27 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Berlin

It only seems appropriate that our final stop on this Jewish Plight series should be Berlin...where the Final Solution saw its final days. In particular, you can visit the site of Hitler's bunker hide-out. Until a couple of years ago, the site was not even marked for fear it becoming a Neo-Nazi shrine. Today, though not well publicized, the site of the bunker is marked and can be visited at the corner of In den Ministergärten and Gertrud-Kolmar-Straße.

The bunker itself is where Hitler spent his last days. Less than a month after marrying long-time companion Eva Braun in that bunker, they both committed suicide there...a final testimant to Hitler's defeat. Today, the non-descript site has a parking lot, a small grass plaza, and apartment buildings surrounding it. And according to our tour guide, the only commenmorative rituals that happen here are dogs doing their business.

Just down the street from where Hitler and his "plan" met their ends is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews...a assemblage of concrete slabs varying in height and placed linearly over a 5 acre plot. In the corner of the memorial, you can enter an underground museum which highlights the personal stories of many of those who lost their lives. Poignant, moving, and not for the faint of heart, the museum brings to life real stories of separation, torture, and death.

But the memorial brings to question how much a nation should commemorate its tainted past. For some, perhaps it symbolizes the German people embracing and facing their history...both good and bad. But as Martin Walser points out, the memorial is a "ceaseless presentation of our shame." In that same vein, should memorials intend only to commemorate the good or can good come out of commemorating the bad as well? I'll leave that for each of us to decide.

24 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Prague

In the shadow of Poland's plight during WWII are the struggles of its close by neighbors: Bohemia and Moravia. Now the Czech Republic, its Jewish history is just as rich and tragic as Poland's, and the commemoration of the Jewish plight is some of the best in Eastern Europe.

The Jewish Museum in Prague spans 11 buildings, all of which commemorate, celebrate, and remember the fight and plight of the Jewish communities there. Perhaps the most moving of all the buildings is the Pinkas Synagogue. Following the Holocaust, extensive research commenced to find the names, birth and death dates, and hometowns of all Bohemians and Moravians who died in Nazi concentration camp Terezin. Almost 80,000 names, in red and black, were painstakingly written by hand both as a record of and memorial to those lost during the Holocaust.

But perhaps the most saddening part, other than the sheer number of names, is that this is the second version of the memorial. The original was completed in 1959. But with Israel's victory in the Six-Day War and the anti-semitic sentiment of the late 1960s, all the names were removed by the communist government. After extensive restoration, the current version was completed in 1996. For many (including Madeleine Albright who found proof of her grandfathers' fate) this is the only record of what became of loved ones and families separated during Nazi occupation.

But it is not just tragedy that is remembered here; it is also Jewish tradition. You see, not only is the Jewish Quarter (Josefov) immaculately preserved, many Jewish artifacts pilfered during WWII were kept and stored in Prague by the Nazis themselves. Their intention? To erect an "exotic museum of an extinct race" once their Final Solution came to fruition.

Though their Final Solution was squelched, their intent for a museum was not, and took on a much different form than intended: one of the best preservations of a brave and thriving people! Included in this preservation is the immaculate Spanish Synagogue designed in Moorish architectural style with Arabic patterns covering its interior walls (if you didn't know better you'd think you were entering a mosque). Also here is Europe's oldest surviving Jewish cemetery – a mishmash of headstones dating as far back as the 15th century. According to Jewish law, tombs cannot be destroyed nor gravestones removed. So when land become impossible to purchase, new layers of dirt covered old ones and ALL tombstones were crammed on top.

For Jewish history and commemoration of tragedy and tradition, the much overlooked Prague definitely deserves a lookover.

20 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Auschwitz-Birkenau

While I hate to say that a WWII death camp is a must-visit, Auschwitz truly shows just how heartless, horrible, and extensive the Nazi's "final solution" was...something you can't experience from reading books or seeing pictures. Named for the town of Oswiecim in which it stands (Auschwitz is its German name), Auschwitz was divided into three camps (I, II [Birkenau], and III) and was the largest in the German camp system.

When visiting the Auschwitz complex, some say to visit Auschwitz I if you are short on time. After all, there is much more to see there: buildings completely reconstructed, artifacts stolen from the Jews and compiled (glasses, fake teeth, even hair shaved from prisoners), and a concise history that helps tell the story of life in the concentration camps. In Auschwitz I, prisoners were kept alive, experimented upon, or forced to work under impossible conditions. In Birkenau, however, all that existed was death and those who worked for it.

The first thing you see upon arrival to Birkenau is a dominating, red brick watchtower and gate. From the outside, it appears like a grandiose entrance way, much the same as Brandenburg Gate or the Arch de Triomphe might seem. And perhaps this is how Himmler saw it as well. But as you walk through and see what hides behind its facade, feelings being to overwhelm and the void on the other side overtakes.

To the left and right are open fields, where the prison buildings once stood. Now it is a half mile of emptiness on each side. To the front, a single railroad track (ominously foreshadowing that people come in but not out) leads 1.5 miles ahead, terminating at the crematoriums (5 in all). This is where 1.1 million people were never given a chance, chosen not for who they were but for who they were not, and killed systematically...banefully...inhumanely.
And making the walk from entry to crematory makes it all the more real.

The crematoriums are gone; the prison buildings are destroyed. Now all that remains is the gate, the tracks, and the feeling of hollowness that Birkenau's massive expanse leaves behind.

17 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Krakow

While Warsaw saw the most physical destruction during WWII, Krakow's Kazimierz district and its Jewish history is probably the most familiar. It's proximity is not only the closest to well-known Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, but it was also home to the Jewish savior made popular Steven Spielberg: Oskar Schindler.

Schindler's enamel factory, now a museum, lies just outside Krakow's Jewish district. Here, hundreds of Jews were employed
under the auspices of "necessity to the war effort" and saved from the gas chambers. As depicted in the film, Oskar Schindler's original motivations were monetary. But as the war went on and more Jews were employed, his loyalties shifted to his workers despite their Jewish ethnicity. Taking a walk in the Kazimierz district, you might encounter scenes where Schindler's List was filmed. (These pictures are from the scene where mother is separated from daughter while trying to hide from the Nazis, then reunited under these stairs.)
But more disheartening than the extermination of the Jews and the risk Schindler took in their protection is the lack of a Jewish community here today. After the war, anti-semitism continued to thrive through the late 1960s. Following the Six-Day War between Israel and the Egypt/Jordan/Syria region (in which Israel came out victor), anti-semitic tensions continued to escalate in Poland and finally culminated the following year. Massive student protests, sparked by censorship of Poland's national poet of Jewish heritage, ended with more than 2,500 arrests. Jewish organizations were shut down, Yiddish was banned, and most Jews
by then had emigrated out of Poland.

Though anti-semitism does not thrive overtly, the residual effects are still apparent. The Jewish population was decimated by discrimination and people still hide their Jewish heritage. In fact, it is not uncommon for daughters and sons to discover their true heritage only as a final revelation by their parents on their death beds. Even today many Jewish Krakovians feel compelled to hide who they are.

15 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Esperanto

Given my personal interest in languages and culture, it seems only appropriate to mention L.L. Zamenhof as I follow the Jewish plight across Eastern Europe. For those unfamiliar, Zamenhof is the creator of the Esperanto language who found his home in Warsaw.

Born in Poland (formerly the Russian Empire) in 1859, Zamenhof grew up keenly aware of his Jewish heritage. His childhood town was home to four major ethnic groups (Jewish, Polish, German, and Belarusian), between which ethnically fueled quarrels often arose. In addition, from the year of his birth until 1905, anti-Jewish pogroms ran rampant in the Russian Empire. These factors not only encouraged Zamenhof to join the Zionist movement for a time, but no doubt inspired his pursuit of a language which everyone could easily learn and speak. In his view,
"the main reason for the hate and prejudice lay in mutual misunderstanding, caused by the lack of one common language that would play the role of a neutral communication tool between people of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds" (wikipedia.com). Esperanto was Zamenhof's response to this age-old conflict – it was intended as a way of promoting the peaceful coexistence of different people and cultures.

While Zamenhof himself wasn't around to see the horrors of the holocaust, his children were – Adam, Sofia, and Lidia all died during the holocaust. And their Jewish heritage was not the only factor that may have played a role in their persecution.
Hitler (as well as Stalin and other totalitarian leaders) saw Esperanto as a language of conspiracy and even wrote to this effect in Mein Kampf:

"As long as the Jew has not become the master of the other peoples, he must speak their languages whether he likes it or not, but as soon as they became his slaves, they would all have to learn a universal language (Esperanto, for instance!), so that by this additional means the Jews could more easily dominate them!"

Despite the persecution, Esperanto still survives boasting more than a thousand native speakers and hundreds of thousands of fluent speakers (some estimates as high as 8 million) worldwide. But more important, Zamenhof's pacifistic philosophy of tolerance survived the holocaust and continues to live on through the Esperanto language.

08 June 2010

The Jewish Plight: Warsaw

Modern-day Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and Berlin appear like any other cities in today's worldwide spectrum. They all tout successful tourist industries, beautiful architecture, blossoming economies, and heartbeats that distinguish them as unique in their own regard. But what sets them apart from others, and unites these 4 cities as one, are their tragic connections to WWII's holocaust and the atrocities experienced by each. My own exploration, education, and reflection began in Warsaw...

Walking through Warsaw today, it appears like any Eastern European city. Impeccable public transit, modern shopping malls, and new buildings flanked by socialist architecture of bygone days. But be careful...a tourist could easily flit around this city visiting Old Town, the Royal Walk, and Palace of Culture and Science and leave none the wiser to Warsaw's poignant past. But here in this now modern and beautiful city, the plight of the Jews was by far the most tragic.

Of the ghettos established by the Nazi regime, Warsaw's was the largest. Nearly 30% of Warsaw's population (~400,000 people) was forced into an area less than 3% the size of Warsaw. Conditions were difficult, disease rampant, and starvation and random shootings an everyday occurrence. Though buildings of the ghetto were mostly destroyed as Warsaw was "razed to the ground," the site of its Umschlagplatz (literally "reloading point") can still be visited today. Here, nearly 300,000 ghetto residents in just under 2 months
(about 7,000 each day) were gathered, loaded on trains, transported to Treblinka death camp, and killed in gas chambers.

While some met their untimely death at Treblinka, the more influential and dangerous faced interrogation at Gestapo headquarters. The headquarters was located in the basement of Poland's current-day Ministry of Education building, and today appears
much as it did during Hitler's reign. Bench rows set up like a train (flanked and one behind another) is where Jewish "conspirators" would sit for days not being allowed to sleep. During interrogations in the rooms nearby, music would play from a wireless radio outside the "train room" door. This would muffle speech, screams, and other sounds of torture and death from those awaiting the same fate. At the end of the WWII, 5.5 tons of cremation ash was found in the Gestapo headquarters building.

While often we hear about Nazi atrocities such as these in discussions of the holocaust, one thing rarely brought to life are the circumstances perpetuated by the Russians during the Warsaw Uprising (which I find to be just as cruel and inhumane as the gas chambers). Not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which occurred a year earlier, this 1944 resistance movement intended to free Poland from Nazi control. Knowing the Red Army was within range to help liberate Warsaw, the Polish Home Army led attacks on their Nazi occupiers on Aug 1.

While the uprising intended to hold the Nazis in check for mere days until Russian help could come, the Polish defenders bravely fought until their eventual surrender 63 days later. The Russian Army, wanting Warsaw under their control, stopped at the gates and waited for months until Polish defeat. After all, it would be easier to control a defeated people than one which had succeeded. When the Russians final entered Warsaw, 85% of the city was destroyed.

What you see today in Warsaw is a symbol of strength. A city rebuilt, a city pride that can't be extinguished, and a city which remembers. It is our duty as visitors to remember, too.

*As usual, I thank wikipedia for historical background information.

01 June 2010

A Museum City

A trip to Berlin is not complete without a day (or ten!) spent museum hopping. With more than 170 to choose from, and even more that are privately run, Berlin is home to some of the oldest, largest, best-preserved, and out-of-the-ordinary artifacts in the world.

Most renown is Berlin's Museum Insel...an island in the Spree River consisting of five museums. During Berlin's division the island lay on the East side of the city. Only recently has it reopened in full with the completion of Neues Museum in 2009 (destroyed in WWII). From the Nefertiti bust to papyrus, Neues Museum houses one of the most extensive Egyptian collections outside of Cairo.

While Neues Museum is sure to please, the crowned jewel of
Museum Insel is the Pergamon Museum. Named for the full-sized Greek alter it houses, this museum makes ancient ruins and the stories they tell come to life...in life size! The first room you enter puts you up close and personal with the museums namesake. Found in present-day Turkey's ancient city of Pergamon, the altar spans almost 40 yards across and the front stairway can accommodate the multitudes of visitors who must climb up and through it for museum access. And if the first room does not inspire awe, the subsequent rooms will. From the grandiose Market Gate of Miletus to Babylon's colorful Ishtar Gate and Procession Way, the Pergamon Museum is "awe"some to say the least.

But even a wander off Museum Island will not disappoint. Gemaeldegalerie am Kulturforum houses such talents as Rubens, Raphael, and Rembrandt. And for music lovers, Berliner Philharmonie has some of the best acoustic in the world. There is even a Currywurst Museum which celebrates the best and "wurst" of Germany's most popular sausage.

For intellectuals, museum-nuts, and those merely looking to be entertaind, the museums of Berlin should not be missed.