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Friday, 1 May 2009

Berlin and memory... and the enigma of walls

Before last week I’d only spent a few hours in Berlin. In 1969, on a school trip to the Soviet Union, we passed through the divided city en route to Moscow by train. All I recall from that brief encounter with the city was a visit to the Olympic stadium, eerie-because-deserted that day, yet familiar from those grainy black-and-white sequences from the 1936 ‘Jesse Owens’ Olympics; Leni Riefenstahl’s chillingly beautiful 1938 film of the Games, Olympia; and those triumphalist rallies in which Hitler bewitched his people into uncritical adulation of their nation and its leaders (and which of course involved the demonization of Jews, communists and other deviants) – staged mass gatherings that have left me with a permanent disquiet about the potential for crowds to be thrilled and manipulated by rhetoric and emotional appeals to lofty causes.

And although I’ve been to Germany on several dozen occasions in the intervening years - mainly to Jewish-Christian conferences and Jewish-Christian-Muslim gatherings - and have long admired the work that has gone into the deep, prolonged and painful process of German post-War self-examination, restitution and renewal, I had never had the opportunity for a visit to Berlin.

Of course, as a tourist, my impressions of the four days spent there are inevitably those of an outsider, an observer – but I console myself with the thought (the rationalisation) that sometimes one has a better view from the margins than from the centre.

And my abiding impression after this fleeting encounter with this great European capital is that Berlin is still a death-haunted city. Let me be clear – I loved the city, its cosmopolitan culture, its cafes, its coffee, its integrated (and cheap) transport system, its bold new architecture, its leisurely Sunday afternoon strolling by the river and sunbathing in the Tiergarten, its weekday sense of vibrant busyness yet without London’s aggressive pushiness. Indeed, although I have no German forebears, I felt curiously at home there.

Maybe this was in part because I could see how my spiritual heritage is partly rooted there: here was the seminary building (the forerunner of my own rabbinic college) where Leo Baeck taught until 1942; there, in the renovated Oranienburger synagogue which originally held 3,200 Reform-minded congregants, is a picture of Rabbi Werner van der Zyl (who ended up at West London Synagogue) preaching in 1937; and round the corner is the home of Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi (in 1935), who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.

So the city felt as if it has been part of my internal Jewish map for decades. Yet what I’m calling its ‘death-haunted’ quality came at me from unexpected angles.

Of course there are the Jewish deaths. But these aren’t hidden away. On the contrary – this is a city fully engaged in acts of memorialisation: from the names of streets recalling Jewish figures; to the plaques on walls where Jews lived, or worshipped; to the sculptured memorials in parks; to the extraordinary ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, built by the American architect Peter Eisenman between 1999 and 2005 – a memorial site the size of Trafalgar Square in the very heart of Berlin, filled with 2711 slabs of grey concrete, into which you can wander, at first (when seeing it from the outside) imaging it as a graveyard of flat slabs, then entering into the midst of the site with its dipping, uneven ground, where pillars rear up 13 feet tall, and disorientation and dizziness dazes the senses...Berlin is recalling, is choosing to remember, that an enormous crime emerged from this land, this ground, this soil. The absent dead are everywhere.

And then there are the deaths of other Germans, victims of communism in its East German guise: the wooden crosses one finds in parts of the city memorialising those who died trying to escape into the West. Shot while attempting to cross the Wall, a Wall that divided neighbour from neighbour, brother from sister, parent from child – from 1961 to 1989 this city lived with its brokenness and the visitor can still see the ways in which the city’s two ‘halves’ have not yet healed together.

Only now, 20 years later - after the initial euphoria at reunification and then the years of amnesia, wanting to forget this wound - comes the growing need to remember the past, to build a memorial site that honours the dead, and tells the story, and allows the whole city to keep in mind the suffering that rigid ideologies will always cause.

People gather in groups, and singly, in front of the crosses, each plain white cross with a name, a brief story, and a date of death. Lives cut short by the need to escape from ‘here’ to ‘there’. And the larger story they symbolise is written invisibly at these sites – the power of the human spirit wishing to cross borders, to move freely, to re-connect with family or friends, or just re-connect to the hope for a better life. And the forces that nations regularly marshal against these human needs.

As the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall approaches – and of course Jews recall the curious game that history plays, for the Wall fell on November 9th, the anniversary of the 1938 pogroms of Kristallnacht – there is the sense that Berlin is actively facing and integrating this other tragic element in its recent history. This city, once again in thrall to a dominant ideology – corporate capitalism in all its (now rapidly fading) glory – is nevertheless able to keep in mind a higher truth : in the midst of life there is death. The space given over to memory and memorials is a mature and responsible acknowledgement of how death may be inevitable but killing is not.

Death comes anyway, but that we are the dealers of premature death for others is a hard knowledge to bear. But I know of no other city in the world that has done more to keep in consciousness this painful knowledge – that leaders, governments, fellow citizens have murderousness and brutality written into their souls.

It happened to be Yom Ha-Shoah while I was in Berlin, the day we Jews recall what was done to us. As always, It falls the week before Yom Ha-atzmaut, which we’ve celebrated this week, the day we Jews recall the ‘miracle’ of Israel’s (re)birth in 1948.

There are walls we build to keep people in. And there are walls we build to keep people out. But eventually all walls are defeated by the tides of history (let Hadrian’s wall, and China’s ‘Great Wall’, stand in for all the rest). As I stood in front of the decorated relics of Berlin’s twenty-eight year Wall, I could not help but think of that other Wall, ‘over there’.

And I recalled Professor Sari Nusseibeh of Al-Quds University, as quoted in the playwright David Hare’s recent ‘Wall: A Monologue’ (for full text see www. :

It’s like sticking someone in a cage and then when he starts screaming, as any normal person would, using his violent temper as justification for putting him in the cage in the first place. The wall is the perfect crime because it creates the violence it was ostensibly built to prevent.

A polemical and provocative observation, but one that I feel honour-bound to listen to, even while I want to argue with it (“But there was violence before...”). And I recall too the Israeli novelist David Grossman’s plangent and humane words about his country and its Wall:

Of course at the foundation of the state there was a tremendous sense of purpose, of building something together. But we squandered our chance to make the state permanent in 1967. Instead of using the conquered territories as leverage in negotiation, instead we became addicted to occupation. When a people have suffered as much as we have it’s not a bad feeling to be masters for once. And we became addicted to that feeling, like a narcotic.

Now we have terrible trouble imagining any other reality than the one we live in. You become habituated, you cannot believe there is another possible way of life. And so effectively you become a victim of the situation. And here, again, is the central paradox, the idea of Israel was that we would cease to be victims. Instead we hand our fate over to the security people, we allow the army to run the country, because we lack a political class with a vision beyond the military. Survival becomes our only aim. We are living in order to survive, not in order to live.

I want to begin to live. I want some gates in the wall.

Berlin was a reminder, is a reminder, that there is always ‘another possible way of life’ – if we have the imagination (and courage) to grasp it.

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