The Holocaust and the Holocaust Memorial. A few insights, evoking many questions…

Today, I’m publishing my 50th update. I’ve seen and written about 49 locations of historical value earlier. Often, it is proved that Berlin is not a city in which the centre is the only area that counts. I’ve seen heavenly areas I didn’t knew, as well as the dark past of my favorite district Neukölln. Updates have brought me from Adlershof till Zehlendorf and -outside of Berlin- from Großbeeren till Oranienburg. However, I don’t think there is a place which is of such historical importance as the Holocaust Memorial in the heart of Berlin’s city centre…

So far, I’ve waited to publish an entry about the Holocaust. The topic is heavy and it brings a huge responsibility with the author – of who I think that (s)he has to be -very- informed about this topic. Moreover, it is hard to sum up the insights about the Holocaust at something as easy accessible such as a blog. It remains a topic that cannot be explained within only 3000 words and five photos. On the other hand, I cannot ignore this historical event at a blog which is about German history. Since I plan this to be my last investigative post, it feels like it’s the last chance to write about the extermination of the European Jews. Now, without pretending that this is a complete history of the Holocaust, I want to inform visitors before going to the Holocaust Memorial.

Creating ‘Lebensraum’: the start of the ‘Germanisation’ of Eastern Europe during WW2.

The most recommendable work of reference I’ve read about the Holocaust has been the well respected historian Ian Kershaw’s publication Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. In one of its chapters, Kershaw defends that Hitler worked towards a new War since the end of WW1. By 1925, when Hitler wrote his autobiography Mein Kampf, he had a core ideology that consisted the expansion of ‘Lebensraum‘ (‘Living Space‘, or: German territory) in Eastern Europe and the ‘elimination’ of Jews in these territories. In this stage, no one understood what this ‘elimination’ should look like – including Hitler himself. Before Hitler took the power, he realised that he wouldn’t win elections by this core-belief only. In the early 1930s, he tempered his antisemitism and gained votes by his anticommunism. However, when Hitler consolidated his power in the years after 1933 – public debate was controlled and organised antisemitic propaganda was without critique. Jews were boycotted (April 1933), excluded by law (September 1935) and killed (November 1938).

Important in the cumulative discrimination was a certain dynamic pattern that is typical for Nazi Germany. In this dynamic, Hitler knew how to contain the radical antisemites in his party – and how to time and canalise their aggression. In his speeches, he gave signals for his radical party members to do a ‘bottom up’ violent act. As a result, the Nazi Party had to ‘soothen’ the radicals by further discriminating the Jews. In public sphere, Hitler would make virulent comments and in private sphere, he explained of what he thought that should happen. An important example of such a green light was a part of Hitler’s notorious speech from January 1939, the so-called prophecy speech:

“Today I will once more be a prophet. If the international finance-Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations of the world into a world war yet again, then the result will not be the bolshevisation of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”

By Hitler’s invasion and occupation of Poland, the War broke out in September 1939. However, the “annihilation of the Jewish race” did not start yet. A couple of escalations had to take place before. In this, the Warthegau (Warta shire) played a key role. In Hitler’s ambition to create ‘Lebensraum‘, the Warthegau would be the first district to ‘Germanise’. This district had to function as a prototype for others and therefore, the most fanatic Nazi’s were stationed in this district. Here, another crucial pattern that was typical for Hitler’s ‘style of ruling’ becomes visible. This pattern derived from the vague command to ‘improve the objectives of the Führer‘. After Hitler spoke out his expectation that the Warthegau would be ‘Germanised’ within ten years, career-making civil servants took this as a licence to ‘work in the spirit of Hitler’. In the Warthegau, the police was under the control of the regional head of the SS, Wilhelm Koppe. By May 1940, he was a key figure in the extermination of more than 2000 disabled patients. Now Koppe was held responsible for the ‘Germanisation’ of the Warthegau, it meant that he had to make the Jews invisible (by putting them in concentration camps) or deport them further to the East, in the General Government district where already a few million Jews were concentrated. In May 1940, the Jewish district of Łódź -the biggest city in the Warthegau- was already immured and turned into a ‘ghetto’ containing 163.000 Jews. The ghetto was more than full, but trains with German Jews kept arriving. Hunger ruled and diseases came up, but administrative and logistic problems restrained deportations towards the General Government. The Jews were stuck in the ‘to be Germanised’ Warthegau, while Wilhelm Koppe realised what Hitler wanted him to do…

Children from the ghetto of Łódź, being deported to the extermination camp Chełmno. ©USHMM

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, June 1941, the Nazi’s again planned to create a buffer zone for all German and Austrian Jews – the East of the Ural Mountains. As often, the Nazi’s overestimated themselves heavily. Unfortunately, and this is crucial, it were not only the Nazi’s that suffered from their setbacks. Already in September that year, it was forecasted that the German Army won’t win the War before the winter – which meant that a ‘territorial solution for the deportation of Jews’ had no chance. An other ‘Final Solution’ about what to do with the Jews had to be found in the East of Europe. In the following weeks, the first steps were made in the systematic extermination of the Jews. The ‘Einsatzgruppen‘ (‘Task forces’) in Ukraine murdered 33.000 Jews at the Babi Yar ravin by the end of September. In the Warthegau, Wilhelm Koppe understood well how he could ‘work in the spirit of Hitler’. In October that year, 3000 Jews within the county named Konin were concentrated in the town of Zagórów (in German: Hinterberg) and killed in the forests.

The 26th of November 1941, the mechanical extermination of the Jews had started by the SS. The first gassings of several hundred Jews took place that day, in the Warthegau county of Kalisz. For committing this crime, the Wilhelm Koppe used his experience with the usage of ‘doctors’ who killed disabled patients in the Aktion T4. This ‘experience’ was most of all how to direct the exhaust gasses of a truck into its trailer. By the 8th of December, two of these ‘gas trucks’ were driven from Berlin to Chełmno. Here, 97.000 Jews were exterminated within seven months.

At the 11th of December, Hitler declared war to the USA – which was answered with a a declaration of War in return. Nevertheless, Hitler stated that it was a Jewish conspiracy and held his notorious ‘prophecy speech’ from January 1939. The next day (December 12th), Goebbels wrote in his diary about a conversation with Hitler – in which the latter stated that a new phase concerning the ‘Jewish question‘ could start. In other words, due to military and logistical problems – the Nazi dynamic created a radical ‘solution’ for their self-invented and created problem. After being unable to take care of the Jews that they had deported, the extermination had started. The Warthegau may have been crucial to in taking this first steps in the mechanisation of the Holocaust, another 3.5 million Jews were already at the ‘General Government’ district. This is where four notorious extermination camps -Belzec, Sobibór, Treblinka and Majdanek- were constructed rapidly and opened from March 1942 onwards. Also the camp Auschwitz prepared for the extermination of Jews in this phase. It wasn’t located in the ‘General Government’ or in the Warthegau, but in the discrict of Upper Silesia. By the summer of 1942, the extermination machine ran at full speed. Most of the casualties would fall in the following year.

Important is though, that not all Jews were killed in the extermination factories. About half of the Jews were killed by shooting. In moral view, there may not be much of a difference. Taking someones life, either way, remains murder. However, from a humanist point of view it is worth telling how these millions came to their end. As historian Christopher Browning had written in his case-study, these shootings were committed by ‘Ordinary men’. A certain Reserve Police Battalion from Hamburg, mainly fathers from families, were among the execution squads. After they were brought to occupied Poland, they were asked by their commander -pale, tears in his eyes- if they want to cooperate doing ‘a frightfully unpleasant task’ or wanted to leave without consequences. After some hesitating, only eleven out of the initial 174 men stepped out. The others were added to the ‘Battalion 101’ of a mere 500 ordinary men, that became an incarnated killing machine. Between July and November 1942, this Battalion 101 deported over 40.000 European Jewish men and women to the extermination camp Treblinka – while executing 8000 Jews themselves. In the late autumn and spring of 1942/1943, the trained killers volunteered to take part in hunting the Jews that were hidden in the forests and in small towns. In short, the ordinary men became fanatic murderers…

The Police Battalion 101 during Christmas (1942/3)

What went wrong here? Are we still talking about ordinary family-men from the Nazi-sceptic city of Hamburg? Working class heroes -dockers truck drivers- and white collar workers who grew up before Hitler took power? Yes, antisemitism was all around in Nazi Germany – but still it is not plausible that these ordinary men were eager to actively murder Jewish civilians… One of the morbid answers in here is solidarity. Not with the victims, but with their fellow ordinary men. When they were interrogated after the War, many of these men said that they wouldn’t leave their colleagues doing the dirty job. Them who stepped out after a few round of executing -and had to do logistic work at the German camps– were told to be ‘cowards’. Moreover, the ordinary men had weekly briefings of 30 till 45 minutes. In these, they were ‘educated’ about Nazi topics such as loyalty, the offensive spirit and… comradeship. In addition, they were brainwashed with statements that ‘the Jews’ initiated the USA boycotts of Germany – and that it were them who bombs on the homeland…

Nazi-propaganda. “The Jew. War’s starter. Extending the war.”

The question arises about what the German people knew about the Holocaust. Till which level were they supporting Hitler’s antisemitism? In the last free elections of November 1932, 33% of the German people voted for Hitler. In this, Hitler tempered his antisemitism, focusing on the fear of socialism and communism. After Hitler took power in 1933, the Nazi’s slowly but steadily controlled the media, the opinion and would cumulatively discriminate the Jews. However, unlike the War that Hitler always wanted, the Holocaust had not been an intended plan – but a result of the dynamics between the Nazi-top in Berlin and experienced, fanatic Nazi’s in the province. The Holocaust was an unpredictable side-effect of the War, but completed consciously – and fatal for millions…

So, when 33% of the German people voted for Hitler in the last free elections (November 1932) – they did not vote for the Holocaust to take place in the future. On the other hand, there have barely been any resistance against the discrimination and the deportations of Jews. The protest in Berlin’s Rosenstraße, where German wifes of Jewish men protested to prevent their deportation in February 1943, have been the only protest – as far as I know. Now, why did the German people not resist against the extermination of Jews? An obvious answer may be the existence of control departments, such as the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei; Secret States Security) that prevented people from protesting. However, the Gestapo had relatively few staff for its German population. There has been more than only control: the people just didn’t protest that easily. According to Ian Kershaw, the reason of this may be a hardly understandable moral indifference. “The crooked road to Auschwitz was build with hate, but paved with indifference” is how the historian states it. This incomprehensible mentality becomes a bit more understandable after Kershaw explains that the German people had their own trouble during wartime. Everyone had a male family member that was missing at the war’s front, while air raid attacks became increasingly a constant threat. Due to gossips, the people could – but didn’t want to know what happened to the Jewish countrymen. In addition, people thought that they could not be held responsibly either. This moral indifference provided the criminal Nazi regime to radicalise their murderous acts. Whether this is moral indifference or passive accessory – I remain for you to consider…

So far, this article has been about Hitler, local Nazi fanatics, ordinary men and indifferent civilians. About the timing of Hitler’s speeches, about dynamics in Nazi Germany – and about the crucial timing that the European Jews were deported. Still, many questions remain. For example, what did the Nazi-officials show its population of the deportations, the ghettos and the extermination camps? What did the Jews go through in those camps, and who were in charge? What happened with the possessions of deported Jews? Or, formulated more clear: how did the people feel after confiscating such property of fellow citizens that were killed? And how fast did information about the extermination camps spread among the people? When it comes to the Holocaust, countless of questions can be asked…

The'Treblinka' monument by Vadim Sidur (Berlin-Charlottenburg, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)In earlier posts, I’ve shown memorials that remember events that were prior, but participating in the Holocaust – for example the deportations of Jews or the violent round-ups. However, before the construction of Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, only one small monument to remember the Holocaust was to be found in the German capital. In 1966, the Soviet vanguard artist Vadim Sidur made a rather grim sculpture. Abstract, but clearly a pile of dead human beings. Sidur named his sculpture after the extermination camp ‘Treblinka’. In 1979, the sculpture was placed in front of a court’s house: the Amtsgericht Charlottenburg.

Yet, this memorial actually only remembers one of the many extermination camps. A central memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe was still lacking. Intitiated by the journalist Lea Rosh, a support group for a Holocaust Memorial was found in January 1989. Before the Holocaust Memorial opened in May 2005, many debates had taken place. The location has been changed, competitions with hundreds of designs had been rejected by an intervention of the contemporary prime minister (Helmut Kohl) and the winning design of the second competition has been changed. The construction symbolically started at the 27th of January 2000, the day that Auschwitz was liberated 55 years earlier.

The site of the Holocaust Memorial, before the memorial’s construction.

While the design of Peter Eisenman became tangible, discussions only intensified. One of the main critique is that a monument for Jews only would create a ‘hierarchy’ in the ‘victimship’ of Nazism. Other monuments, such as for Roma and Sinti, homosexuals or disabled people, won’t have the same dimension. And why would one make a difference between Jewish, political, homosexual or other victims of the Nazi’s? Was the Holocaust even different than the Porajmos? Other critiques thought that the monument would be too artistic, or too much a sensational ‘tourist attraction’ that wasn’t sincere. In 2003, the construction works were temporarily brought to a standstill when a newspaper found out that the producer of the anti-graffiti coating had produced Zyklon B, the gas that was used in the gas chambers, during wartime. The leading architect, Peter Eisenman, decided to continue working with this company.

The Holocaust Monument under construction.

Peter Eisenman, besides the architect also the mastermind behind the Holocaust memorial, stated “This is a place of no meaning” – and did explicitly not explain what the highly abstract monument resembles. For Eisenman, the Holocaust memorial had to break with the tradition of other memorials. “The scale and dimension of the Holocaust makes every attempt to describe it in traditional ways inevitable to a hopeless project. Our memorial tries to develop a new idea about remembering that clearly distuingishes from nostalgia.” This new concept of remembering had to be an experience. “Nowadays, we can only understand the past by an experience in the present day.” That is quite much all. Thoughts are absolutely free. “When a swastika is graffitied on the memorial, this is a reflection of people who feel this way. When it stays there, it is a reflection of which the government thinks about it that people paint swastikas here. I can not influence that. There will be children that play tag and mannequins that strike a pose. The location is not holy.” Thus the responsible architect. The memorial was inaugurated at the 10th of May 2005, exactly 60 years after the War’s end. The time had come to compare expectations with experiences.

How will you -as an average, relatively informed visitor- experience the Holocaust Memorial? After telling your social network that you plan to visit Berlin and the Holocaust memorial, your friends who have been there probably told you that it resembles a graveyard. In this fictive graveyard, the grey steles are the coffins – which are given posthumously to the Jews. The colour grey is chosen for being the colour of ash, referring to the bodies that were burned. However, a couple of questions remain. A very obvious question concerns the meaning of the the number of steles. You won’t find information about this at the location itself – so you already feel that you misunderstand the memorial. When you get to know that there are 2711 steles, you may only conclude that this number has no meaning. Why is the ground uneven? Should you look for the spot where the steles are the highest? And why are there over a hundred ‘coffins’ implemented in the busy pavement? Does this make (unaware) passers-by desecrators of a grave? Why would an architect do that on purpose? And what to think of visitors of the Holocaust memorial that jump from stone-to-stone? Walking through the memorial, you’ll even experienced people playing hide-and-seek. Walking out of the memorial, you will see the average sight-seeing tourist taking a snapshot while smiling towards the camera. Your experience probably ends by standing aside, looking over the memorial for a while. You may be disappointed because you haven’t got the feeling that you’ve learned something, or ‘felt’ a message. And only if you are lucky, you’ll find an arrow pointing you to the underground ‘information point’…

Taken everything into account, I think we all agree about the importance of a central and spacious location to remember the Holocaust. The intention of Eisenman -using an experience to remember the Holocaust- may be interesting. Unfortunately, and Eisenman already realised this, people behave questionable: they will pose at group-photos and children will run and play. For them, the absence of information about the Holocaust and a clarification of the memorial makes that the level of abstraction is too high. After all, even an informed or a frequent visitor can’t tell whether the Holocaust memorial resembles a graveyard, or not at all. This lack of clearness may easily lead to dissatisfaction at the first place. Understandable, because – wouldn’t it be desirable here, to have a memorial that makes a strong statement that everyone understands? However, I’ve noticed that the shortcoming of clarity has a side-effect. It really keeps me thinking, and brings up many questions about what it remembers after all: the Holocaust…

The Holocaust Memorial (Berlin-Mitte, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

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Making Berlin ‘Judenfrei’. The decimation of Berlin’s jewish population by railway deportations.

In an earlier update, I wrote about the monument for the round-ups of the jewish population at Berlin’s Koppenplatz – a crucial step within the Holocaust. This article is about the next step in the darkest page of history, the deportations that followed.

Memorial 'Gleis 17' at S-Bahnhof Grunewald. Berlin-Wilmersdorf (April 2014, photo by Joep de Visser)
When Hitler took power in January 1933, 160.000 jews lived in the German capital. In the following years, nearly 100.000 of them fled to countries as the USA and England, or even to Shanghai. Although this emigration had never been voluntarily, it was even impossible to emigrate from Nazi-Germany when the War started in September 1939. In August 1941, about 66.000 jews were trapped in Berlin. Now, more than elsewhere – the population of Berlin suffered more Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Minister of Propaganda. In the German capital, he was also an ambitious Gauleiter (District leader). The virulent antisemite wanted Berlin to be ‘Judenfrei’ (Nazi-German for ‘Free from jews’) – and he even bothered Hitler with this. On August 19th 1941, Hitler promised the fanatic Gauleiter to ‘transport’ the jews out of ‘his’ city when the possibility was there. Only one month later – Goebbels confirmed that this day came closer. In an diary entry of September 24th, he wrote that Hitler stated Berlin would be the very first city to be ‘Judenfrei’ indeed. The deportations were in sight. Another month later, at October 24th, Goebbels wrote

“Gradually, we start with the evacuation of the Berlin jews to the East. A couple of thousands are already on their way. In first instance, they go to Litzmannstadt (Nazi-German for: Łódź). This causes commotion in the affected circles. The jews ask for support in anonymous letters to foreign correspondents. (…) It is annoying that this topic is getting attention in the world’s media, but we have to deal with it. The main thing is that the Reichshauptstadt (Berlin) is made Judenfrei. I will not rest before this goal is totally realised.”

Deportation of Jews from Hanau to the Theresienstadt ghetto. (Hanau, Germany, May 30, 1942. ©US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

From three stations in the city, about 50.000 jews from Berlin were deported. The first deportation took place at October 18th, when over a thousand jews were transported from Berlin’s S-Bahnhof Grunewald to the ghetto in Łódź. Men that lost their job during the discriminative laws, women and children were among the first to be deported. Already in this early stage, deportations were connected with the Holocaust. By November 1941 till January 1942, 4000 jews were sent to the ghetto of Riga – where Nazi authorities knew that ‘Einsatzgruppen‘ (‘Special Forces’) executed these jews.

Detail at the Memorial Gleis 17. Details of the first deportation from S-Bahnhof Grunewald. (Berlin-Wilmersdorf, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)From January 1942 onwards, jews were deported from another location – the Güterbahnhof Moabit (‘Cargo station in Moabit’) fairly close to the city centre. Here, a platform was used that was seperated and parallel of the S-Bahn tracks. In June 1942, a new stage in the deportation had started. By then, elderly jews were deported from the Anhalter Bahnhof in the middle of Berlin. In these ‘Altertransporte‘ (‘Elderly transports’), about 9600 people were deported in 116 times. In these Altertransporte were one or two railway carriages (maximum of 50 people in one carriage) placed behind the public train towards Prague, that left at 06:07am. Now, the jews didn’t end up in the City of a Hundred Spires – but in concentration camp (annex ghetto) Theresienstadt.

German Jews board a train that will deport them to Theresienstadt. Hanau, Germany, May 30, 1942.  ©Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz

The deportations themself were already horrible. Trains from the Wehrmacht (German Army) had precedence, so by 1944 – the average speed of a deportation train was only 25 km/hour. Railway carriages were overcrowded, while there were no toilet facilities. In combination with a lack of air, the stench must have been horrible. Throughout the tens of hours, people slowly died for breathing problems or even dehydration. The train was guarded by the SiPo (Security Police) and the Ordnungspolizei (Order Police). Them who decided to take the risk and escape the train, would face a harsh life into the wild – where they were still hunted by German battalions.

Still, if the transport wasn’t the hell on earth, their destination was. The ghettos and camps in which the jews were concentrated were overcrowded and fatal diseases came up. From the ghetto in Łódź, jews were deported to the variety of extermination factories. The first one was already taken into use by December 1941. From Theresienstadt, the jews were mostly deported to the concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz – which has been in use by March 1942. All summed up, for a jew – there was only a very small chance of surviving after being deported.

At the start of 1943, most of the jews were already deported and murdered. Still, there were about 8000 jewish men in Berlin that worked as a forced labour for factories of War’s importance. Due to the use of forced labours from occupied territories, the Nazi’s considered to be the working jews as redundant as well. In the morning of February 27th, these 8000 jews were rounded up in the ‘Fabrikaktion’. Only the 2000 jews that were married to Germans -and who resisted the Nazi-pressure of divorcing- were saved from deportation – and only after a courageous protest. With only a fraction left of the 166.000 people that once lived here, Berlin was officially declared ‘Judenfrei‘ on the 19th of May 1943. However, deportations of smaller numbers of jews took place up till January 1945, when the Nazi’s knew that the War was lost – and the killing of jews was even more useless than ever been before. I’ve read that 7000 jews lived in Berlin when the War ended in May 1945. I estimate that around 4000 of them were married with a German. Another estimated 1500 survived by living in hiding. The other 1500 survivors remains a mystery – but I think, these survived due to the usage of counterfeited passports.

Cargo Station Moabit (Berlin-Moabit, date unknown). Bildarchiv Preussischer KulturbesitzRailway tracks underneath the Putlitzbrücke (Berlin-Moabit, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)
So far the mass deportations of the jews, earlier described as the second step in the Holocaust. My question now is how these deportations have been remembered? And, somehow, who would guess that it took over four decades for people to realise how several Berlin stations have been locations that participated in the Holocaust? Now, three locations in the city remember the deportations of the jewish population. Since 1987, a monument is revealed at the Putlitzbrücke, close to the S-Bahnhof Westhafen. It remembers the more than 32.000 people that were deported from this since the beginning of 1942. They’ve set their last feet on Berlin soil at the platform of this Güterbahnhof (‘Cargo station’). An information panel is located at the Anhalter Bahnhof. Here, the so-called ‘Altertransporte‘ are remembered, in which 9600 jews were deported.

Memorial at the Putlitzbrücke (Berlin-Moabit, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

Memorial panel for the Altertransporte next to the ruins of Anhalter Bahnhof. Berlin-Kreuzberg, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser.

 


 


 

 

At the S-Bahnhof Grunewald, thousands of jews were deported from October 1941 on. Here, various intiatiors have constructed monuments. Already in 1953, a communist group published a plaque at the railway station’s signal house. Typical for the 1950s, when West Germany was barely denazified and fanatic anti-communist, this one was removed by the police at some point. In 1973, another memorial tablet was revealed. At least, this one lasted thirteen years – when it was stolen after all. Since April 1987, a new memorial stone states in Hebrew and German. In addition, the local evangelics made a plaque in October that same year. In the early 1990s, the district of Wilmersdorf asked the Polish artist Karol Broniatowski to make a memorial. Broniatowski designed a concrete wall, with hollow human figures in this. As the succesor of the Deutsche Reichsbahn (German Imperial Railway), the Deutsche Bahn added the fourth memorial at S-Bahnhof Grunewald. After a competition, there was chosen for a design in which the details of all the 186 transportations (so, directions and numbers of deported jews) that are written in steel plates. These plates are integrated at the ‘Gleis 17‘ (‘Railway Track 17’) where most of the deportation trains left. For this, the platform had to be restored – while the railway tracks were kept grown over by vegetation. The latter symbolises that there won’t ever be a train leaving from this platform with its horrific history…

Memorial 'Gleis 17' at S-Bahnhof Grunewald. The overgrown railway tracks. Berlin-Wilmersdorf (April 2014, photo by Joep de Visser)Taking everything into account, this has been an article about the decimation of the jewish population in Berlin. In contrast to what the Nazi’s stated, their capital has never been really ‘Judenfrei‘. Joseph Goebbels, who repeatedly stated that he wouldn’t rest before the last jew had left Berlin, did not survive the War – but 7000 jewish men did. Nevertheless, this is incomparible to the 166.000 jews that once lived in Berlin. And for the 50.000 Berlin jews that were deported -and murdered-. Memorials only came up from the later 1980s. But why? Is a question that still remains. Perhaps because the deportations only have been a part of the Holocaust? Because the intended extermination took place in camps, not in carriages? …I don’t even think so. In the next article, I’ll write about the Holocaust and Berlin’s memorials – which only came in the 1990s…

The Koppenplatz. A tiny park with a huge history.

Only a minute walk from Rosenthaler Platz, a tiny park named the Koppenplatz hosts a memorial to the biggest theme in 20th centuries’ history: the Holocaust. To be exact, the memorial remembers the round-ups of jews, prior to the deportations and the massacres. It is not a coincidence that the memorial ended up at the nowadays Koppenplatz.

Der verlassene Raum (Koppenplatz, Berlin-Mitte. December 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

In a way, its pre-history dates back to an order from 1737, when the contemporary King drove most of Berlin’s jews to the Scheunenviertel. This neighbourhood had a rather short historical account back then. As a side-effect of the cattle market at the nowadays Alexanderplatz, many Scheunen (barns) were build in its direct surrounding – hosting piles of inflammable straw. As a safety regulation against the danger of fire, the local elector Friedrich Wilhelm I commanded to place the barns outside of the city in 1672. The Scheunenviertel (barns quarter) showed up the north of this cattle market. Secondly, the Koppesche Armenfriedhof (Poor man’s graveyard) was situated around here since 1704. It was partly named after Christian Koppe, the city’s advisor who realised it. In a pre-modern act of solidarity, he has also been buried here after his death in 1721

An already described decision would change the history of the Scheunenviertel forever. It was the year 1737 when the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I demanded all jews without to live outside of the city. Only jews who owned their own houses were allowed to stay inside Berlin’s defensive walls. In addition, jews were only allowed to enter Berlin by the two northern gates. As a result, the Scheunenviertel became a destiny for many of the lower class jews. Their importance to the public sphere in this neighbourhood must have been immense. The Armenfriedhof on the contrary, stopped blossoming. A few years after the jewish Berliners moved to the Scheunenviertel and around, this graveyard didn’t host the freshest corpses anymore. That means, officially – in fact, funerals in fact took place here for another century.

Memorial to Christian Koppe (Berlin-Mitte. December 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

Since the late 1830s, the neighbourhood around the Armenfriedhof changed tremendously. Between 1835 and 1869, a senior house was build – albeit in three phases. The surrounding hood changed – especially in 1853, when the soil of the Armenfriedhof was released. In that year, the Große Hamburgerstrasse was lengthened and divided the former graveyard, while another by-street was constructed. It gave the shape to the Koppenplatz, which was also given its name by then. At the grave of Christian Koppe, an extensive place of honour was erected two years later.

A typical tenement from the 1850s (Koppenplatz, Berlin-Mitte, December 2013) No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

During the next couple of decades, classic tenements were constructed and populated by the poor. Up till the first decade of the 20th century, the surrounding area was filled by tenements, the senior house and a school. The Scheunenviertel became known of the most densely populated urban areas of Berlin. Of course, it was not only populated by the jews who initially came here. As usual for a capital, it attracted many immigrants. Throughout the 19th century, they were often jews from East Europe – who fled for anti-semitic pogroms once again. Although they -and many others- used Berlin as a stopping place to head towards the promising continent abroad the ocean, I’ve got the impression that many of them could not continue their journey – and were stuck in this particular part of the German capital.

Koppenplatz as a park, the 1927 design by Erwin Barth

The Scheunenviertel may have gone through various phases, but the Koppenplatz itself didn’t stay the same either. By the end of the 19th century, the notorious architect Hermann Mächtig edited it into an urban square. Erwin Barth, whose name you may remember from my update about the Luisenstädtischer Kanal, changed the square into a park in 1927. A few years later, the nazi’s changed the Koppenplatz again – although I’m unsure into what exactly. By 1940 though, two underground air-raid shelters were constructed here by French Prisoners of War. The Scheunenviertel, where many of the jews lived who were too impecunious to leave Nazi Germany, became the stage of anti-semitic violence and deportations.

French POW's constructing a air-raid shelter (Koppenplatz, Berlin-Mitte. March 1941. ©Bundesarchiv)

The square became part of the GDR’s East-Berlin. The entrances to the bunkers were blocked, while the bunker remained undamaged. For this reason, the Koppenplatz are still a bit heigtened. Also, a playground for children was erected at the southern side of the park. Here, a statue named ‘Geschwister‘ (Siblings) was constructed in 1968. Nothing honoured the past of a jewish neighbourhood for another few decades. Not before 1988, when the November pogrome fifty years earlier was remembered, the East Berlin authorities asked its inhabitants for a fitting monument to the deportations which the Scheunenviertel witnessed. From the seventy contributed designs, the memorial of a deserted room by Karl Biedermann was chosen. The bronze sculpture is made and revealed to the audience in 1996. In addition, a poem Nelly Sachs is there to be read. The Schöneberg born poet, who made her way to Sweden in 1940, wrote in 1947:

…O die Wohnungen des Todes,
Einladend hergerichtet
Für den Wirt des Hauses, der sonst Gast war –
O ihr Finger
Die Eingangsschwelle legend
Wie ein Messer zwischen Leben und Tod
O ihr Schornsteine,
O ihr Finger,
Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft!

Which could be translated by the following:

…Oh the houses of death, invitingly appointed,
for the landlord of the house who was once a guest.
Oh you fingers, laying the threshold – like a knife between life and death.
Oh, you chimney stacks, oh you fingers,
and the body of Israel going up in smoke!

All in all, I think that the Koppenplatz covers a lot of history which is not to be seen anymore. Here, I’m not only stating the underground WWII shelters which are withdrawed from the public eye. Also, no traces of the Armenfriedhof –showing mercy to the poor during the 18th and 19th century- are not to be found back. In despite of the modesty which the poor once helped, the only thing that reminds of the Armenfriedhof is the luxuous grave -if it isn’t worth calling a tombe- of Christian Koppe. Most of all, the centuries-old jewish presence of the Scheunenviertel is not to be found back. Once being forced to live here, the two ages of jewish presence have been wiped out by the cruelest way imaginable. Although it is said that the most jewish culture and institutes is still to be found in this area, I think one has to be trained to find these. The monument to remember the violent event, stating a clear message in a minimal way, also loudly speaks out by being silent.