Where history never lets you be

Berlin -- At the community centre five doors down from my apartment building in central Berlin, a winding staircase leads to the upper floors. But the red wooden railing is not at the normal height -- it barely comes up to my knees. A sign hung on the landing explains its origins -- the centre once housed a Jewish children's home and countless little hands used the railing for balance while climbing the steep stairs. Until, of course, the Nazis rounded up most of the kids with the nearly 56,000 Berlin Jews who were sent to their deaths in the camps in the east.

The wooden handrail at the entrance of the community centre on the Fehrbellinertrasse in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district. The centre once housed a Jewish children's home, until the Nazis rounded up most of the kids, sending them to the death camps in the east. (AFP / John Macdougall)

I have lived and reported from the heart of peaceful, prosperous Germany for more than two decades but am still not entirely steeled to the jabs to the gut you can get walking through its public spaces. No one does memorials quite like the Germans, accosting you in the streets as you go about your business. Particularly in Berlin, the past is never the past, even in a city with a knack for constantly reinventing itself.

First-time visitors often find it overwhelming. Friends from my hometown Boston, an older Jewish couple, for years couldn't bring themselves to make the trip. When they finally did, they were bowled over by the city's charms but had to brace themselves for what they called "the creepy factor" -- those reminders of the past that seem to sneak up on you at every turn. My own walk to and from the office each day takes me through a beautiful, bustling and -- when you open your eyes to it -- harrowing landscape. It's history that never lets you be.

But it's not the sites you're prepared for, the ones that are in the guidebooks, that have the biggest impact. I covered Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a giant, sprawling labyrinth of steles recalling headstones, from its conception until its opening in 2005.

But while its vastness and prime location speak through a kind of megaphone, it's the whispers of neighborhood mementos, the small-scale forms of remembrance, that get under my skin.

Embedded in the pavement outside my building are two Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks), small plaques the size of a child's hand stating in stark terms the fate of a mother and daughter who lived in a small apartment in the garden wing: 50-year-old Taube Ibermann and Lotte, 19. An internet search soon after we moved in turned up a black-and-white photo of the family: a dressmaker and her children beaming and wearing handsewn sailor suits.

(AFP / John Macdougall)

While the two younger girls made it out of Germany on the Kindertransporte just as the noose was tightening around the country's Jewish population, the eldest and her widowed mother were deported to what is today the Polish city of Lodz on October 29, 1941 and never heard from again. An American woman and her German partner, both academics, now share their own old flat. And that's the thing about learning about this hyper-local history in the face of the incomprehensible enormity of the crimes -- it carries responsibilities with it. My neighbours and I take turns polishing the plaques when they get scuffed and lay white roses for Taube and Lotte on November 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht. It is the least we can do.

In the 1990s when I arrived here fresh from university in the United States, long before Berlin finally opened its spectacular Jewish Museum or the Holocaust memorial, there were the chilling, authentic relics you could still find on its walls -- crumbling facades on which you could still make out words like "Butter" or "Rum" from the former shops of the old Jewish quarter of the Mitte district. The capital's rapid gentrification in recent years has seen most of those old signs painted over in fresh pastel colours.

Tombstones against a wall of Berlin's oldest Jewish cemetery in the district of Mitte, October, 2013. (AFP / John Macdougall)

Now a walk down the hill heading to town takes me past dozens of Stolpersteine, then by Yafo, a quirky Israeli joint serving up vegan food and all-night DJ sets. It's run by a Berliner and a fun team from Tel Aviv who were drawn by an intense cultural exchange that's developed between the two cities.

The Yafo restaurant. (AFP / John Macdougall)
The Yafo restaurant. (AFP / John Macdougall)



I turn onto a quiet street with a squat communist-era school built in the gap left by a World War II bombing raid. I had walked past countless times but it was only when winter stripped a chestnut tree of its leaves that I learned there had been a synagogue there before the war. A street artist created a ghostly rendering of the temple before its destruction, painted in broad black strokes on a white wall.

I continue on past Rosenstrasse, the site of a successful uprising by women against the Nazis in February and March 1943 on behalf of their Jewish husbands who had been rounded up at a deportation centre. In scenes recorded in Goebbels' diaries, the men, who were supposedly protected under Nazi law by being married to “Aryans”, had been herded together as part of a nationwide sweep for the last remaining Jews. After a weeklong vigil day and night by hundreds of women outside the building, what was by all accounts a miracle occurred. The gates opened, the guards stepped aside and the men poured out into the arms of their wives. A striking communist-era memorial depicts the moment.

When I tack over to the historic city centre, I walk through what was once the financial district to the seat of the former stock exchange. But in 1941, the Gestapo moved in, setting up its cynically named Department of Jewish Affairs which organised the deportations within view of city's main Protestant cathedral and the Prussian-era temples of high culture on Museum Island. Today a drab glass-and-steel office building occupies the site, with a small plaque documenting its history that I have to squint to read.

As I cross the bridge to Museum Island, a world heritage site that attracts throngs of visitors from all over the world, my eye lingers each time on the bullet holes that still pierce the columns leading to the 19th century New Museum. The deep indentations bear witness to the firefights between the Red Army and Nazi soldiers in the last days of the war and were intentionally left intact during a spectacular renovation by British architect David Chipperfield completed in 2009.

Echoes of the past in the columns on Museum Island. August, 2010. (AFP / Johannes Eisele)

Rounding on to Unter den Linden, where AFP has its Berlin office, the Brandenburg Gate comes into view. The venue for torchlight parades by the brownshirts in the 1930s and, decades later, the joyous scenes at the fall of the Berlin Wall seems almost a footnote after my wanderings through the side streets.

So do memorials work? What does it mean to live your life with grim history constantly intruding? Eisenman, the Holocaust memorial designer, struck a pessimistic note in a recent interview, telling the Die Zeit weekly that he doubted it could have been built in the current environment, with rising extremism and populism resisting such national expressions of atonement. But after a right-wing politician this month criticised the memorial as a “monument of shame in the heart of the capital”, the backlash against him was swift and powerful. The national broadsheet Sueddeutsche Zeitung declared: “Our remembrance culture is the best thing that could have happened to Germany,” crediting it with creating a nation more at peace with itself and the world.

Many Germans bristle at the notion, often put forward in foreign media, that their government's decision to let in more than a million asylum seekers since 2015 was a bid to make up for the Nazi past with a grand humanitarian gesture.

While that reading strikes me as a little too pat, I do think that many Germans, steeped in so many reminders of terror and suffering, but also acts of human decency and bravery, may be more predisposed to help than most. Despite growing dissent against Angela Merkel's liberal asylum policy, a recent study found that 3 to 4 million Germans regularly volunteer with refugee causes.

That community centre on my street has got in on the act too. Its staff has been collecting children's clothing, toys and books to distribute to families who have fled the horrors of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to start a new life in the German capital.

The community centre that once housed a Jewish children's home on the Fehrbellinertrasse in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district. (AFP / John Macdougall)


Deborah Cole