Troubled and tragic history underpins born-again Berlin
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. • stiftung-denkmal.de/en/home