Berlin offers Jewish tourists more than Holocaust history


BERLIN (JTA) — It used to be that few Jews would consider Berlin, or even Germany at all, as a tourist destination. But that has changed as Berlin has become a top European draw, particularly for young people and artsy types.

For Jewish visitors, it’s not despite the history, but largely because of it that Berlin is so compelling. The place where the destruction of European Jewry was planned is now a site of Jewish resurgence, and Jewish visitors would do well to see both sides of the equation.

When it comes to history, the Holocaust takes center stage, of course.

A good place to start is at some of the historical sites that have been turned into exhibits on Holocaust history. The House of the Wannsee Conference on the southwestern edge of Berlin marks the place where the Third Reich came up with the Final Solution in January 1942. The powerful exhibit there traces the history of the Third Reich’s plans to eradicate Jews, including both public propaganda and behind-the-scenes machinations. A table in the room where the conference was held contains facsimiles of the one surviving protocol of the meeting, in which euphemisms for mass murder are rampant.

Likewise, Gleis 17 — track 17 at the Grunewald commuter railway station outside the city center — is an exhibit of living history. It was from this station that tens of thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps and death camps in the east. There are a few memorials here, including the one on the platform itself that records the dates on which Berlin’s Jews were transported, how many of them were deported and to which destinations.

Jewish tour guide Yael Schlesinger, who was born and raised here, says she favors the Rosenstraße memorials that commemorate the famous, non-violent protest in 1943 by non-Jewish wives against the imprisonment of their Jewish husbands. It is one of the only examples of a successful protest against the mistreatment of Jews in Germany.

“My great grandfather Kurt Caro was one of the detainees, and my great grandmother Frieda Caro was one of the protesters,” Schlesinger says. “These people — and those who survived in the underground — formed the beginnings of the postwar Berlin Jewish community.”

Perhaps the most famous Holocaust monument in the city is the famed national Holocaust memorial in central Berlin, which opened in 2005 after years of debate and discussion. The memorial — created at the initiative of a non-Jewish activist — includes the above-ground, abstract monument designed by American Jewish architect Peter Eisenman — 2,711 tombstone-like slabs of stone of varying heights that occupy an entire city block — and a subterranean exhibit that tells the story of the destruction of the 6 million.

The story of the perpetrators and their postwar prosecution is on display a short walk away, at the Topography of Terror archive and exhibit, where the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office once stood. The site itself is impressive: Outside, you see a crumbling remnant of the Berlin Wall; one level down are the cellar walls of the Gestapo headquarters, revealed during post-unification excavations. The new archive building itself, which overlooks these two layers of history, contains a permanent photographic and auditory exhibit on the “banality of evil,” as the political theorist Hannah Arendt put it. It traces how ordinary Germans became war criminals in the massive genocide against the Jews.

Germany’s Jewish history is about more than the Holocaust, of course. There are traces of Jewish life here going back nearly 2,000 years, according to the Jewish Museum Berlin. This museum, which opened in 2001 and remains one of the most popular museums in Germany, is the best place in the city to learn about that history. The museum, which is inundated with school groups, also provides an introduction to Jewish traditions and holidays. Watching non-Jewish Germans peering at the circumcision tools, stepping under a chuppah and checking out the bedecked Shabbat table under glass offers a sense of how Jews living here sometimes feel: like they are on display.

A gem of a museum — doable in an hour — is the Centrum Judaicum in the Mitte neighborhood, housed in the same building as Berlin’s New Synagogue and the offices of the Berlin Jewish Community. Its permanent exhibit provides an impression of the diversity of Jewish life in Berlin before its destruction — from Regina Jonas, the first woman ever ordained as a rabbi, to what happened here during the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938.

To get a taste for Jewish life in Berlin today, it’s good to get away from the museums. Jewish life has ballooned in Germany since the fall of the Soviet Union sent nearly 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews into the country, transforming what until then had been a community numbering just 30,000. 

In the capital city, however, much of the Jewish growth has come from Israelis. Though the official number of Jews in Berlin is 11,000, up from 4,000 two decades ago, locals believe there may be as many as 30,000 Jews here, half of them Israeli expats who have come for Berlin’s thriving cultural and arts scene. The Hebrew language website and Aviv Russ’ weekly Kol Berlin radio show offer a taste of Israeli life here. Those interested in clubbing it Jewish style can also see if Israeli expat Aviv Netter is planning one of his famous dance parties by visiting the Facebook group Berlin Meschugge. Or they can party with young Jews from Berlin’s Russian-Jewish scene at the “Russendisko” dance parties of Jewish writer and DJ Wladimir Kaminer.

If you time your visit to the city’s annual Days of Jewish Culture, held in late summer for about two weeks, you’ll see not only world-class musicians and other Jewish and Israeli performers in Berlin — but also the undying fascination non-Jewish Germans have with all things Jewish. Likewise, the annual Berlin-Potsdam Jewish Film Festival, which is scheduled for April 29 – May 12, 2013; many films and events are in English.

If you want to meet local Jews, Shabbat services are a safe bet. The official community umbrella organization provides a list, and then there are the alternatives: the intimate Ohel HaChidush Jewish Renewal congregation, whose members often prepare their own dairy meal following their New Agey, musical service; Chabad, which offers services in both west and east Berlin; or the Lauder Yeshurun Orthodox services. It’s a good idea to get in touch before going. And bring your passport with you; there is a security check at all community synagogues.

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