The epicenter of the Holocaust, the city where Hitler ordered the deaths of 6 million Jews, seems an unlikely candidate for the world’s fastest growing Jewish community.
But despite this stigma of Nazism, Berlin has a dynamic, prosperous Jewish community and its rich, pre-World War II Jewish past initially attracted an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. The community has kept growing with the arrival of thousands of Israelis and smaller numbers of often young immigrants from Australia, France, the United States and elsewhere.
The upsurge in the Jewish population – believed to have passed 40,000 – also has spurred tourism to an array of monuments, synagogues, museums and workaday places related to Jewish history and present life in Germany’s capital.
In fact, you literally can trip over this history while walking the streets and looking down on some of the 2,800 shiny brass tiles embedded in sidewalks by artist Gunter Demnig. These palm-sized “stolpersteine,” or stumbling stones, bear the names of those murdered by the Nazis, and are placed in front of their former homes.
Like these stones, Berlin’s most prominent Jewish sites are connected to the tragic past, but a healthy antidote and probably the best way to trace that history is through the Jewish Museum, a multilayered panorama of 1,000 years of Jewish culture, lore and history in Germany. It’s housed in one of the city’s most striking contemporary buildings, a jagged structure coated with silvery zinc plates and punctured by slanted windows slits.
“What we didn’t want to do is just present the death, persecution, prejudice,” said Cilly Kugelmann, the museum’s vice director. “There was a great deal of normal life, regular life, too. Before you die, you live and we want to stress the living.”
Exhibits include vivid recreations of family life from 1850-1933 through paintings, writings, everyday artifacts and even a 16mm home movie, showing a family skiing, swimming and playing with their dog before moving in the 1930s to California. Although past suffering is starkly portrayed, there also are games and cartoons for children and displays celebrating prominent German Jews from poet Heinrich Heine to jeans inventor Levi Strauss.
Perhaps the most gripping of Berlin’s Jewish sites is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Many visitors do a double-take when in the bustling heart of the city, between Potsdamer Place and the Bradenburg Gate, they suddenly are confronted with a vast cluster of 2,711 coffin-like slabs of concrete.
The impact is most visceral when wandering through the labyrinth formed by the greyish rectangles. The sepulchral chill, abetted by a bleak winter sun and a few bare trees, only is lifted by children playing hide and seek within the maze.
Just north of this historic center is the Scheunenviertel, the Jewish Quarter, an area of sedate 19th-century apartment buildings, contemporary art galleries and lively side streets.
The centerpiece is the soaring New Synagogue. With 3,200 seats, it was Germany’s largest before it was bombed in 1943. Partially rebuilt, it now serves as a museum about the synagogue and the former surrounding community.
Worship does take place at two other synagogues and some 10 houses of prayer – compared to the 33 synagogues in pre-war Berlin.
Only a few tombstones remain in the neighboring 17th-century Jewish Cemetery, burial site of some 12,000. It was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. Down the street, set in a small park, is the Deserted Room installation – a table and two chairs, one knocked over – that symbolizes the sudden eviction of Jews from their homes.
Within a narrow courtyard, in what is known as the Haus Schwarzenberg, are three small museums, probably the most moving dedicated to an Otto Weidt. Nearly blind himself, the Christian owner of a workshop producing brooms and brushes hired blind and deaf Jews and protected them from the Gestapo. The museum includes a room hidden by a cabinet where he secreted an entire family.
Visitors will find a diverse and sometimes divided Jewish population: ultra-Orthodox to various reform branches to nonbelievers, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and those with roots in Germany. (Fistfights have broken out between the two.)
“As the city of Berlin is recreating itself, Berlin Judaism is,” said Gabriele Noa Laron, general manager of the well-established Honey and Milk Tours. “There are so many fights, but also many opportunities, a lot of creative people, new ideas. At least it is never boring.”
Still, today’s Jewish Berlin is still a far cry from the pre-Nazi era with its population of some 160,000. Only 8,000 were left when the war ended.
“If people come to Berlin they don’t see real Jewish culture, but they see landmarks of the Jewish past, landmarks of destruction of Jewish culture,” said Kugelmann. “When you visit you have to be a kind of archaeologist to decipher the Jewish past here, like reading the hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone.”