Monday, June 15, 2009

Professor Barbara Swartz - Berlin

Berlin in early summer

Every summer day is like summer, fall, winter, spring. I carry layers of clothes with me; sometimes I shed, other times, I add as the day goes along. It seems to rain a bit every day, but it's fresh and not humid. The trees are green, the Linden trees have a sweet smell which permeates the city, and the flowers are out in full force. Berlin is filled with green spaces. When the wall was up, the free part of the city was surrounded by the East. It was difficult for West Berliners to leave. They could have, but not so easily, so they created parks and gardens everywhere. There are many lakes, some especially for nudists, and places to go kayaking and canoeing. The city is filled with cafes, and in the warm weather, they’re overflowing. Since it's not always pleasant to sit outdoors, people grab every opportunity.

Memorials to the German's Enemies

It is rare for a country to honor those whom they have conquered or defeated or murdered. In Germany, there are numerous memorials to the murdered. There are special memorials to the murdered 6 millions Jews, the gypsies and the homosexuals. Besides these, there are many extraordinary markers. On the K'damm, the most important shopping street, in front of Kee DeeWee, Europe's largest department store, there is a large sign noting all the death camps and how far they are from Berlin. You can't miss it unless you keep your eyes down.

In the exact spot of the book burning in 1933, where they estimated 20,000 books (mostly Jewish writers but also Communists and Socialists) were burned, there’s an underground memorial. It’s level with the ground and covered with glass. When you peer into it, all you see are empty bookcases capable of holding 20,000 books. There is a sign above with a quote from the German-Jewish nineteenth century poet, Heinrich Heine: “Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.”

In another area of Berlin, large signs on the street quote all the laws instituted against the Jews starting around 1936; Jews can't own dogs, Jews can't marry non-Jews, Jews can’t own property, Jews can’t attend Aryan schools, two Jews lived here and were carted away. Each law is on a separate sign, and the signs go on and on. If it weren't so grotesque, it would be Monty Pythonesque. Outside my door are two brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk commemorating two Jews who lived here and were carted away to their deaths.

Another site is in Gruenwald, one of the wealthier areas of Berlin and one of the few not to have been destroyed. At that railroad station, many of Berlin's Jews were taken to their final destination. It's impossible for people living there to say they didn't know what was happening because the Jews were brought by truck to the station which is in a very visible location. At the beginning, the Jews looked healthy and prosperous. Many were burgermeisters. By the end of the war, when they were still coming by the truckload. they looked gaunt and impoverished. This station at Gruenwald is still in active use, but the rail tracks from where the Jews were shipped are no longer in use. Instead, engraved into the tracks are the dates and number of Jews who were transported regularly. There is usually no one there; only a grave silence. There are many stones placed there which is the way that Jews often recognize and honor a dead person. I always leave a stone. It’s a place to contemplate and remember. I once read a letter taped to the tracks from the grandson of a victim, which read: "Dear Grandfather, although I never knew you, I want you to know that I've heard about you. Your memory lives on." For me, these memorials make a stronger impact than a museum or a monument.

In another area of Berlin, near Mexicoplatz and Spanish Allee, there is a sign in a grassy area commemorating Guernica. Angela Merkel visited Buchenwald with Obama and while laying a white rose on a monument, said she honored the 6,000,000. The Germans have been the most faithful friends of Israel in Europe. I think even the young, who had nothing to do with this horror, are still feeling some guilt.

Princess Constanza zu Lowenstein coming to visit

This week, my friend Princess Constanza zu Lowenstein, will be giving a talk to the students on the role her father, dubbed by his enemies as "The Red Prince," played as a resistance fighter. He was a journalist who by 1930 had predicted the rise of the Nazis and was actively engaged in fighting Hitler. By 1933, he was so well known that when the Nazis came to power, he was called to the Gestapo. He left with a packed suitcase not knowing if he would return. Fortunately a Nazi who knew him warned him that a cold wind was blowing, and it would be good if he left Berlin. He took the hint, and he and his young wife fled the next day. Most of their remaining friends were arrested or went into hiding. After wandering through Europe, without money, like most refugees, they finally arrived in the U.S. where he set up an organization to help artists, Jews and others who had fled. His organization was headed by Einstein and Freud, and they collected money and found places for the displaced. Unlike most immigrants, this young family---there were three girls, two of whom were born in the U.S.---returned to Germany in 1946 because the parents wanted to help with the reconstruction. Constanza suffered the same hardships as others in post-war Germany. Her stories are fascinating---it's an opportunity for the students to make contact with a "Good German" from WW2.

The next week, I'm taking the students to Saxon Hausen, the concentration camp located close to Berlin. It was a death camp, mainly killing homosexuals after using them to work in nearby munitions factories. Jews were also kept there, but were later shipped to Auschwitz to be exterminated.

Trip to the Deutsche Philharmonica

I hope this blog entry doesn't sound too somber. Last night, I had the magical experience of going to the Deutsche Philharmonica, which is one of the world's greatest orchestras. We saw Pierre Boulez conduct; he even played some of his own music. It's hard to believe that he's 84; he’s very alert, erect and conducted flawlessly. The orchestra was wonderful; you could hear every note clearly and they played together in harmony. The acoustics were excellent from every seat. These concerts are always sold out and the audience was very appreciative. They gave the orchestra many ovations. Some people even stood which isn't the German way. They usually just clap hard and sometimes stamp their feet.

By Professor Barbara Swartz, Touro Law Summer Abroad Program in Germany

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