Rediscovering Jewish life in Berlin | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 29.05.2013
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Culture

Rediscovering Jewish life in Berlin

Many locations in the German capital remember the Holocaust. Others are a testament to the golden eras of German-Jewish history and the most recent revival of Jewish culture in the city.

"Either I feel giddy or the ground is moving!" exclaims Peter Mertens as he moves unsteadily through a forest of symmetrically ordered concrete blocks. The further the 63-year-old tourist from Darmstadt progresses, the higher the pillars become, until he appears to disappear altogether.

The feeling of uncertainty is intentional. The Holocaust memorial in the heart of Berlin, which was designed by Peter Eisenman and opened in 2005, remembers the six million Jews who were murdered in Europe during the Third Reich.

The majority of the victims were cremated or buried in mass graves. An underground documentation center examines the history of the persecution of Jews, telling the stories of individual victims through photographs and letters.

German-Jewish history in Kreuzberg

The genocide is also explored in the Jewish Museum in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg. Since its opening in 2001, the museum's spectacular architecture, in particular the new, zigzag-shaped extension designed by Daniel Libeskind, has drawn tourists from all over the world.

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

The Holocaust memorial remembers the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust

"I lost my breath for a minute," says Berlin student Holm Weissbach of his experience in the Holocaust tower. It's a narrow, high-reaching chamber in which only a thin shaft of daylight filters through the ceiling.

The so-called "Axis of the Holocaust" ends in the gloomy interior space. There's also an uneven floor surface - a metaphor for the perilous position of Jews in society during the National Socialist regime.

Europe's largest Jewish museum not only remembers the Shoah. On the upper floors, the entire 2,000-year-old history of Jews in Germany is mapped out from Ancient Roman times to the present.

Antique Torah scrolls, priceless jewelry and medieval manuscripts illustrate how tightly interwoven Jewish culture is with German history. The objects shed light on eras when Jewish artists, writers and academics shaped German culture, society and politics.

"It's totally fascinating," says Annika Reimanns after a three-hour tour of the exhibition. "I wasn't even aware that Bob Dylan is a Jew." The 17-year-old gathers her many impressions of the exhibition in the museum garden.

Here's where visitors can relax and enjoy a picnic basket from the museum restaurant when the weather is nice. The courtyard also provides an unobstructed view of the building's striking architecture.

The Jewish Museum is just one of many institutions and memorials to German-Jewish history that have been erected over the past 20 years.

The heart of Jewish Berlin

The Jewish Museum in Berlin

The architecture of the Jewish Museum extension features a fragemented Star of David

Another eye-catching building is the New Synagogue in Oranienburger Strasse. Its Moorish-style, golden cupola glistens above the rooftops of the central Berlin district of Mitte.

Only a small part of the original building, once the largest synagogue in Germany, remains. Today the site is home to an exhibition about the 140-year history of the prayer house and the life of Jews in this part of the city.

The first Jewish center in Berlin emerged here in the mid-18th century. Later, many immigrants from eastern Europe and Russia settled in the area. In the wake of industrialization and a rapidly expanding population, the district became the city's slum area and, during the Holocaust, the many traces of Jewish life in the area were destroyed.

Since the 1990s, Jewish life around the synagogue has been enjoying a small renaissance, as evident in the new Jewish businesses, restaurants and schools. The Centrum Judaicum in the New Synagogue holds regular concerts, readings and theater performances. The archive documents the history of the Jewish community in Berlin.

Final resting place

Jeff Cohn, who lives in Chicago, was able to research the lives of his ancestors in the Centrum Judaicum. His family has lived in the US for three generations. Thanks to research at the archive, the 59-year-old was able to locate the graves of his great-grandparents in a Jewish cemetery in the Berlin district of Weissensee.

The Jewish cemetry in Weissensee, Berlin

Astoundingly, the Jewish cemetry in Weissensee survived the Holocaust unharmed

Cohn has been navigating the imposing mausoleums, marble headstones and overgrown graves. Finally, in the shadow of a tall tree, he finds the grave of his great-grandparents. It's inconspicuous and badly weathered.

"It's a magical final resting place," he says, visibly moved.

Like Cohn, visitors to the cemetery, more than half of which are tourists, cherish the enchanting atmosphere and the tranquility it provides away from the bustling city.

It's astounding that the sprawling cemetery survived the Holocaust unharmed. Most of the 115,000 gravestones date back to before 1933. Barely any relatives still tend to the graves but visitors still place small stones on the gravestones according to Jewish tradition. They mean: "You are not forgotten."

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