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Living with Berlin's ghosts

Tamsin Walker
May 12, 2017

When, 72 years ago, the guns of WWII fell quiet across Europe, Germany was faced with the enormous task of dealing with what it had done. A task, which as Tamsin Walker found out on a walk through Berlin, is ongoing.

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Image: DW/T.Walker

In the footsteps of Berlin's Jews

Every now and then, when walking through Berlin, I stop and look up at the old houses around me and I wonder what, in times gone by, happened in the rooms inside them.

I wonder that despite knowing that all too often the answer will be: unforgivable horrors. At the start of the '30s, there were more than 160,000 Jews living here in the German capital. But by the end of the decade, that number had shriveled to just 6,000.

Some 90,000 were able to escape before October 18, 1941 when the first of Hitler's demonic "transports" left the city carrying 1,000 members of the once vibrant Jewish community. It was the start of systematic deportations that continued until just a few weeks before the artillery that had echoed across Europe for almost six years, finally fell silent.

And in the Germany that emerged in that numbingly dark light of day, a different kind of silence took hold. It wasn't until the first postwar generation started to ask probing questions that the country was forced to look at what it had done. What it saw was so unspeakable, that it has been speaking about it ever since. In many different ways.

Stumbling stones of remembrance

One subtle voice comes in the form of Stolpersteine, which are bronze-fronted cubes conceived by German artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate the victims of Nazi atrocities. Each stone, of which there are now 61,000 across Europe, is set into the sidewalk near a building's threshold and inscribed with the name, year of birth and fate of those who would once have crossed them.

Anna and Heinz Hirschberg, deported respectively on November 29 and December 9, 1942. Both murdered in AuschwitzImage: DW/T.Walker

Simply by naming names, they bring citizens cast out of their homes and their lives, back amongst those of us who now walk in their footsteps. And here in Berlin, they also serve as a powerful reminder that no matter how time advances its progress and popularity, we live alongside history - the resident that will outstay us all. To me, it has always felt like a city of ghosts in which every street corner and every old building tells a story.

And that is the motto of Denkmal am Ort - or Open Jewish Homes -  an initiative, under whose umbrella, people invite the general public into their homes to learn about those who ate, slept, talked and moved within their walls until they were forcibly removed.

I went to visit one of these apartments last weekend. As I climbed to the top floor of Rosenheimer Strasse 40, I was accompanied by a slight sense of trepidation. I had come, after all, to hear the unimaginable. My unease was not misplaced.

Eternally awful truths

Nine people  - most of them strangers to each other - had been forced to live there together when the Nazis threw them out of their own homes. Over time, each of them, including a baby and a young child, were deported to concentration camps. Not one of them survived.

Denkmal am Ort
The door behind which nine Jews, including a six-month baby girl, were forced to live together. Image: DW/T.Walker

Versions of that same story are repeated street after street, house after house across the city. Quite possibly in my own.

Jani Pietsch, a local historian and artist who helped organize the Open Jewish Homes, told me we can all choose to overlook the city's dark past, or to forge a deeper connection with it by finding out what happened behind our own front doors.

As I left Rosenheimer Strasse for the underground that would take me home through this city's many complex layers, I knew what I had to do. I have already begun to peel them back.