“It is anything but obvious that leaders of the Jewish community would want to address us today”, explained one Church leader, to the thousand-strong group who had gathered at Berlin’s City Hall to commemorate Kristallnacht, perpetrated 75 years ago this past Saturday. The mayor of Berlin, the Catholic Archbishop of Berlin and the Protestant Bishop of Berlin and surroundings led the group in a silent march, stopping at memorials along the way, to Oranienburgerstraße – a street which is again home to a Jewish community – where the demonstration was addressed by two Rabbis, as soon as Shabbat ended. “It is sign of hope that shabbat is again being celebrated on Oranienburgerstraße”, he explained.
The speeches given by the Mayor, Bishop and Archbishop are also not to be taken for granted. The Mayor discussed the complete lack of organized resistance by the Churches. He pointed out individual acts – for instance, the police commissioner who prevented S.S. men from burning the New Synagogue (pictured above) on Kristallnacht – and cited them as evidence that resistance would not have been futile, had there truly been any here in Germany. The church leaders, for their part, spoke shamefully of the lack of courage of their predecessors. The Protestant Bishop Markus Dröge called on the state to be open open to asylum seekers escaping contemporary persecution, a hot topic at the moment.
Germany is not in danger of forgetting. On the contrary, the process of remembrance is a living aspect German society today. Berlin chose “Diversity Destroyed” (Zerstörte Vielfalt) as the theme for 2013, putting faces and names to many people from the city who fled or were murdered during Nazi rule. The activities surrounding the theme culminated with this weekend’s events.
On Friday, the President of Germany visited the workshop of Otto Weidt, a man who saved many Jews’ lives. But unlike in most of Europe, the Legend of the Resistance is far from the dominant discussion in Germany. Here, it is still very much one of guilt and accepting responsibility. Indeed, throughout Europe, one rarely hears tales of French, Italian or Polish culpability – nor of German resistance.
This weekend, the tone followed suit. Shops around the legendary Kurfürstendamm – an area where many shops were owned by Jewish families before the Holocaust – put decals up, showing their windows as if they were shattered. Kids were asked to make short films in responses to questions like “What would you do if the most important thing in your life was taken away” – which produced shorts ranging from a boy taking away his little sister’s iPhone to two teenagers of the same sex holding hands in the schoolyard, before getting bullied and separated. The films, amongst other things, were projected onto the Brandenburg Gate on Sunday night in a evening called “Diversity is Freedom” (Vielhalt ist Freiheit).
On Saturday, the main event was the Silent March through Berlin. It wound its way from Alexanderplatz past Museum Island and onto Unter Den Linden, where the first stop was at the Berliner Dom, an enormous protestant church in Mitte. A group of students from a protestant church group read aloud stories of lives destroyed on Kristallnacht, as they were doing all day.
The March continued, moving to the Book Burning Memorial in front of Humboldt University’s Law Department. An enormous book burning was held here on May 10, 1933, in which professors and students of the University brought books out of the library and burned them, accompanied by orchestras of the S.A. and S.S. An underground memorial houses empty bookshelves in commemoration. As the demonstration arrived, a catholic choir stood on the steps of the department, singing Shalom Alecheim, traditionally sung as Shabbat begins. Here is a dreadfully unprofessional video I shot of them, but it’s the audio that counts: Cathloic choir singing Shalom Alecheim at the Book Burning Memorial in Berlin
And on Oranienburgerstraße, we stopped in front of a parking lot. Not at the recognizeable “New Synagogue” from 1866, which was spared on Kristallnacht but ruined by allied bombings, then partially razed and rebuilt in East Berlin, but at the site of another synagogue which was burnt down on Kristallnacht. The demonstration arrived before shabbat ended, at which point the crowd – by now, larger than when it had begun – respectfully waited for the two Rabbis who would be addressing the group to come. The group stood in the street, looking for the first stars, arguing, Talmudically, whether the first star that was spotted was indeed a star or was a planet.
The group was addressed by Andreas Nachama, a Rabbi and Professor who is involved in many walks of Berlin life, and by Gesa Ederberg, Rabbi at the Synagogue on Oranienburgerstraße. They traded off at the podium, Rabbi Nachama discussing the current day situation. He discussed the fact that all over the world, there are Jews, Christians and Muslims who are persecuted for their beliefs, and the desire of the Jewish Community to rebuild a reform synagogue on that empty parking lot, before which we stood.
Rabbi Ederberg discussing Kristallnacht, emphasizing not just the S.S. men who burned synagogues to the ground that night but the men in suits and ties who walked by, not wanting to see what was going on. And she told a tearful audience of the studying and laughter, humor and knowledge, which were lost along with the lives taken in the Holocaust.