Jewish Life & History

This past week, Prof. Thorsten Wagner took us on a tour of various locales — covering both modern Jewish life and historical life in Berlin. We started by heading to the headquarters of the Jewish Community in Berlin — the Centrum Judaicum. The building was guarded by two extremely alert seeming policemen – Prof. Wagner explained that all Jewish buildings in Berlin afford the same security measures, as the state wants to make absolutely sure that the Jewish community is safe.

We then headed to the Neue Synagogue (New Synagogue). This was the only synagogue to survive Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) on November 9, 1938. For those who are not familiar with the name, this was the night when Nazi anti-Semitism burst, and Jewish owned buildings were vandalized — the broken window’s giving the night its name. Jewish men were rounded up, humiliated, and then arrested. The Neue Synagogue survived, interestingly, due to the decision of a Nazi Chief of Police. He decided that the building was of historical significance — no matter what religion it belonged to.

Unfortunately, the Neue Synagogue was damaged by the end of World War II in one of the many Allied bombings of Berlin. It has been restored only partially — on purpose. The remaining preserved damage from the bombing and the fires stands as a reminder of the consequences of war. The bottom floors serve as a museum for people of all faiths. To enter, however, each visiter has to go through a TSA-style x-ray security check.

After the Neue Synagogue, we headed to the Judischen Friedhof (Jewish cemetery). On the way, we passed the Jewish School, and also Sophien Kirche (Sophie Church). Sophien Kirche is an interesting building — it’s spire survived the destruction of World War II. Its neighboring buildings, however, still sport the original bullet holes from the war. These have been left at the choice of the residents, and they are an example of the many impromptu memorials around Berlin.

We walked around the cemetery when we got there. Interestingly, up until a few years a go, it was covered by a lawn. Due to uninformed tourists having their spontaneous picnics there, the Jewish community removed the grass and planted ivy in its place. The effect is stunning — the ivy is somehow haunting and peaceful at the same time. There are no headstones because the cemetery was extensively vandalized during Kristallnacht, but some have been preserved on the cemetery walls. The most important person buried at the cemetery is Moses Mendelsohn — his tombstone has been recently replaced. Mendelsohn was a key figure in the Jewish Renaissance which centered in Berlin in the early 20th century.

After the Judischen Friedhof, we started our walk to the final tour of the day at the Otto Weidt Haus. On the way, we stopped to look at and talk about the “Missing House” by Christian Boltanski. This building was completely leveled during the bombings of WWII, although both its neighbors survived intact. It has been purposefully left an empty space — it is a counter memorial. These types of memorials remind the viewers of the absence of once used to be. They are common throughout Berlin and the rest of Germany. There are labels on the outside walls of the standing neighbor’s homes with the names of the residents who once lived in the “Missing House”.

We ended at the Otto Weidt Haus. This small museum in the Haakescher Markt district is dedicated to Otto Weidt (1883-1947) who worked to hire disabled Jewish workers for his sewing factory which once stood where the museum is today. As many Jews throughout Berlin began to realize the deteriorating situation they were in, they applied for “Exit Visas” to the USA and other countries. Those with disabilities, however, were not able to get an Exit Visa. If an employer claimed to need them as workers, though, then the Nazi authorities held back from deporting them (at least to start with). Otto Weidt took advantage of this and purposefully hired disabled (mostly blind or partially blind) Jews for his small sewing factory. The museum is one of several dedicated to resistance against the Nazi regime.

Inside the Otto Weidt Haus, looking into the hiding room behind the closet once used to hide Jewish staff.

And that’s where the day ended!! Below are some more photos. Of course, there are many, many more — when visiting such emotional sites, it seems to be impossible to put the camera down. I’ve selected the best of the best for the world to see. Thanks again for reading!

Model of the Neue Synagogue in all its former glory.

“The Prophet” by Jakob Steinfeldt 1913. Neue Synagogue.

Sophien Kirche

The Missing House’s former residents.

Statue outside the Judischen Friedhof.

Judischen Friedhof

Vandalized headstones at the Judisches Friedhof.

Otto Weidt Haus

Postcard to Otto Weidt from his lover Alice Liszt, interened at Theresienstadt camp. She signs maiden-name “Sorge” — or worry — to let Weidt know of the dire reality at the camp.

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