicated to the Holocaust. The Neue Synagogue, which was built in the mid 1800s, has a bulbous gilded cupola, and stands out in the skyline. It was not destroyed during Kristallnacht because a policeman stood in front of it and prevented the crowd from burning it down. However, most of it was bombed by our Allies in 1943. What is left now is a museum. We also visited The Jewish Museum devoted to Jewish history and cultural heritage. The architecture of the building is very modern and the form of the building is strangely based on the Star of David. The long narrow galleries with slanting floors and sharp zigzagging turns are designed to evoke the feeling of loss and dislocation. I was pleased that the Museum demonstrated the enormous intellectual, economic, and cultural contributions made by the Jewish citizens of Berlin before the Holocaust. However, most of all, it physically and spiritually integrated the meaning of the Holocaust into the “consciousness and memory of the city of Berlin.” I was happy that visitors from all over the world could see, from the Germans themselves, the horrors the Nazis executed.

There are many plaques, stolpersteine (stumbling blocks), imbedded into sidewalks in front of pre- Holocaust homes of Berlin Jews commemorating former residents simply with names and dates. We stopped at the Bebelplatz, where on May 19, 1933, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, organized one of the nation-wide book burnings. I understood they were not just burning paper, but that they were burning ideas.

We noticed that the new opera house is going to be built on the perimeter of the Bebelplatz. It is going to be a grand building, and I know many beautiful operas are going to be performed there. Then we strolled over to the other end of the square to Huboldt University where many students gathered even though it was vacation time. Because we were tired of walking, we took a velo taxi, which is an open-air coach on the back of a bike, to the Jewish quarter where many Jews were arrested and sent to the concentration camps in Poland. The people who pedal these taxis are very knowledgeable and are anxious to teach the tourists about the roundups of the Jews that occurred there. 

We took the U-Bahn (subway) and train to the town of Wannsee. I wanted to see the villa at the lakeside setting where the “Final Solution” was decided. This elegant mansion hosted the fateful conference held in January 1942 at which Nazi leaders, under SS official Reinhard Heydrich, planned the systematic deportation and mass murder of Europe’s Jewish population. Now the villa is filled with a chilling exhibition that documents the conference and the escalation of persecution against Jews and the Holocaust itself. In one of the rooms, Israeli students were being taught about the “Final Solution,” in Hebrew, by a German teacher. I was impressed that this German woman was teaching the Holocaust in Hebrew. To me, a former teacher, it meant that Israel and the Hebrew language were accepted in the German school system and that both were a part of their curriculum. I also talked to the students’ Israeli teacher who accompanied them. She told me that she took her twelfth grade class to Wannsee every year to learn about how the Nazis planned the “Final Solution.” I also met a retired German high school teacher on our walk to the Max Liebermann Art Gallery in Wannsee. She told me that the students in every class in Berlin, starting with the third grade, are taught about the Holocaust. She also said that she accompanied her twelfth-grade students to the Wannsee Museum every year.

Max Liebermann, had a villa about two blocks from the Wannsee mansion. He was a German-Jewish painter and a leading proponent of impressionism in Germany. There were 200 paintings of the villa and gardens. He was head of the Prussian Academy of Arts but was dismissed by the Nazis in 1933 and banned. He died in 1935. His widow had to sell the villa for almost nothing. She committed suicide before she was to be deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. The next day we went to the Altes Museum in Berlin, which contained the work of many German painters, and there in at least four rooms was Liebermann exhibited in all his glory.

We took the train to Potsdam to visit the sprawling Sansouci Park, which was the summer residence of the Prussian royals. Katie and I spent the entire day walking around the numerous palaces, the landscaped gardens, and the art gallery. Many people call it the Versailles of Potsdam. On our way home we stopped to eat delicious beef and chicken sausages at the Bahnhof. We were happy to get back to the Hilton Hotel and sleep in our comfortable beds. 

The Berliner and French doms (cathedrals) were located near our hotel on a most elegant square called the Gendarmenmarkt. The magnificent concert hall was between them. Since it was summer, no concerts were performed in the concert hall. However, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was performed in the Berliner Dom. We attended this beautiful recital with great pleasure. 

We also went to the Berlin Wall, the Brandenberg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, Potsdammer Platz, Museum of German History, Bauhaus Museum, and the Pergamon Museum. When we got too tired, we hired a velo taxi to get us back to our hotel. We took a boat ride on the Spree River and sat in outdoor cafes watching the young German people walk by. We ate the renowned chicken sausages covered in curry tomato sauce and savored plum and apple cakes. As we were leaving the U-Bahn station on our way to the famous KaDeWe department store, we saw an iron slab that contained the engraved names of all the concentration camps in Europe. I was very moved by sight of the slab in the middle of a busy downtown intersection. 

On the eve of the first day of our conference, the mayor of Berlin was one of our speakers. He told us that it was illegal in Berlin for anyone to make antisemitic speeches. Even though they have freedom of speech, it is still not allowed. The special envoy in Germany for special relations told us, “Germany stands by your side, antisemitism has no place in Berlin.” The Israeli ambassador said, “We have a special relationship with Germany. . . We know that they are committed to the existence of Israel.” The German ambassador to the United States was also there. I found out that there are 100,000 Jews in Germany, 12,000 in Berlin, and that there are 105 Jewish communities in the country. 

The next day, after a scrumptious buffet breakfast, the workshops began. I chose the one “How Do I Feel About Being in Germany—What Does It Bring Up for Me?” I was excited to hear how other people felt. Our facilitator, Dr. Robert Krell, a psychiatry professor, did his best to keep to this topic. However, whenever anybody got the microphone to speak, they talked about their life during the Holocaust. I was very disappointed that we did not talk about the way people felt about being in Germany.

I attended my friend, Tamar’s workshop, “Reflecting Memory through Art.” I made an abstract painting because I had just been to the Bauhaus Museum and learned some of the skills that were being taught in the 1920s to the architectural students there. My abstract painting was intended to represent my life before, during, and after the Holocaust.

The other workshop that I attended was called “Dialogue between the Generations.” Our facilitator told us that trauma is not transmitted by words, but that physical and emotional feelings transmit trauma. She said that this trauma might take seven generations to go away. We need to be mindful to how we share our experiences with our children. I made a mental note to ask my children how I affect them with non-verbal cues. I also plan to ask them if I should change my interaction with them and what I have transmitted to them. I am not sure how they will respond to this.

The 350 survivors from 19 different countries had wonderful dinners in the evening, had musical entertainment and danced the hora around the grand ballroom of the hotel with great enthusiasm.

I am more comfortable with the German language now. I understand that the German people know about what happened during the Holocaust. I understand that there is hate speech on the Internet, but there is no more physical antisemitism. Berlin is a wonderful city to visit. There are so many exciting sights to see. The people were kind, courteous, and friendly. Some told me that they were happy to see me, a survivor, returning to Berlin. This trip to Berlin made me aware how most of the German people have addressed the Holocaust and made me appreciate how many have changed their attitude toward Jewish people and the actions they have initiated to try to rectify their past. I feel less ambivalent about Germany now than before my trip to Berlin. However, there is this deep feeling inside of me that I cannot get rid of, and I still feel that Germany cannot be my homeland. I am so happy to be an American.

©2015, Susan Warsinger. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   susan warsingerechoes of memory, volume 8

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