Memories of War, the Jewish Memorial in Berlin

Two wars in the last century have left an indelible scar on Europe. All over Europe are plaques to the fallen, statues to the heroes and memories of courage and museums about the time.

Then there is the other narrative, the story of one particular race of people who have been so persecuted for being born that their story has is own name, the Jews and the Holocaust. There were around 9 million Jewish people in Europe at the time of World War 2, 6 million were systematically killed in an operation designed out of pure racist intent.

The Holocaust or the Shoah was a genocide led by the Hitler, Goebbels together with the Nazi’s and their collaborators to vanquish the ‘undesirables’ of Europe, the prime targets being Jews. Others included the Roma gypsies, homosexuals, political opponents, communists, Jehovah’s Witness’ and Slavs. A combined 17 million people were exterminated in this operation over the duration of the war.

I don’t need to go into the details of how the atrocities began, there are true stories and enough documentaries that will serve that purpose better than I can.

But why were the Jews so hated? The story goes back further than Hitler, right back to pre-Roman times. The Jews were always seen as a people apart, while the peoples of Mediterranean antiquity were polytheistic, the Jews were staunchly monotheistic, refusing to accept other gods except their one God. Because of this, the Jews refused to accept the divinity of the Roman emperors who conquered them and never became assimilated to Roman culture (unlike the Gauls for example).

It became acceptable to be anti-Jewish, this was war. Things only got more extreme after that, after Christianity became the state religion of ancient Rome, the rhetoric against the Jews got worse. It was the Jewish people who rejected Jesus, the Jewish people who sentenced Jesus to crucifixion (ironic since there would have been no Christian salvation story without the crucifixion), Jews were different, they dressed funny the list goes on. Once absorbed into the empire, the Jewish people went all around the empire to trade and because of the racism against them and the limited number of jobs available. Stereotypes about rich, stingy and evil Jews grew. There were not many jobs available to the Jews, but finance was something they could do.

After the Reconquista (reconquering/re-Christianisation of Spain), led by Isabelle of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon one of the first missions that was launched was the Spanish Inquisition that began with the Alhambra Decree, the expulsion of Jews, that was when many Jewish people moved to the Baltic regions – where the leadership of Vilnius welcomed them.

By the time of Elizabethian England, Jewish stereotypes were set in stone. These people were best example I can think of is William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Shylock is the embodiment of the treatment of the Jews.

Not much had changed by the time the 20th century arrived in fact the stories just got bigger and the hatred got stronger. Conspiracy theories about the Rockerfeller family and the Rothschild family, large Jewish banking families, controlling the whole of Europe made them easy scapegoats when things got bad.

It was into this cultural milieu that Hitler rose to power. The Jews (ironic again since he was considered half a Jew) were his target and conspiracy theory to explain to the German people why their life had gone bad in the Great Depression and how he would improve their lives by targeting them. Did it work? Clearly. Then came Goebbels systematic propaganda campaign of dehumanisation and the horrors of concentration camps. Berlin was the backdrop to where many of the decisions of the Holocaust were made.

The Sylter Hof Hotel in Berlin sits on the site of the former Department of Jewish Affairs, the departments initial role was to expel Jews from Berlin and move them to camps, its later role was to organise the extermination of Jews.

A bit further out in the idyllic suburb of Wansee, against a beautiful backdrop of nature the Nazi SS Conference met in 1942 to discuss solutions to the Jewish Question, the decision of which led to the Holocaust.

Let’s be clear though, there were truly good people and Christians among them who risked everything to save the Jews. Among them was the much-maligned Pope Pius XII, his legacy perhaps the most controversial focused not on the fact that he saved lives, but that he did not save enough.

Long after the war in 2003 a memorial was planned to all the Murdered Jews of Europe. The location was extremely apt, it was a stones throw to Hitler’s former bunker, in the area of Hitler’s former administrative building, along the road that all German parliamentarians have to drive to to get to work and surrounded by foreign embassies. It is a marker of history, a lesson from the past and a reminder to the present.  The monument is made up of 2711 rectangular concrete blocks each with a different bent and height, shaped almost like a graveyard. The architect who designed it did not leave any interpretation and left the interpretation to those who visited.

In that vein, I too will not leave my interpretation, but merely leave some pictures within the site and let you decide.

Antiseminitsm is something that we critisize today, but sometimes its easy to forget that prejudice exists all round – there are one group of people in Europe who are still the subject of much prejudice today and who similarly suffered massively during the Holocaust – the Roma Porajmos.

Those who do not learn from history and doomed to repeat it.



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