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BERLIN: Jews, the Holocaust, the Stasi April 2013

Though Berlin was last on our itinerary, I find myself wanting to write about it first because I found it such an amazing place. It’s odd history of being occupied, divided and isolated certainly has a big part in making it so. It’s heavily graffitied (I only saw one graffiti remover working in 9 ½ days), full of public art, new buildings (I’ve never seen so many cranes as when I looked out on the city from a height) as it was 75% destroyed in WW II.

The Germans, from my experience (and talking to others who have visited European countries I haven’t), are facing their sins of WW II more honestly and directly than any other European country. 2013 is the 80th anniversary of Hitler and the Nazis coming to power. One way they are commemorating that in Berlin is with a series of posts around the central city (twelve sites, I think) covered with information on the loss of diversity under the Third Reich: bios of people who were victims, those who were murdered in the camps (and they use the word murder) as well as people who escaped, and stories of cultural repression.

One note on a racist image below, it’s an historic one from Nazi time. The text below is about culture and jazz which was targeted too.

posts group museum island (Small)post underground culture (Small)

post themenjahr (Small)post survivor (Small)

post gays (Small)musik (Small)

It’s not a surprise that there’s a lot more in Berlin about the Holocaust.

An ongoing Holocaust art project is by the artist Gunter Demnig. He’s installed small brass plaque in a number of European cities in addition to Berlin in front of homes and workplaces of people later killed in the Holocaust. He calls them “Stolpersteine,” or stumbling stones, and says that with his art he wants to bring back the names of the millions of Jews, gays, resistance fighters and Gypsies who perished at the hands of the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

This from a Fox news story: ‘Demnig set his first stumbling stone illegally in Berlin in 1996, as part of an independent art project. After several years of negotiations, the city of Berlin allowed him to add more legally and other cities soon followed. Since then, his art project has turned into something of a social movement.

“Anybody can get in touch with the artist and sponsor a stumbling stone for euro95 ($120) which pays for the artist’s work and material used for the plaque. The historical research is done voluntarily by local citizens, school classes or surviving family members, who then contact Demnig and ask him to set a plaque for a victim whose address their have tracked down.

“In Berlin, there are three full-time paid city workers who support the volunteers and who also serve as contacts for surviving family members who want to attend a plaque setting.

“Often these settings even turn into ceremonies for the dead, Demnig said… The artist said such events are one of the most important aspects of his art project because they bring together relatives who were torn apart by the Holocaust”

plaque quartet (Small)memorial plaque (Small)

memorial plaque (Small)plaques 3 (Small)

The holocaust memorial to the Jews is officially The National Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There are competitions for all public buildings and monuments; the winner of this was Peter Eisenman of NYC. Very controversial, I read, both for its size–seemed like at least a full city block–and its location on prime real downtown real estate. Another weird one, the company that provided the anti-graffiti paint is the one who produced the gas used in the gas chambers! Ah Germany. In any case, it’s a bit mysterious, big and very moving.

holocaust memorial 1 (Small)holocaust mem 2 small

In the park that corresponds to New York’s Central Park in size and location, Tiergarten, there is a beautiful Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under National Socialism (I never heard of Sinti before either, but they are another Gypsy group) The last photo is a closeup of the rim of the pool on which is written a very sad poem.

memorial roma 1 (Small)memorial roma 2 (Small)

memorial roma 3 (Small)memorial roma  broken heart (Small)

The same park houses a Gay monument. Very unusual. The plaque says, ” In Nazi Germany, homosexuality was persecuted to a degree unprecedented in history….Because of its history, German has a special responsibility to actively oppose the violation of gay men’s and lesbians’ human rights. In many parts of the world, people continue to be persecuted for their sexuality, homosexual love remains illegal and kiss can be dangerous.”

The actual monument is a cube with a opening for viewing. What you see inside is a video loop on gays and lesbians kissing. Unfortunately, none of my photos of the video came out–too dark in there!

gay installation (Small)

synog memorial (Small)

One day I noticed a sculpture in a front garden of a building that looked like it might be a Jewish Star. Further investigation confirmed this, it was the site of a former synagogue. The fence precluded a photo but I was able to get the monument

There are many synagogues in Berlin though, the Jewish community is alive, growing and thriving. Former USSR Jews are emigrating and getting excellent benefits and assistance from the government. Here’s a couple of photos of one of the busy synagogues. Yes, those are police in front providing the security. The government may condemn antisemitism and outlaw holocaust denial and the possession of Nazi memorabilia, but there are neo Nazis and a neo Nazi party which is not just antisemitic but anti-immigrant as well.

new synagogue (Small)new synagogue 2 (Small)

And just one more photo before I move on from Jewish Berlin: The Jewish Museum is incredible, both the architecture and the exhibits. I didn’t manage to get good photos but you can easily find plenty online. The focus is not on the holocaust but here is one item shocked me.

IMG_2767 (Small)

The Germans (and other countries I’ve visited in the former Soviet Bloc) are much more interested and angry about the 40 years they spent under Soviet occupation. Makes sense since the entire adult population suffered under it and not that many people who lived thru WWII are still around. One day I visited both the Stasi (secret police) Museum and the Stasi interrogation prison.

First the museum which is housed in the former Stasi headquarters. The former director’s suite is included in the tour. Photo here of his conference room with the tape recorder concealed in a cupboard revealed. The exhibits included a lot on propaganda and educating youth but what fascinated me the most were the spying devices: the miniature cameras and microphones concealed in watches, buttons, briefcases, purses, a stump and even below the handle of a watering can.

stasi museum (Small)stasi comic bk (Small)

stasi posters (Small)stasi recorder (Small)

stasi comic bk (Small)stasi poster imper (Small)stasi birdhouse (Small)

stasi watering can with camera under handle
stasi watering can with camera under handle

stasi watch (Small)stasi button camera (Small)

There’s a subway stop right in front for the convenience of the Stasi, I’m sure. I was struck by the sign on the stairs down given what I’d just been seeing. In the subway station were paintings by two artists of the period, one of whom had a painting in the director’s office with the tape recorder above.

stasi still spying (Small)subway art (Small)

The prison was not so easy to get to. It was a secret prison (they would drive the prisoners around for hours before taking them there so they wouldn’t have any idea where they were–even did this if they needed to take them to the hospital) so out in the suburbs and a long walk from public transportation. Prisoners were kept here only during their interrogations (though this could go on for months). There were more interrogation rooms than cells! Some of the tour guides are former prisoners though mine was a woman too young to have suffered there. We were told that conditions were terrible under the Russians (cold, no mattresses, only a bucket for a toilet etc.) but slowly improved after they turned it over to the Germans after a year. We saw cells in various iterations. Finally ones with running water and even a mirror. We also saw torture cells. Last photo is a memorial to the dead in the courtyard.

stasi cell (Small)stasi inter rm (Small)

stasi better cell (Small)stasi memorial prison (Small)

stasi wall (Small)

Two last photos: a long mural from Soviet times showing how happy everyone was under socialism and the very interesting Ampelmann phenomena. He’s the figure you see (and saw) in East Berlin on the pedestrian traffic signs. After reunification, the people in the East began to resent that differences were being dealt with by making everything the West’s way. So when they went to replace the Ampelmann, it was too much! Not only has Ampelmann stayed but products featuring him have flourished. Keychains, tee shirts, cups, hats, you name it. this is the sign for one of many Ampelmann stores. I do believe that some traffic signs in the West may feature him now too.

mural soviet (Small)ampelmann (Small)

One more: Karl Marx Allee a boulevard lined with 50s and 60s era Soviet housing

Karl Marx Allee (Small)

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