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Scene in Berlin

September 9, 2011

The Jewish Culture Days have begun in Berlin. With poetry readings and concerts, the festival brings to life a community that was almost wiped out by the Nazis. Its ghosts haunt the city today.

Scene in Berlin
Image: DW

There is a sculpture in downtown Berlin of a table, an upright chair and an overturned chair. It is called Der Verlassene Raum - the Abandoned Room - and was erected to commemorate Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom during which synagogues were torched, Jewish stores burned, and Jews beaten up and killed. Thousands were sent to the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps from Berlin that night.

Today, the whole of Berlin feels like an abandoned room. In 1933, there were an estimated 160,000 Jews living in the German capital. In 1945, only 8,000 remained. They haunt the city and Berlin, unafraid of confronting its dark past, commemorates them everywhere.

A table, an upright chair and an overturned chair make up Karl Biedermann's sculpture Der Verlassene Raum
Karl Biedermann's sculpture is a powerful reminder of the Jews who vanished overnightImage: picture-alliance/ZB

Just yards from the Brandenburg Gate is Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In Kreuzberg, Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum gives a poignant insight into the community and its terrible fate. And wherever you go, you "stumble" upon Gunter Demnig's Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) laid into the sidewalk, subtly pointing out that a Holocaust victim once lived in the building you are passing.

Memories of a community

I imagine those same people as I ascend the dilapidated great stairwell of the synagogue in the Oranienburger Strasse. They might have climbed up once a week or every day to hear the rabbi preach - some joking, others solemn in preparation for the service. Some might even have heard Regina Jonas, the world's first female rabbi, read from the Torah before being brutally murdered in Auschwitz. She was never allowed to preach from a pulpit.

Climbing up even further, I reach the golden dome, which sparkles against the city skyline. I see the rundown buildings that once formed the basis for a thriving Jewish community - the children's home, the boy's school, the old people's home, where Jews who lived locally were later rounded up before being deported to camps. In the distance is Berlin's oldest Jewish cemetery; since being destroyed by the Nazis it has only two tombstones and is now a park.

The synagogue in Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin
The synagogue was renovated after the fall of the Berlin Wall

I go down into the museum where the relics of the pulpit and the bina are on display, as well as other reminders of the past. It is heartrending to think that this synagogue could once house over 3,000 worshippers.

However, I am uplifted when I read a sign announcing next month's services and see that a female rabbi will be holding them - a sign that Berlin's Jewish community today is not perturbed by such a breach of tradition. Unfortunately, the Russian guard downstairs tells me that they are not open to the general public.

Over 70 percent of Berlin's Jewish community now is made up of members from the former Soviet Union. In 1989, the community counted around 6,000 members in West Berlin and 200 in the East but it grew considerably in the 1990s, to over 20,000.

A dialogue between religions

Although Jewish culture and life are tragically no longer an integral, natural part of the city, there are several synagogues, a few kosher stores and restaurants, and the old Jewish High School has re-opened. As opposed to its pre-war ancestor, the school welcomes pupils from all religions, but all of them have to take classes in Judaism and Hebrew.

This year's Jewish Culture Days festival in Berlin is also focusing on dialogue between religions. With a series of poetry readings, concerts and lectures, the organizers of the festival's 25th edition want to explore what it means to be German, what it means to be Jewish and what it means to live in a multicultural, multi-religious society in 2011.

The Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg
The Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg houses a Garden of Exile and a Holocaust TowerImage: Jüdisches Museum Berlin/Jens Ziehe

This is what Berlin stands for today. A group of Israelis I met outside the synagogue told me they were here for the same reasons as other young people - the lack of prospects in their home countries, the city's creative potential, the cheap rents, and above all the relaxed, tolerant and open atmosphere.

Although they explained to me they had found it strange at first to be in the country responsible for the Holocaust and where a language demonized in their country was spoken all around, they said after a few weeks they had gotten used to it and found they were able to be objective. As soon as they made young German friends, they realized they shared the same outlook. "They were never responsible. They have moved on," they told me. "We will never forget but we want to look into the future."

This seems to be in sync with the attitude of Berlin - for me, it is a city that will never forget those forced to abandon their room so brutally, but because of this it can also look forward to a multicultural, multi-religious, open-minded future.

Author: Anne Thomas
Editor: Kate Bowen