Ian Farrell traces the city’s creative responses to the tragedy of the holocaust…
The dark years of 1933–1945 seep strongly through the surface cracks of the modern metropolis, not only in the shape of bullet-strafed walls and bombed-out spaces, but also the manifold sculptures and artworks that dot the streets, neighbourhoods and parks.
Several of these memorials—the imposing, abstract monoliths of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, for example, or Käthe Kollwitz’s poignant sculpture of a grieving war mother at the Neue Wache—are well-known tourist hotspots. But many others are smaller and less obvious; often created by artists, their humility and ability to surprise can be just as potent, drawing us in quietly yet finding new ways to help us “never forget”.
Given that Jews were by far the largest group to suffer from Nazi persecution, it’s no surprise that the largest concentration of artful memorials lies just north of Alexanderplatz, in the area once known as the Scheunenviertel, or “barn district”. Eastern European Jews were permitted to settle here from the eighteenth century onwards, and their population had swelled to some 170,000 by the time the “brown menace” arrived in the 1930s.
While many fled shortly after Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, thousands were murdered during the latter part of the war. It would be easy to view the escapees as lucky, but their lives were still in many ways destroyed by the Nazi regime, a fact alluded to by Karl Biedermann and Eva Butzmann’s bronze sculpture Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room).
Situated on a quiet playground in Koppenplatz (Mitte), the artwork depicts a simple table with two chairs, one of which has been knocked over onto the hardwood floor: a reference to the drama of these sudden departures, which often occured in the middle of the night with no time to gather possessions or make definitive future plans; lives suddenly thrown up in the air at a moment’s notice.
Originally the winner of a competition in the GDR to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1988, the sculpture was not actually installed until 1996. The furniture is just slightly larger than life, amplifying the eerie sense of sudden absence that must also have been felt by many of the remaining residents at the time.
Of course the writing was on the wall with the infamous book burning at Bebelpatz in 1933, shortly after the Nazis had gained power. Another art installation, inaugurated in 1995, now commemorates this event: that of Israeli sculptor Mischa Ullmann, whose Versunkene Bibliothek (Sunken or Empty Library) consists of an underground room covered by a transparent glass panel, and lined with enough empty shelves to hold the 20,000 books that were burned there.
Besides the glass plate there are two bronze plaques, including a prophetic 1820 quote from Heinrich Heine: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will end in burning people…”
As Hitler’s regime grew in confidence, it began to expand its program of prejudice against the country’s Jewish population. Step by step, a series of laws were introduced, intended to dehumanise Jews and segregate them from the “Aryan” German population. The best-known of these are the 1935 Nuremberg laws, which defined exactly who was to be classed as a Jew and outlined a range of regulations forbidding marriage and sexual relations between Jews and “pure- blood” Germans.
On top of these restrictions, a slew of smaller-scale laws that helped the Nazis “normalise” antisemitic behaviour have been writ large at the Places of Remembrance memorial in Schöneberg’s Bavarian Quarter. Artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock chose the leafy, tranquil streets surrounding Bayerischer Platz precisely because they were once home to many of Berlin’s wealthier and more prominent Jews: Albert Einstein, Billy Wilder and Hannah Arendt among them.
The artists’ 80 large placards, each attached to the upper sections of a streetlamp, show simple but eye-catching illustrations on one side, and extracts from the antisemitic laws on the other, most of which seem—as is the intention—utterly shocking and downright bizarre to us today: “Jews are banned from keeping pets”; “Jews are banned from swimming at public beaches and pools”; “Jews are only allowed to buy groceries between four and five in the afternoon”…
Another demeaning Nazi strategy, to drive successful Jews out of business, is memorialised by the Denkzeichen ModeZentrum Hausvogteiplatz, an initiative started by a group of intellectuals, who ran a competition for ideas and submitted the winning design as a proposal to the Senate Urban Planning Department.
Now an unassuming square just a stone’s throw from Gendarmenmarkt and the Galeries Lafayette, Hausvogteiplatz was once the centre of Berlin’s fashion industry. Here, in the 1830s, enterprising Jewish businessmen such as Leib Levin set up the first ready-to-wear clothing stores, an affordable alternative to custom tailoring that would help fuel Germany’s industrial revolution by introducing mass-production techniques.
After a century of success, the enterprise was torn down by the Nazi regime. SA guards blocked doorways, threatening potential customers and discouraging Berliners from buying from Jews. This “discouragement” became gradually more overt, culminating in Kristallnacht, a mass ransacking of Jewish shops, homes and synagogues on 9 November, 1938. Their businesses smashed and their lives more clearly than ever under threat, many owners sold their businesses at a fraction of their true value and fled.
Those who refused to be driven out were chased down by the government over the coming years, with an estimated 4,000 Jewish business owners deported and murdered from the Hausvogteiplatz area alone. The memorial there has two parts: 19 plaques on the steps of the east exit from the U-Bahn station list the names of the businesses destroyed, while at ground level, a triangle of three outward-facing dressing-room mirrors prompt passers-by to ask themselves what they might have done during the atrocities (details of which are engraved into the ground at the centre of the mirrors).
Mirrors are understandably a popular leitmotif for the cause of reflection and remembrance, and more can be found in the woods of Murellenberg, on the western side of the Nazi-built Olympiastadion, where a mysterious memorial—initiated by a local priest—remembers the conscientious objectors who fell victim to fatal Nazi retributions. By the latter half of the Second World War, punishments for those who showed less than ardent support for the Nazi cause grew ever more swift and violent, as the need to keep the population in order became increasingly desperate. Just off Glockenturmstraße, a short dirt track winds away from the road and into the quiet beyond.
At its entrance, visible to motorists and passers-by, stands an unusual traffic mirror laser-etched with the words: “In the Second World War, around 30,000 death sentences were passed by military courts, around 20,000 of which were carried out, increasingly on charges of desertion and subversion of national defence”.
A quick glance into the forest reveals more mirrors glinting in the sunlight further along the path. While some of the glass panels have been left blank to deliberately reflect our own curious expressions, others—like the one at the entrance—offer further details of those who were executed for going against the Third Reich’s military might. The mirrors increase in density, closing in as you reach the end of the path and, eventually, the site of many of the executions.
Another common memorial theme is absence. The mass deportations of the Final Solution left large swathes of the city suddenly devoid of life, a horror that is evoked at Große Hamburger Straße 16. Originally home to a number of Jewish occupants before being bombed to bits towards the end of the war, the building was “restored” by French artist Christian Boltanski and a class of his students in 1990, who installed plaques on the neighouring walls for each family, at the level where they once lived. The decision not to fill the vacuum preserves the sense of loss far more effectively than a memorial in front of a rebuilt house.
As the war neared its end, Hitler’s campaign of persecution intensified. Across Europe, Jews, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma and many other 151 groups were torn from their homes and forcibly transported to concentration camps. Perhaps the most personal and poignant tribute to these victims are the Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) by Cologne-based artist Gunter Demnig. There are 6,000 of these small brass plaques in Berlin alone, and some 50,000 in total throughout Germany and other European cities and towns.
Embedded into the pavement in front of the former homes and workplaces of Holocaust victims, each has been hand-engraved by Demnig, and features the scantest information: the names of the individuals and the dates their lives ended—be it due to deportation, murder, suicide or exile. Nevertheless, the emotional impact of “stumbling” across one of these small “stones” testifies to the power of the personal as a form of remembrance.