Twice, Dale and I have been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and both times it was a powerful experience. The museum strikes just the right balance between straight-up history and horror: it drenches visitors in the details of the Holocaust and in graphic photos and videos, forcing us to face exactly what genocide looks like.
And yet as meaningful as it was, visiting a Holocaust museum in the United States is one thing; visiting one in the city where the Holocaust was orchestrated was another thing entirely. In the U.S., no matter how disturbed you are at the end of your visit, you can still shake it off and head to your next destination, like, say, the Air and Space Museum, or better yet, you can abandon the museums altogether and go out for oysters and alcoholic beverages. In Berlin, it’s not so easy to walk away. There are landmarks of suffering all over the place.
Regardless, one can’t visit Berlin without visiting its memorials to the Holocaust. We went to several sites that honor the Holocaust victims, including the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and then we visited the Topography of Terror Museum, which explores the crimes of the Nazi party.
We didn’t learn a lot of new information during our visits, but it’s always good to review the horrific events that unfolded in Germany’s capital city:
- Hitler rose to power in the 1930s as the leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party, first as chancellor of Germany and then as all-powerful dictator.
- In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, forcing Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany, starting World War II. The war lasted from 1939-1945, with the US entering the war in 1941.
- When Hitler came to power in 1933, he immediately took formal steps to persecute German Jewish citizens. It started with a boycott of Jewish businesses, and as time passed, the restrictions became tighter and tighter: employees were banned from civil service or state jobs, and Jewish citizens lost their German citizenship, their right to vote, and their right to marry non-Jews. They were banned from appearing in most public places, students were not allowed to attend state schools or universities, and business owners were forced to close or sell their businesses. Travel was restricted. By 1939, when the war began, this persecution had spread to Austria, Poland, and Czechoslavakia, and as the Nazis continued to swallow up countries, the persecution would spread throughout occupied Europe.
- By the time the Nazis arrived at their “Final Solution” in 1942, many thousands of people had been murdered. That number would increase exponentially as they implemented their program to systematically kill all European Jews as well as all others considered undesirable. By the end of the war, 6 million Jews had been murdered, as well as 5 million (or more) non-Jews.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (German: Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) is a Holocaust memorial consisting of 2711 concrete blocks called the Field of Stelae that bring to mind a cemetery. It covers 4.7 acres on a gently sloping hill in the heart of the city, near the Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarten.
The stelae are arranged in a grid pattern, with 54 rows running north to south and 87, east to west. Each pillar is 3.1 feet wide and 7.8 feet long. Visitors are allowed to walk amongst the pillars, which are spaced 37 inches apart to allow for only individual passage through the grid.
With its endless rows of concrete, the Memorial is not beautiful. But it is moving.
Dale and I walked through the grid separately. The stelae vary in height, ranging from near-zero to 15 feet tall, so that the shortest ones are nothing but a slab on the ground. As we moved from the exterior to the interior, the pillars grew taller and towered over us, and we both felt small and disoriented in the maze-like grid.
While the tall blocks made us feel small, the shorter blocks brought to mind children, and the flat slabs evoked the loss of unborn babies and the eradication of future generations. I couldn’t avoid thinking about the lost potential of millions of people.
It was pretty heavy stuff.
The designer of the Memorial, renowned New York architect Peter Eisenman, wrote that he chose to create this stark, vast Memorial because “the enormity and horror of the Holocaust” are so vast, any attempts to represent the Holocaust with a traditional monument would be inadequate. According to our New Europe tour guide, Eisenman never explicitly stated what the blocks or their layout represented so that visitors could experience the Memorial in their own way, without the interpretation of others influencing them.
The stelae are covered with a graffiti-resistant coating to protect them from vandalism. A company called Degussa supplied the coating, and a controversy arose when it was revealed that one of its subsidiaries had produced the Zyklon B gas used to poison people in the gas chambers. The controversy did not stop the use of Degussa’s product on the stelae. There have been occasional acts of vandalism, including spray-painted swasikas and anti-Semitic slogans, but we saw no evidence of this when we were there.
Below the memorial there is an underground Information Centre (German: Ort der Information), a museum containing several exhibits. It presents the history of the Holocaust and also provides an intimate look into the lives of some of the victims.
The Room of Families presents the experiences of fifteen families impacted by the Holocaust. Each story is told through background information, photographs, family portraits, and personal documents. The effect is to show in a graphic manner the way that these families were torn apart by the Holocaust.
The Room of Sites presents historical videos and photographs describing 200 locations where Jews and other victims were persecuted and murdered. These include mass shootings, concentration and death camps, ghettos, sites of euthanasia, and routes of deportation and death marches.
The Room of Dimensions displays the impact that the Holocaust had on each of the countries under Axis control, listing by country the number of Jewish people who were killed. The numbers are shocking. Poland, for example, lost around three million Jews–ninety percent of its Jewish population. And that’s just one example; 22 countries were impacted by the Holocaust.
The Room of Dimensions also provides excerpts from victims’ diaries and letters, many of which were written just before their capture or death. I was moved by the private agonies shared in these documents; one, a letter from a mother saying goodbye to her daughter, brought me to tears. What’s perhaps more heartbreaking is the fact that most victims left no written traces behind; they just disappeared.
Finally, in the Room of Names, names and biographies of select victims are read aloud in German. If information about all six million Holocaust victims was presented in this way, it would take six years, seven months, and 27 days to complete.
The Memorial’s website also offers an Information Portal to European Sites of Remembrance, which gives information about many of the Holocaust memorials within Europe, as well as the Yad Vashem portal, which includes the names of three million Holocaust victims and survivor testimony. Visitors to the museum also have access to over 150 survivor interviews.
The Topography of Terror Museum
The Gestapo and the SS–the Nazi’s key institutions of terror–were housed in the complex of buildings where the aptly named Topography of Terror Museum now stands. Heinrich Himmler, the orchestrator of the Holocaust and the man in charge of both the SS and the Gestapo, had his office here. This is the place where the Final Solution was developed and carried out.
Some background: the Gestapo (abbreviation for Geheime Staatspolizei) was the Nazi Secret State Police, and the SS (short for Schutzstaffel) was a powerful paramilitary organization most responsible for implementing the Final Solution. The Reich Main Security Office (German: Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA) of the SS, charged with fighting enemies of the Reich both at home and abroad, was the organizational center for the Final Solution and most of the Nazi’s crimes. The headquarters were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945, and the ruins were razed after the war.
The cellar of the Gestapo headquarters, where political prisoners were interrogated, tortured, and executed, was found and excavated in the 1980s, and the site was turned into a memorial and museum. The first exhibitions occurred in 1987 as part of Berlin’s 750th anniversary. The museum now has an outdoor exhibit that runs along a segment of the Berlin wall as well as an indoor exhibit.
Through the museum’s permanent exhibition, “Topography of Terror: Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office on Wilhelm- and Prinz-Albrecht-Straße,” we received an intense history lesson about the rise and fall of the Nazis.
I’m one of those annoying museum goers who reads every caption on every photograph and every text box on every information board. It took me several hours to work my way through the exhibit, and let me tell you, by the end I was drained. I read in excruciating detail the story of how a broken and impoverished post-World War I Germany welcomed Adolf Hitler and his fervent fascist ideals because he promised to make the country great again. I read about the ever-tightening noose choking the German Jews, as their rights were stripped away and their lives stolen. And then there was the description of the Final Solution–the orchestrators, the victims, the concentration camps, the suffering, and the mind-boggling destruction of not only millions of human lives but also of unique cultures.
The presentation of facts was unflinching–no excuses, apologies, abstractions or euphemisms. The museum spelled out the wrongdoings of everyone involved, from Adolf Hitler to the German people. Unlike other museums set in places of torment and anguish, here there were no displays of torture instruments or prison cells. Sensationalism wasn’t needed–the bare facts were dramatic enough.
Memorials to other victims of the Holocaust
Hitler demanded the creation of a master race, and the efforts of his subordinates to meet this expectation led to the Holocaust and the deaths of an estimated eleven million people. Of those, approximately five million were non-Jews considered Untermenschen (subhuman) or undesirable. Many of these “undesirables” were from ethnic minorities; others, such as homosexuals and the handicapped, were seen as socially abnormal. Persons from Christian minorities, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, were persecuted because they refused to vow devotion to anyone other than Jesus. Blacks were also targeted, especially the African-German mixed-race Mischlinge, called “Rhineland Bastards” by the Nazis. And the Russians and Slavic peoples suffered immensely at the hands of the Nazis.
Many people don’t realize that so many non-Jews were targeted by the Nazis (I didn’t until we visited the US Holocaust Museum for the first time); their plight is therefore called the Forgotten Holocaust. There are several memorials in Berlin dedicated to a few of these “forgotten” groups of victims.
Memorial and Information Point for the Victims of National Socialist Euthanasia Killings
Under the operation codenamed “T4,” the Nazis implemented their first act of systematic mass murder, “euthanizing” over 70,000 physically and mentally handicapped and mentally ill individuals in Germany from April 1940 to August 1941. The handicapped were targeted because they didn’t measure up to the attributes of the “master race” and were therefore “useless” and not worthy of living. The Nazis enlisted the assistance of doctors on a large scale to implement the program.
At first many victims died from neglect or starvation; later, they were sent to special “euthanasia” centers where they died by lethal injection or in the gas chamber. Mass protests and public outcry forced the Nazis to discontinue T4, but they continued the massacre of the handicapped in secret, and by the end of the war, anywhere from 200,000-300,000 handicapped people throughout occupied Europe had been murdered.
The Memorial opened on September 2, 2014.
Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime
The Nazis persecuted the Sinti, Roma, and other minority ethnic groups (collectively known as “Gypsies” or “Romani”) because of their belief that Romani were racially inferior and outside of “normal” society. This inferiority was seen as a threat to the biological purity of the master race that Hitler was striving for.
Sadly, the Nazis weren’t the first group to persecute the Romani; throughout Europe, they had been the target of contempt for hundreds of years. But the Nazis took the persecution to a whole new level, first disenfranchising those Romani that were German citizens and then arresting and transporting thousands of people to internment centers or forced labor and concentration camps. Tens of thousands died, either from horrendous conditions in the camps or outright execution.
It’s not known exactly how many Roma, Sinti, and other minority groups died in the Holocaust; however, historians estimate that the Germans and their allies murdered approximately 25% of all European Romani, up to 220,000 people. After the war, discrimination continued, and the West German government refused to acknowledge that the Romani people were systematically persecuted. It was only in 1979 that the West German Federal Parliament acknowledged that Nazi persecution of the Romani was racially motivated. The Memorial opened in October 2012.
Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime
There were an estimated 1.2 million homosexual males in Germany in 1928. Laws against homosexuality already existed in Germany at that time; however, under the Nazis, the guidelines grew much stricter; something as simple as a kiss could get one into trouble. An estimated 100,000 men were arrested as homosexuals between 1933 and 1945, with 50,000 sentenced, and anywhere from 5000 to 15,000 were sent to concentration camps (the rest were incarcerated in regular prisons). In the camps, many gay men suffered extraordinary neglect, maltreatment, and abuse, and some were castrated.
It’s unknown how many of these men survived the concentration camps. Research is limited; after the war, homosexual men continued to face persecution and the risk of imprisonment, so many stayed silent. Furthermore, the post-war government did not recognize homosexual concentration camp prisoners as victims of Nazi persecution, and some were even required to serve out their prison terms despite the fact that they had already spent time in concentration camps.
The restrictive Nazi laws regarding homosexuality were repealed in 1950, and same-sex sexual activity between men was decriminalized in both East and West Germany in the 1960’s.
The homosexual victims of the Holocaust were not included in public commemorations for many years. They are therefore sometimes called the “forgotten victims” of the Holocaust.
Fortunately, the climate is changing. We spent some time with a German lesbian couple in Spain and learned that, while Germany still has a ways to go, it is now one of the most progressive European countries when it comes to gay rights.
The Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime opened on May 27, 2008.
Note: From what I read, lesbians were not typically considered a threat by the Nazis and did not face nearly the persecution that male homosexuals did; however, the monument is dedicated to all homosexuals: it “serves both as a memorial to the homosexual victims of National Socialism and as a lasting symbol against exclusion, intolerance and animosity towards gays and lesbians.” (From the Memorial’s website)
Slavic persecution and Soviet Memorials
In the years after the war, the Soviets erected three memorials to its dead, especially to the 80,000 soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin. There are cemeteries at two of the three sites.
This doesn’t directly relate to the memorials, but I thought I’d mention the intense suffering that Russians and other Slavic peoples (Poles, Ukranians, and Serbs) experienced at the hands of the Nazis, not only because they were considered inferior but also because Hitler wanted to eradicate the Slavs to make Lebensraum (“living space”) for his master race. Here are a few facts:
- Over six million of the eleven million killed as a result of the Holocaust came from Poland–3.3 million Jews and 3 million Christians. That’s roughly 20% of the country’s pre-war population.
- Russian prisoners of war were monstrously mistreated at the hands of the Nazis. About 60% of POW’s (3.3-3.5 million) died in captivity either from starvation and malnutrition, execution, death marches, or labor camps.
- Thousands of Russian villages were obliterated by Nazi troops. Many thousands of Russian citizens died from starvation and disease, and as many as 500,000 more were killed in concentration camps. More than 1.2 million Russian civilians died in the siege of Leningrad.
These statistics and facts are a lot to absorb, but I’ve had five months to think about our experiences in Berlin, and here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to:
- We must never forget those who suffered and we must never let it happen again. This is why Holocaust museums and memorials exist, and it’s why we should visit them.
- And yet, it is happening. The ongoing slaughter of people in the African region of Darfur is genocide (the death toll is now over 400,000). The mass murder and atrocities committed in Syria, if not technically genocide, are still flagrant war crimes–since the onset of civil war, over six million people have been displaced, and 220,000 people are dead, half of them civilians. Many thousands are still trapped in the country and are starving due to the government’s deliberate blockage of aid. We cannot pretend that we live in a better world now and that new holocausts aren’t still happening.
- Propaganda is a powerful tool of manipulation. The Nazis manipulated the German people by verifying their fears and giving them a bullseye for their misfortunes, effectively convincing them that an entire race of people should be exterminated. Most Germans weren’t evil, but they allowed themselves to be manipulated into tolerating and committing horrendous acts.
- Propaganda is just as dangerous today as it was then. Nationalistic hype is rearing its ugly head in America and other parts of the world, and some people are buying into this rhetoric of fear. We must be more discerning than that. We must be critical thinkers. We mustn’t believe everything we hear, and we mustn’t believe that it could never happen here–it could happen anywhere.
- As for Germany, we loved it. We got to know many Germans while walking the Camino del Norte, and to a person they were big-hearted, compassionate, open-minded people. I do believe, and our friends confirmed, that Germany is making a concerted effort to atone for its past sins. The younger generations are maintaining an open dialogue about what happened in order to understand it. And Germany is very inclusive: it now has some of the most liberal laws regarding homosexuality in Europe, and it has opened its arms to more Syrian refugees than any other European country. Germany is now one of the most multicultural countries in the world.
- Just like most of the planet, Our German friends are watching the U.S. Presidential elections closely, and you know what? They are nervous about the outcome of the elections (to be more precise, one of our friends used the word “terrified”). They fear what will happen if a close-minded candidate is elected to the most influential office in the world. When a country like Germany, itself one of the most powerful in the world, is nervous about the U.S. Presidential elections, it says something.
Ultimately, the Holocaust was possible because of fear–fear of the unknown and fear of those who were different. Fear is dangerous, and we must never allow ourselves to be ruled by it.
What we missed
The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is in the town of Oranienburg, not far from Berlin. It housed political prisoners as well as some Jews, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s witnesses from 1936-1945. And then after the war, the Soviets used it to hold political prisoners. In the fifteen years it was open, tens of thousands died here. It is now open as a museum and memorial.
If you want to learn more, here are two excellent places to start: