Confronting the Past in Berlin
I’ve just returned from a trip to Berlin — a city saturated in World War II history. When you walk around Berlin, you come across the Holocaust Memorial whether you mean to or not. The rows of cement rectangles grow and form waves just to side of Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park) and south of the Brandenburg Gate and Unter den Linden – the famously wide avenue where the Nazis once paraded in strict formation. This memorial, along with the Topographie of Terrors — a site that chronicles Hitler’s rise to power and the horrifyingly organized, yet disturbingly arbitrary, takeover of Germany — led me to realize just how absent the discussion of Nazis, systematic mass murders, and the persecution of Jews is from the letters between my grandparents. My grandfather was deeply committed to radical left wing causes and he was Jewish (even if not practicing), yet there has been complete silence on this subject in their correspondence. Is this because it might be censored? Is it because the atrocities being committed were already common knowledge by 1943, when these letters begin? Are they too horrible to write about? Or, alternatively, were the atrocities still not well understood? Could it be that when it comes to the daily struggles of war, the more distant or “ideological” reasons for the war recede from your mind, no matter how real or tragic they are?
Berlin confronts its past everywhere you look. Even in a spot such as a bus stop, you might find an unforgiving portrait of a German Nazi who was responsible for the murder of a group of people, accompanied by a photo.
The city appears to my naive eyes to be thriving. It is not only an accessible city for tourists but it has become a desirable locale for young artists, musicians, and other trendsetters. Berlin is a place where you can learn about the unfathomable atrocities that happened a mere 60 years ago, while also seeing – and enjoying — what the city has to offer in present day. Sometimes the contrast can be unsettling. So while Berlin confronts its past head on, the letters that I continue to read about World War II seem not to confront the political and social environment that is shaping their lives. How can there be such a silence from a Jewish man who has been sent back to the continent on which he was raised to battle a Fascist regime on behalf of America – a country to which he has not fully assimilated? What were the discussions like in 1943 when Fascism was taking over Europe? Why is there such a glaring silence on this subject?
As I headed towards the airport a German man asked me how I liked my stay, and seemed to have a genuine interest in how foreign visitors perceived the city and how they might speak about it after returning home. Before we parted ways he said that now the world is watching the American election and hoping that Mitt Romney would not defeat President Obama in the fall. In a city so aware its political past, this seemed all the more poignant that the world is now looking to what America does next.