04 November 2018

Remembering the Holocaust
80 years after ‘Kristallnacht’

The cupola of the Neue Synagoge or New Synagogue dominates the streets in Spandau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

On the night of 9/10 November 1938, Nazi Party members, the Hitler Youth and other people went on a government-sanctioned rampage against Jews throughout Germany and Austria.

That night 80 years ago is remembered as Kristallnacht or the ‘Night of Broken Glass,’ and many say it marks the unofficial beginning of the Holocaust.

Jewish-owned businesses, schools, hospitals and synagogues were set on fire, were ransacked and had their windows smashed. Within two days, over 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged and 1,000 synagogues throughout Germany and Austria were burned down. Up to 100 Jews were killed that night, and 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to ‘work camps’ that soon became death camps.

The façade of the New Synagogue survived Kristallnacht and World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The New Synagogue on Oranienburger strasse narrowly escaped being destroyed that night through the brave intervention of a district police chief, Wilhelm Krützfeld. It is around the corner from Tucholsky strasse, where I was staying in Berlin. I was visiting synagogues, museums, houses, factories and hiding places, and the former concentration camp at Sachsenhausen.

Centuries-long presence

A plaque commemorates the centenary of the New Synagogue and recalls Kristallnacht (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Jewish community had an oft-interrupted presence in Berlin since the 13th century. For centuries, Berlin had a vibrant Jewish culture, and was the birthplace of important Jewish movements including the Jewish Enlightenment in the 17th century and the Reform and modern Orthodox movements.

When the Neue Synagoge or New Synagogue opened in 1866, it was seen as an architectural masterpiece. The opening was such an important event that the attendance included Count Otto von Bismarck, soon to be the first chancellor of the German Empire.

The name ‘new’ refers to the reformed, modern rites and practices. The building was designed by Eduard Knoblauch and completed after his death by Friedrich August Stüller. It was designed in the Moorish style to resemble the Alhambra in Spain, and could hold 3,200 people.

The Jewish community continued to thrive in Berlin until the rise of the Weimar Republic: 160,000 Jews were living in Berlin in 1933. But over the next 12 years, the Holocaust reduced the Jewish population of Berlin to 8,000.

Many of Berlin’s Jewish institutions, including synagogues, schools and cultural sites, were destroyed during World War II. In the end, even the New Synagogue was damaged severely in the allied bombing of Berlin in 1943.

Remembering the Holocaust

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or Holocaust Memorial, is made up of 2,711 unmarked grey stone slabs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Nine million people, including six million Jews, were systematically murdered during the Holocaust. A room in the Memorial Information Centre and Museum on Cora-Berliner-Strasse has a continuous audio-loop reciting the names of every known Holocaust victim. It takes six years for the audio loop to complete one cycle.

Since the reunification of Berlin and Germany, the German government has worked to make Berlin a city that once again welcomes Jews, and the city and other foundations have created sites and memorials throughout the city to honour the six million Jews murdered by Hitler’s Germany.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or Holocaust Memorial, is near the Brandenburg Gate in the city centre. It was designed by the US architect Peter Eisenman and unveiled in 2005, to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. It was built on land once known as the ‘death strip,’ between East and West Berlin.

This memorial, covering 205,000 sq ft of unevenly sloping ground, is filled with 2,711 unmarked grey stone slabs arranged in a grid pattern, each with a unique shape and size and some as tall as 13 ft. The number 2,711 also corresponds to the number of pages in the Talmud.

Wandering among the slabs – did they remind me of tombstones? – is unnerving and claustrophobic, and a reminder of the mass scale of death in the Holocaust.

The courtyard off Rosenthaler strasse includes three small museums (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The ‘Empty Library’ at the Bebelplatz, near Humboldt University, was designed by Micha Ullman to recall the events on the night of 10 May 1933. This underground installation in the middle of the square is a sunken glass plate that provides a view into a room full of empty bookshelves that could accommodate about 20,000 books.

The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, organised a nationwide book burning that night, when more than 20,000 books were thrown onto a massive bonfire in the middle of the Bebelplatz. The books included works by journalists, writers, scientists and philosophers, as well as works by Jewish writers, including Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.

Otto Weidt (1883-1947) depicted in a mural at his former broom and brush factory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In the middle of busy Hackescher Markt, a courtyard off Rosenthaler strasse has an independent cinema, a café-bar, an art and book shop, artists’ studios and three small museums.

The Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind was once a small broom and brush factory. Otto Weidt is known as the ‘Schindler of Berlin.’ Before the war, he employed Jewish workers, many of them blind. Weidt was blind himself and used his profits to buy luxury goods to bribe Gestapo officers and save many of his workers.

Inside the former hiding room in Otto Weidt’s former broom and brush factory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

When the Gestapo arrested his Jewish workers in 1942, Weidt convinced the authorities to release some of them. He then hid these Jews in a back room until the end of the war, risking his own life to save theirs.

The Anne Frank Centre hosts a permanent exhibition on the Jewish girl who hid in a house in Amsterdam. The Silent Heroes Memorial Centre honours non-Jewish people who risked their lives to aid and rescue Jews.

Anne Frank depicted in a mural in the courtyard off Rosenthaler strasse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Oldest Jewish cemetery

The gate into the former Jewish cemetery on Grosse Hamburger strasse, the oldest in Berlin, which opened in 1671 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Grosse Hamburger strasse, linking August strasse and Oranienburger strasse, was once a tolerant street, with Jewish sites shoulder-to-shoulder with other religious institutions, including Saint Hedwig’s Catholic Hospital and the Protestant cemetery of the Sophien Church.

The former Jewish cemetery on Grosse Hamburger strasse, the oldest in Berlin, opened in 1671 and closed in 1827. For more than a century and a half, it was Berlin’s only Jewish cemetery, and almost 3,000 people were buried there. The Gestapo ordered the destruction of the graves in 1943 and used the gravestones to shore up trenches dug on the site.

A surviving gravestone in the former Jewish cemetery on Grosse Hamburger strasse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Among the few gravestones standing today is a reconstruction of the original grave of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the leader of the Jewish enlightenment movement.

The memorial sculpture of 13 figures representing the women of Ravensbruck was designed by Will Lammert (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In front of the cemetery, a memorial sculpture of 13 figures representing the women of Ravensbruck was designed by Will Lammert and a memorial stone honours the deported Jews of Berlin.

Stones on the cemetery wall and a Star of David remember the dead (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Further along the street, the Jewish Old People’s Home opened in 1844 and the former Jewish School for Boys was founded in 1862. Both were shut in 1942 and used as holding centres. From these two buildings, more than 55,000 Jews were held and then sent to their deaths in concentration camps.

The Old People’s Home was destroyed, but the school reopened in 1993 as the Gymnasium Moses Mendelsohn and is now a co-educational school for Jewish and non-Jewish children.

At first, Jews in Berlin who had married non-Jews were exempted from deportation to concentration camps. But this policy changed in early 1943 when the Nazis began ‘Operation Factory,’ targeting Jewish men in mixed-marriages. On 28 February 1943, between 1,500 and 2,500 Jewish men were taken to the Jewish Community Welfare Office on Rosenstrasse, near Berlin’s first synagogue at Heidereutergasse, dedicated in 1714.

Fearing that the next step was deportation, the non-Jewish wives and relatives protested at the site. After five days of protests by the women, the men were released. The building where the men were held was destroyed, but a haunting memorial in a nearby park recalls these events.

Ingeborg Hunzinger’s ‘Women’s Block’ commemorates the women’s protest on Rosenstrasse in 1943 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The sculpture Block der Frauen (‘Women’s Block’) was carved by Ingeborg Hunzinger and dedicated in 1995. The symbols include the Menorah, the Lion of Judah, a bunch of grapes, and hands raised in the Jewish priestly blessing.

Throughout Berlin, brass tiles no bigger than the palm of my hand are embedded in the footpaths. These Stolpersteine – ‘Stumbling Stones’ – are part of a project started in 1996 by the artist Gunther Demnig.

They bear the name, birthdate, deportation date and year and place of death of Jews killed in the Holocaust and are placed in front of the victims’ homes. There are now over 5,000 Stolpersteine in Berlin, and 38,000 throughout Europe.

Irish diplomat’s warning

The site of Berlin’s first synagogue at Heidereutergasse, dedicated in 1714 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

I was staying in the Spandau area in an old Jewish quarter that did not become part of Berlin officially until 1920. It still has its small-town charm, with sedate 19th century apartment buildings, lively side-streets, art galleries and cafés.

The view on every street and in every courtyard in this area seems to be dominated by the gilded cupola, domes and towers of New Synagogue. The heavily damaged New Synagogue was essentially demolished in 1958, except for the front façade and entrance. The Centrum Judaicum Foundation opened here in 1988 and the rebuilt New Synagogue opened in 1995 as a museum, cultural centre and community offices.

The congregation in the New Synagogue today is Berlin’s only Masorti synagogue. Gesa Ederberg became the first female pulpit rabbi in Berlin in 2007 when she became the rabbi of the New Synagogue.

A Menorah on the ‘Women’s Block’ carved by Ingeborg Hunzinger in 1995 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Today, there are 19 or so synagogues or Jewish houses of prayer in Berlin, compared with 94 synagogues in 1932. Most adhere to the Liberal rite, with a few Orthodox and reform synagogues. Synagogues outside the organised community including the Addass Yisroel Orthodox synagogue a few doors from where I was staying.

The Rykestrasse Synagogue, which opened in 1904, is the largest synagogue in Germany. It too survived Kristallnacht and reopened in July 1945 immediately after the war. The synagogue was fully restored in 2004 to mark its centenary.

Berlin is home to the world’s fastest growing Jewish community, believed to number about 45,000 people. Initially, Berlin attracted Jews from the former Soviet Union. The community kept growing with the arrival of thousands of Israelis and smaller numbers of young immigrants from Australia, France, the US and elsewhere. This is a diverse and sometimes divided community, from ultra-Orthodox to various reform branches to non-believers.

Since 2009, the Irish Embassy in Berlin has been located at 51 Jägerstrasse. The house was built in 1789 and once belonged to the Mendelssohn family, serving as their home and business premises.

Daniel Anthony Binchy (1899-1989), who was the Irish minister (ambassador) in Germany in 1929-1932, wrote a paper for the Jesuit journal Studies in March 1933, warning of Hitler’s imminent rise to power and the threat he posed to Germany’s Jews and to peace in Europe. It was a prescient warning, and although it was largely ignored, his sharp analysis shows Europe knew the dangers Hitler posed six years before World War II.

My generation may be the last to say we met and knew survivors of the Holocaust. The anniversary of Kristallnacht this month is one opportunity to ensure their stories continue to be told and the memories are handed on to the generations that follow.

This feature was first published in November 2018 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)

Four ‘Stolpersteine’ or ‘Stumbling Stones’ on Rosenthaler strasse by Gunther Demnig commemorate the Salinger family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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