Remembering History in Modern Germany by Ethan Wolfsonln

In Germany, history seems deceptive. The reality is much of what seems old is new. In Berlin and Munich, history and modernity live in tangent. While the ornate facades are seemingly old, they fool visitors and residents alike into feeling brought back in time. The beauty of the old churches and clock towers are reimaginations rebuilt after bombings in World War II. Old spaces are now occupied by luxury stores and Starbucks. If you aren’t looking close enough, you might miss the realities of what happened there.

The Brauhaus where Hitler grabbed power within the Nazi party is now a cultural center in Munich. The National Socialism Documentation Center in Munich stands on the former grounds of the ‘Brown House’ where the Nazi’s maintained administrative offices, executing their wicked plans. In Berlin, the “Old Synagogue” destroyed in the November pogroms (Kristallnacht/The Night of Broken Glass) is marked simply with a layer of cobblestone embedded into the earth. In Wannsee, the house where the systemic structure of ‘Final Solution’ was planned out sits beside a serene lake and among offices and residential buildings. But life goes on in these places. When the Nazis rounded up Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, ‘invalids,’ ‘asocials,’ and anyone else they deemed inferior, life went on. In the idyllic neighborhood of Schoeneberg, I was readily reminded how life goes on with so much history surrounding us.

Schoeneberg is a residential area well enough away from the tourist centers of Berlin. It is certainly not the place one would expect to go to remember the Holocaust. Around the neighborhood, there were signs strapped to lampposts recalling the laws passed by the Nazis restricting Jews’ freedoms. Then we came to a small memorial on the grounds of an elementary school where a synagogue once stood memorializing Kristallnacht. I turned around and looked down the narrow street where 6-story apartment buildings flanked the road. A child and his mother came riding by on bikes. I began to imagine what it must’ve been like for the people of this neighborhood 85 years ago. You learn your Jewish neighbor is told they can’t use their telephone. You hear that the Jews are only allowed to sit on designated benches. You find out your Jewish friend is required to change his name, and add “Israel” to the end, so the Nazis know he is a Jew. You wake up and go to your friend’s flat from across the way to borrow some milk. But they never come. Later you learn your friend in the flat across the way has been taken. Far from the bustle of Berlin, separated from the imposing Soviet-era architecture and the life of modern Germany, it was easy to imagine how life really played out in Germany during the Nazi regime. The amenities of modernity faded away as I pictured bystanders leaning over balconies, patting dirt from their rugs, or mothers perusing the grocers’ morning fruit display. Life went on. Even as the laws continued, each more oppressive and humiliating than the last, as though the first few tested the water but the real agenda was yet to play out, life went on. Even as friends disappeared in the night, life went on. 

Figure 2: Deutche Stadium on the former Nazi Rally Grounds to become a cultural arts center. 

Life continues to go on. Each day, we lose more Survivors. And each day as we move further from the Shoah, I fear the world is at risk of forgetting the realities of what happened in Europe under Nazi rule. The former Nazi rally grounds in Nuremburg where Hitler assembled his supporters is now occupied by Nuremburg’s football club, and the unfinished Deutsche Stadium is planned to be the site of a new cultural arts center for the town. Is this appropriation of history? Does this allow people to move on without remembering? Is it my place to say anything as a non-German? As a Jew? What is my responsibility to ensure we all live up to the ideal to never forget? Across Berlin, there are golden stumbling stones (stolpersteine) reminding passerbys that Jews once lived in these buildings before they were deported to concentration camps. But if you aren’t looking for them, you will miss them. And those Jews who once owned businesses, supported their communities, and gave back to their neighbors, will be forgotten too. 

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