Terezin or Berlin – Two Models for Reconciling with a Difficult Past
Shabbat Shuvah 5777 – Parshat Vayelekh
I hadn’t originally tied my d’var to the Parshat this week – I was focusing on the theme of t’shuva for Shabbat Shuvah – but was struck by these verses as the Torah was being read this morning. I will read these two verses and leave them there – they will make sense later.
“Gather the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 31:12-13
This summer I participated in my third Centropa Summer Academy. Centropa is an organization with its headquarters in Vienna, Austria that is working to document Jewish life in the 20th century in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans – that of the “Jews who went home after the Holocaust” as I refer to them. I use their materials heavily in my classroom and do many projects in collaboration with other Centropa teachers in Europe, Israel and other US schools. This year’s trip was to Vienna, Prague, Terezin and Berlin and focused on the experience of refugees. But I am not here to talk about refugees – though I could.
Today is Shabbat Shuva – the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – a day focused on the theme of return, repair and fixing the past as best we can. We are focused for these 10 days on tzedahka, teffila and t’shuva. But can we always fix the past? How do we repair what is broken when the break is so severe and those who were wronged are no longer here? How do we return to a point where “normal” life can continue in places where huge ruptures have occurred? Not individual ruptures or breakage – but cultural/national/regional ruptures that are not easily healed over. How do we dwell in the places where these things have happened and obtain a sense of normalcy again? Can we?
I would like to think about this question in relation to two places I visited this summer and then try to bring these analogies down to the personal level. I will start with a short blog post I wrote on the bus immediately after visiting Terezin.
“Terezin – Today I visited Terezin – Theresenstadt – the fortified city that became a Jewish ghetto during World War II. Prior to the 1940s and, again since then, Terezin was an actual town. First for the military and then for civilians as well. Walking through Terezin as visitors to a “museum” of the Ghetto, it was jarring and upsetting to be shaken out of the past by cars careening down the streets with their stereos blaring. The former housing and associated buildings used to imprison tens of thousands of Jews now house hair salons, bars, shops and even a pension – a small inn near where Jews would be loaded into trains for the trip to Auschwitz. The man in his speedo on the deck of this inn was really the final indignity. I personally can’t imagine living on the site of a Nazi created ghetto – a place where 33,000 people died from illness, starvation and poor treatment. How do you give your address? How do you invite people to visit you at your home? The atmosphere in the town is heavy with history – it was hard being there two hours – how does one live there? On the edge of “town”, just past the quaint little pension, there is a directional sign to the crematorium. I cannot imagine driving daily past this sign on my way in and out of town. Yes, evil and awful things happen/have happened in many places in the world, but some places are more tainted with this evil. For me, the idea of living in such a place is unthinkable. To try to have a normal, mundane life with the daily reminders of ultimate evil all around seems absurd. Perhaps the blaring radios and unsafe speed for streets full of museum visitors are just symptoms of this insanity.”
At Terezin there is both a memorial and museum to the past and an attempt to have life go on. They are side by side. There is no seeming connection between the two. Normal life goes on – or tries to – shoulder to shoulder with groups touring a place where people were starved and worked to death because they were Jews. I get that the Czech citizens living there now are not the descendants of Nazis who ran the camps. I get that it was on occupied territory and run by the occupying government. But, still, how does one wake up in the morning and start your day positively if part of your commute includes driving by sites of mass murder? How do you disconnect your reality from that reality?
Berlin – In Berlin we visited the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Let me repeat that name – its official name –Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There are no punches being pulled here. No euphemisms or soft selling of the fact of what happened and that this was the capital of the government that made it happen. It is a visually moving memorial with an equally moving and powerful “information center” built directly underneath it. This memorial is made up of different sized stelae or cement pillars. There are walkways between them which are uneven and give you the feeling of being off balance. Being in the center of it, where the pillars are tallest, is a whole body experience and very disorienting. While on the outskirts of the memorial – which is not well marked and very open to the public – people are not really aware of where they are, in the middle of it, it is hard to not be impacted by the experience.
When we entered the Information Center – it is not referred to as a museum – Ed Serotta – the founder and director of Centropa – spoke to our group before we toured the exhibits. Ed is not a man known for filtering his opinions or moderating his views – one of his more endearing features in my opinion. He said “When I first came here, before it opened, I went through looking for places where they had pulled their punches or been less than truthful. I found none.” To me this was a very high recommendation of the place – Ed is always quite happy to find where more could be said to take full responsibility for the crimes of genocide. As I went through the Center, I found that I was in agreement with Ed. Those of you who know me, know that the Holocaust is my specialty and I have spent a lot of time touring museums, reading books, going to seminars and otherwise immersing myself in this most horrible chapter of our history. The Information Center of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the most brutally honest and upfront presentation of the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Final Solution that I have seen. That it exists in Berlin, near the Reichstag, in what was the center of the Nazi Reich, is amazing to me. There is no ignoring of the past. This is an airing of what was done, with no excuses being made. The crimes of the past are presented. Those guilty are named. There is no attempt at normalcy – the whole construction of the surrounding memorial is made to throw you off kilter and not allow you to feel normal or on firm ground. This is a place for coming to terms with the sins of the past and, even more importantly, educating those who visit about the importance of not repeating that past.
Other memorials in Berlin are similarly present and hard to miss such as the “Stumbling Stones” in the sidewalk outside homes lived in by Jews and the “Missing House” in the old Jewish Quarter, a plaque honoring homosexuals murdered and imprisoned on the wall of the UBahn Station in the part of town where these men would have likely lived. I know that for many Germans, particularly those living in Berlin, these constant reminders are perhaps too much. Airing one’s dirty laundry is not fun and having it constantly in your face, and also on display for all who visit, can be exhausting and embarrassing. I found Berlin to be one big museum – the outline of the former Berlin Wall is marked on the ground, the Stumbling Stones, the memorial for the Book Burning – it would be hard to live in Berlin and not have the mistakes of the past firmly in mind. The German Government works hard to show it has learned from this past – the acceptance of tens of thousands of refugees this past year is one proof of this. The final step of t’shuva is to not repeat a behavior and Germany, or at least their chancellor,, is working hard to show that Germany has truly learnt the mistakes of its past and does not plan to repeat them. Like in Terezin, life goes on around all of these memorials, but it was a very different experience than the frenetic experience in the ghetto. History is respected, not ignored.
In our own lives, when there is a rupture are we in Terezin – side by side with the reminders but doing our best to drowned them out with music and fast living? Or are we in Berlin – respectfully admitting our guilt and accepting the consequences – and becoming a better person for having done so? Do we allow others to view our past transgressions, but ignore them ourselves? Or, do we use those “stumbling stones” of our experiences to keep ourselves in line and move forward positively? Do we say “I wasn’t responsible, but just a bystander – this has nothing to do with me” and not concern ourselves with the wrongs done around us? Or do we use the errors of others to teach us to be better people as well?
As a student and teacher of history, I know that the power of learning history is to explore the mistakes of others and NOT need to repeat them ourselves. Seeing the patterns of history, the warning signs of future trouble, makes one able to step in and try to prevent that trouble. The USHMM has a Genocide Early Warning team, there are known steps that lead to genocide, known behaviors or events that can lead to mass atrocities. Knowing these allows us to prevent a repeat of humanity’s darkest hours. Yet, genocide continues to happen around the world and we continue, as a society, to not take such signs seriously enough. A speaker I heard this summer said “Knowledge isn’t power – until it leads to action.” Our knowledge of past trouble should lead to actions to prevent future ones.
Seeing the warning signs of trouble in our own lives can be just as hard – but we need to use our past experiences to help us move into the future more positively and more aware. Burying the past may make moving forward easier – but it also makes repeating the past more likely. As painful as facing difficult experiences head on may be, this type of accounting will help to prevent additional painful experiences in the future. We say “Never Again” while all the while genocide and crimes against humanity continue to occur. “Never Forget” is more realistic and will hopefully eventually bring us to a true “Never Again.” Facing our mistakes, fixing what we can fix, mending relationships and rebuilding community and then resolving to keep that experience in mind is what brings us to the final step – not repeating the action. I don’t mean an obsessive fixation on the wrongs – but an awareness that lack of attention can lead to trouble. Whether that trouble is a broken friendship or much larger, an awareness of the impact of our behaviors that is informed by our past experiences – and those of others we know – will help us to minimize the damage or avoid it all together.
I wish for us all the ability to fix the ruptures in our lives and to move forward wiser for the experience. Our world needs citizens aware of history and unafraid to face it and use it to know when our present or our future is about to repeat it. G’mar hatimah tovah. May we all be sealed for a good year.
Edited to add in edits made during delivery
Note – I had several people come and tell me that I was wrong and people did not live in Terezin – they had been there 10 years or more ago and no one lived there then – I can assure you that all of the businesses I listed and attempts at “ordinary” life were there when I visited this summer.
Excellent article, congratulations for being one of the few who seem to be willing to learn from history.
I have often said if people only knew their history, the world would be a better place. Mistakes from the past would not get repeated so often. The main problem as I see it, people see but they don’t act. They don’t think it will happen again but when reality hits it’s already too late to correct easily.
I admire this article and look forward to discussing in the future.