Jewish history in Berlin

Jewish Travel in Berlin Germany

To explore, to understand, to experience what it was and is to be Jewish in Germany before and during the rise of the Nazis, head to Berlin. There isn’t another city in country that can match the number of sites that document, explain, or highlight Jewish life, and history.

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Jewish Museum

Start with the Jewish Museum – stunning architecture, thoughtful exhibits, and surprising breadth and depth of coverage. The physical buildings are a study in contrast -- a historic structure wedded to a sleek modern interpretation. Jewish Museum Berlin opened in September 2001, the new building designed by the architect Daniel Libeskind.

Entrance is through the old building. Built in 1735, it first served as Collegienhaus to the regal Court of Justice. The exhibits themselves are in the new post-modern building which is really brilliantly designed, and the thoughtful architecture is matched by the quality of the exhibits.

The museum offers thoughtful and innovative exhibits, and excellent use of short videos. Guided tours through the museum are expensive, and one option is to rent the audio tour instead. It’s very comprehensive and fascinating background that goes beyond the information presented in the plaques.

Jewish history and memorial in Berlin

Holocaust Memorial - Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The scope and horror of the Holocaust can be explored at Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Opened in May, 2005, the above-ground portion was designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman. The almost 5 acre site is located in the center of the city, and is accessible day and night. There are no gates or walls. Despite it’s somber, don’t be surprised if you find children at play among the 2700 concrete stelae or obelisks of varying heights, placed in rows throughout the site that comprise the Field of Stelae.

Downstairs is where the true memorial lies - in the stories of the murdered families and the small and large atrocities of the Nazis. But perhaps the most affecting place is the room of Names. The goal is to make the incomprehensible number concrete and real. It is a dark room and silent, save for a voice that reads the short biographies of Jews murdered or lost while the name, year of birth and death of each person is projected on the walls. It is estimated that the reading of the names and life stories of all the victims in the form presented here would take approximately six years, seven months and 27 days. Read more about the experience of Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Centrum Judaicum/New Synagogue

Perhaps the most magnificent building of all of Jewish Berlin is today more a reminder of what was lost than an active synagogue. The Moorish style Centrum Judaicum/New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse was saved from destruction during the pogrom of 1938 by a police chief for unknown reasons - perhaps he couldn’t stand to see the building destroyed. However, it sustained severe damage during the war and was no longer safe to use. Today is has been reconstructed on the outside to its former golden splendor and is mainly an exhibit hall. It is a truly beautiful building and the inside hints at its former grandeur. Tours are available only in German however English audio guides are available.

Other Jewish-Related Sites

Topography of Terror is the name given to the area where the central institutions of the Nazis were locate. The Documentation Center includes exhibits in German and English exploring how the SS and the police in the “Third Reich” functioned, the crimes they perpetrated throughout Europe, and the victims of Nazi repression. The system of terror they created and instituted is explored. Remnants of the original structures are also part of the exhibit. Although not strictly related to Jewish history, it is a crucial part of the Nazi terror.

Berlin also has smaller monuments and museums to honor the small acts of courage or defiance that were also part of that history.

Otto Weidt and the Workshop for the Blind

Few people know of the persistent efforts of Otto Weidt and his Workshop for the Blind. The Museum opened on December 5, 2006 at Rosenthaler Strasse 39 in Berlin. There is no charge for admission and the exhibits are in English and German. It tells the story of Otto’s life, as well as his efforts to save Jewish blind (and sometimes not blind) workers. It is a story of persistence, honor, and courage.

Rosenstrasse Rebellion

The amazing story of the Rosenstrasse rebellion is told in figures at the Berlin monument to the protest by German women to save their Jewish husbands. While almost all the Jews in Berlin had been sent off to die in forced labor camps or be gassed in concentration camps, there was a group of men and children that had been safe. In Nazi-speak they were privileged - they were the husbands and children of German women. But in 1943, orders came down to round up these men, and send them off to labor camps. Their Aryan wives were furious, and took on the Nazis through relentless public protest. The women ultimately won and their husbands were released.

Stolpersteine - Stumbling Blocks

Another form of memorial that can be found not only in Berlin but throughout Germany, and other eastern European cities are the Stolpersteine or stumbling stones or blocks. Originated by artist Gunter Demnig as memorials for the victims of Nazism, Wikipedia notes that the project has become the world's largest decentralised memorial.

The brass covered cubes are embedded in front of buildings where the individuals lived. Inscribed on each one is the name, date of birth, and what happened to them - usually the date and location where the person was murdered. It has become a popular school and community project. Demnig doesn’t do the research, the class, or group investigates facts about people, who were deported or killed, but he created the idea and provides the Stolpersteine. Read more in English at Stolpersteine- English

If You Go

Exploring Berlin

Although large, Berlin is fairly walkable. You’ll need to use some public transportation but the city offers buses, trains, trolleys. My German is nonexistent as is my sense of direction. But the people of Berlin were patient and kind as I would walk up, map in hand, asking for directions in English (although I did say “please” and thank you” in German).

Take one of the hop on and hop off tours. It will provide an overview and transportation at the same time.

Berlin tourism is probably the best source for information on Jewish sites throughout the city. You can find their information on Jewish travel to Berlin at Berlin Tourism: Jewish Travel

Milk and Honey tours focuses on Jewish travel and offers a range of options in Berlin. They provide excellent and knowledgeable tours and guides.

Read more about Jewish travel in Germany

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 23, 2016

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