Berlin – A Ray of Hope in Europe

Guest blogger Stuart Wachs, president and CEO of the Jewish Association of Greater Phoenix, recently returned from a mission to Berlin and shares his reflection from the trip.

I have just returned from a short mission to Berlin with 12 Federation colleagues. Sponsored by Daat travel, this was a unique opportunity to see Jewish Berlin and gain an understanding of the historic, horrific, tragic and encouraging Jewish life in Berlin. I must admit that before I was presented this unique opportunity, I didn’t think a trip to Jewish Berlin could be encouraging. I was wrong.

Berlin has a very rich Jewish history prior to World War II. Jews integrated into society, Jewish life was full and many Jews fought and died defending Germany in World War I. Then came the atrocities of Nazi Germany: the destruction of Jewish life in Germany, the deportation and murder of Jews, and the darkest moment in Jewish history.

Gleis 17 (Track 17), in the neighborhood of Grunewald, was the main deportation center for Berlin Jews during the Holocaust has a memorial that was initiated by the Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway company, to commemorate the deportations undertaken by its predecessor, the Deutsche Reichsbahn.  Photo by Stuart Wachs

Gleis 17 (Track 17), in the neighborhood of Grunewald, was the main deportation center for Berlin Jews during the Holocaust. It now has a memorial that was initiated by the Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway company, to commemorate the deportations undertaken by its predecessor, the Deutsche Reichsbahn. Photo by Stuart Wachs

During the trip, we saw where Nazi bunkers and the SS headquarters were previously located. We visited the railroad station, Track 17, where thousands of Jews were deported and soon murdered at Auschwitz, Theresienstadt and other concentration camps. Standing in these locations was disturbing. When you see the many houses that overlook the railroad station, one can only imagine the number of people who simply turned their heads. Your eyes fill with tears and your heart pounds with sadness, followed by anger. Then, you think of what is currently happening across Europe and the Middle East today. You pray that good people will raise their voices to take action.

Germany is taking action. It took far too long after World War II for Germany to face up to the atrocities that were committed there and throughout Europe by the Nazis.

By the 1990s, Germany had begun owning its past and making a stand to ensure it does not happen again. We visited the memorial to Jews killed in Europe that was intentionally not called a Holocaust memorial but instead is specifically called the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.”

It is located in the heart of Berlin – paid for and maintained by the German government. Interestingly, this memorial and most of the other memorials we visited where not constructed for tourists. They were constructed for the citizens of Germany and the messages on the plaques are written in German. The memorials are a constant reminder to the German citizens, a reminder of what happened when they did not resist the evil Nazi movement – when they turned their heads from the murder of their fellow citizens. The messages on the plaques call on the German citizens to keep this from happening again. The government instituted one of the strongest Holocaust education programs for its public schools in the world and installed “stumbling blocks,” small plaque memorials that are placed randomly in the sidewalks in major German cities. The stumbling blocks are a constant reminder so citizens will never forget.

"Shalekhet" (Fallen Leaves) is an installation  at the Jewish Museum Berlin. More than 10,000 open-mouthed faces coarsely cut from heavy, circular iron plates cover the floor, expressing the irretrievable loss of the Jews murdered in Europe. Photo by Stuart Wachs

“Shalekhet” (Fallen Leaves) is an installation at the Jewish Museum Berlin. More than 10,000 open-mouthed faces coarsely cut from heavy, circular iron plates cover the floor, expressing the irretrievable loss of the Jews murdered in Europe. Photo by Stuart Wachs

While in Berlin, we went to the Jewish museum – not a Holocaust museum, but a Jewish museum. Exhibits portrayed the complete history from the thriving days pre-World War II to the horrific days of Nazi Germany. This museum is another example of the government’s dedication to fully illuminate its history – what had been and what can be again. We visited with leaders of the Jewish community in Berlin as well as students, young families and a rabbi, all who say that they feel comfortable being Jewish in Berlin. They all felt the government was doing what it could to support them, by providing security for the Jewish institutions and to help ensure the Holocaust is never forgotten or repeated. We walked comfortably to and from synagogue on Shabbat wearing kippot without worry or incident.

This does not mean anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in Germany or that the country is truly safe for all Jews. It does appear that at a time when anti-Semitism is running rampant in so much of Europe, of all places, Germany is a shining light. This is ironic in many ways but speaks to the possibilities that can exist when people and government are willing to admit their past sins and commit to creating a better tomorrow.

Our four-day mission trip was powerful and emotional. We were reminded of a thriving Jewish community that was lost to the horror of Nazi Germany. We experienced a present-day Jewish community that is starting to thrive, attracting Jews from other parts of Europe and from Israel to call Berlin home. I pray that this shining light keeps shining; that it gets brighter; and that somehow, other countries in Europe follow the example of present-day Germany. I highly encourage you to visit Berlin – to show your support for the Jewish community and for the German people who are building a strong Jewish community.

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