Friday, 6 July 2007

Berlin visit - personal thoughts

It’s always strange travelling to Germany.

I remember the first time, crossing the border from France and heading a relatively short distance north to Freiberg. “Pretty country”, I thought. Then I started wondering about the forests at the side of the autobahn.

How many Jews were buried in unmarked graves? How many women and children slaughtered like animals?

And then you ring-fence these thoughts and continue with the purpose of your visit - business. Then it gets easier. You get used to putting those thoughts to one side; you get to know the young Germans, a generation removed from the horror. I never hide the fact that I am Jewish - it usually becomes apparent from my name and association with Israel. Most of the Germans that I meet on my many visits appear also to have ring-fenced the racial barbarism and outwardly all appears normal, but I always look at the forests and wonder…...

What is worse is that I start wondering; if such inhumanity can happen in such a ‘nice’ place, can it happen elsewhere?

Then an opportunity occurs that forces you to cling to hope, a hope that things have really changed. Something occurs that makes you think that maybe, at least in Europe, the Holocaust was a “barbarity too far”.

Last year, I happened to be attending a conference in Berlin. Not the first time to the city, but the first extended stay, where I could sightsee a little, and take the opportunity to visit the new Holocaust memorial.

The first thing that strikes you is the location and size. It’s big. It’s very big! It is about the size of a city block, and it is located at the very centre of Berlin, at the very heart of Germany.

Then you are drawn to the starkness of it. Controversial certainly - but sombre and respectful like a massive cemetery. It is squeezed together with a mass of tombstones. They appear cramped as if there are too many to fit this vast acreage. Plain black obelisks, differing heights, on an undulating surface, expressing the vastness and diversity of those remembered.

Underneath the vast expanse of obelisks lay a number of exhibition rooms. They are eerily quiet. Almost nobody talks, even the children. You are exposed to a history of the Holocaust, from its seeds through to its bloody execution.

Be clear - It is not a “Holocaust Memorial”. It is a “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”. - Yes, the word “murdered”. There is no toying with words or nuances. Here, right by the Brandenburg Gate and within earshot of the Reichstag, the open realisation and declaration that over 6 million Jews were murdered by the Germans.

And it is busy, not with tourists, but with schoolchildren and young adults. All being drawn to the realisation of a past that was kept to the shadows, was whispered, and set aside in the minds of most Germans.

It is constructed cleverly, not to shock with graphic images. There are some, but not very many. What is conveyed is a slow, methodical, systematic attempted murder of an entire race. It is conveyed, not at a macro level, not by stunning you by the very vastness of the act, but by the very personal effect on families; Whether German, Belgian, French, Dutch, Greek, Italian, Turkish……. The perspective was from a varied sample of families, in different countries, and how they were affected. Family pictures dissected and analysed with the stories of each family member. This child murdered in Auschwitz, this man murdered in a death march, this one surviving and living in Israel. What is starkly obvious is the way the Germans recorded each details so methodically. The minutiae of the process of the industrialisation of murder. Transit documents, cattle truck manifests, lists of property. There were also many personal letters. Some of these were thrown from the cattle-trucks. Others were smuggled from the ghettos. In all the cases, the fate of the writers was indicated. All were murdered.

I began to wonder about the photographs. Why were there not more graphic stories of bodies and horror? Then I realised. If the pictures were too horrific, if the images too painful, then people would not come. Then parents would keep their children away from being exposed to such nightmares.

Here is the balance between the obligation to reveal the horror of past mass crimes, and the reality of communicating the enormity of the act to a generation that is now twice removed from that act. This memorial is designed to bring this barbarity out of the shadows for the new generation of Germans.

The “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” is not easy to visit. Even after several weeks, my mind wanders between the cold grey slabs of concrete. However, I do believe that it is a vital piece in the evolution of Europe, a realisation of the past for future generations.

No comments: