Following our visit to the Wannsee House we went to the Denkmal (which means monument in German) or the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” The memorial, which is less than ten years old, is controversial because it is a very abstract outdoor monument, completely open to the public with no explanation as to how one should interpret the memorial. The memorial is demarcated by a square area, which consists of concrete stones. The stones start off small and get progressively larger as one goes deeper into the monument. The ground inside the monument is uneven, and the feeling you get walking through is that of uneasiness and confusion. One popular interpretation of the Denkmal is that walking through the monument symbolizes the European Jewish experience: uncertain and unstable.
Below the Denkmal is an underground museum dedicated to educating about the murder of Jews in Europe. We met with the Head of Education at the museum who talked to us about the history of the Denkmal from its inception to the addition of the underground museum, which was built to work in conjunction with the Denkmal and was added as a compromise in order to give an explanation of the site. Our group was given time to walk through the museum, where we viewed the museum’s very stirring exhibitions. One particularly poignant exhibit highlighted letters written from Holocaust victims to relatives and friends; we learned that many of the authors of these telling documents were later murdered.
After leaving the museum we were able to walk through different parts of Berlin, and were able to see the famous Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue or the Neue Synagoge, recognizable by its golden dome. It is a gorgeous synagogue, and it is a miracle that the synagogue survived the war. We learned from Robert Jan van Pelt that the dome of this synagogue never burned. The famous picture taken of the synagogue during kristallnacht (the November Pogrom), where the synagogue dome appears to be burning, is actually an illusion; it was the building directly behind the synagogue that was aflame. The survival of this synagogue is attributed to a police officer, who refused to let the synagogue be destroyed on kristallnacht.
We concluded our eventful day by having dinner with rescuer Frieda Adam. We were able to ask her questions and, with the help of Robert Jan van Pelt’s translating, express our awe of her. Our group was honored to be in her presence; at 92 she remains a model of courage and humility for all. Frieda has been supported by the JFR for almost 19 years and throughout the evening she thanked us for the help. Frieda continues to live in the same apartment building where she hid a Jewish brother and sister for three years.
We were also accompanied by Professor Atina Grossmann who lectures at the JFR’s Summer Institute for Teachers and Dr. Kathrin Meyer, Executive Secretary of the International Task Force for Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research. Both Professor Grossmann and Dr. Meyer were in Berlin and were able to join us for dinner and to meet our teachers.