Trou­bled and tragic history un­der­pins born-again Ber­lin

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - PENNY HUNTER

Our fam­ily of four is queu­ing to en­ter Ber­lin’s Me­mo­rial to the Mur­dered Jews of Europe when we are ap­proached by one of the staff. She smiles, hands us a brochure, tells us the ex­pected time we’ll wait, then gen­tly in­forms us it is rec­om­mended visi­tors be at least 14 years old.

She has raised an is­sue we had de­bated long and hard. Are our chil­dren — 10 and 11 — too young? Will the im­ages and texts be too con­fronting? At what age do you al­low chil­dren to know that hu­mans are ca­pa­ble of ex­tra­or­di­nary cru­elty to oth­ers and that such cru­elty can be wreaked on a scale be­yond com­pre­hen­sion?

Re­minders of Ber­lin’s trou­bled history are ev­ery­where. Shiny brass plaques dot the foot­paths, marked with the names and fates of those sent to con­cen­tra­tion camps. Som­bre stone fig­ures stand out­side what was once the Jewish Ceme­tery; the Nazis de­stroyed the graves and used the land as a hold­ing yard for the per­se­cuted be­fore de­port­ing them. There are re­minders of chil­dren’s suf­fer­ing and sal­va­tion in a bronze statue out­side a train sta­tion de­pict­ing the con­trast­ing for­tunes of those res­cued via the Kindertransport and those sent to their deaths. Build­ings are still rid­dled with bullet holes from the fi­nal, for­mi­da­ble as­sault by the Rus­sian army on the city in 1945. And then there’s the Wall.

We’ve en­coun­tered all these sights while ex­plor­ing this scarred yet vi­brant city and they have prompted long dis­cus­sions with our chil­dren. But now we stand in the queue at the me­mo­rial, our re­solve shaken. In the end it is our daugh­ter who helps make the de­ci­sion. She re­minds us of the books she has read — The Di­ary of Anne Frank, The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas, The Book Thief and Num­ber the Stars — and is adamant that the me­mo­rial is an es­sen­tial part of our Ber­lin itin­er­ary.

We de­cide to en­ter. At street level, the me­mo­rial has an im­pos­ing pres­ence. The site is cov­ered in more than 2700 con­crete ste­lae of vary­ing heights. Their grave-like shape is un­mis­tak­able, and walk­ing among them gives a sense of the enor­mity of the tragedy we will soon learn more about. In­side the in­for­ma­tion cen­tre, be­low ground, the at­mos­phere is quiet and re­spect­ful as visi­tors fol­low a timeline of the per­se­cu­tion of Europe’s Jews af­ter the Na­tional So­cial­ists took power in 1933.

The rest of the cen­tre is di­vided into four ex­hi­bi­tion rooms. In the Room of Names, a record­ing of brief bi­ogra­phies of all known Jewish Holo­caust vic­tims is played con­tin­u­ously; to lis­ten to the record­ing in its en­tirety would take more than six years.

Another room chron­i­cles the fates of a di­verse ar­ray of Jewish fam­i­lies — their lives be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter per­se­cu­tion — while in another there are films, photos and au­dio record­ings de­tail­ing the more than 200 sites where atroc­i­ties took place.

It is in the Room of Di­men­sions where we spend most time. Mes­sages from Holo­caust vic­tims are il­lu­mi­nated in glass pan­els on the floor. We wan­der slowly and care­fully, not want­ing to tread on words of unimag­in­able de­spair and sor­row, writ­ten by adults and chil­dren fac­ing a ter­ri­fy­ing fu­ture.

One, dated July 31, 1942, reads: “Dear fa­ther! I am say­ing good­bye to you be­fore I die. We would so love to live, but they won’t let us and we will die. I am so scared of this death … Good­bye for­ever. I kiss you ten­derly. Yours, J.”

For our kids, these letters — some hand­writ­ten and thrown from trains en route to the death camps — bring a per­sonal per­spec­tive to a tragedy that un­til now had seemed ab­stract and unimag­in­able.

We leave the cen­tre and find our­selves bathed in the Ber­lin sun­shine cast­ing long shad­ows be­tween the con­crete ste­lae. The chil­dren are sub­dued but not dis­tressed.

Later, they tell us how in­cred­i­bly grate­ful they are for their lucky lives. •

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