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Berlin trip report - Lethargic Man (anag.) — LiveJournal

Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2005-05-29 17:38
Subject: Berlin trip report
Security: Public
Tags:trip reports

I spent the second last weekend of May in Berlin, for a European Marom Seminar on "Jewish Renewal in Europe: Sixty Years Later". Marom (Hebrew for "height", but also acronymic in this case for Centre for Spirituality and Tradition) is the Masorti students/young adults movement. It was founded by Udi Givon and somebody else (forgotten who, sorry) in the nineties, and now is widespread enough to support a seminar of ninety delegates from half a dozen countries. Now that's what I call making a difference.

Whilst I could see the relevance of having the seminar in Berlin, it did strike me as a little odd: Berlin is hardly one of Europe's major Jewish centres nowadays.

The answer to this conundrum, I think, lies in something one of our tour guides said. Jewish revenge is not about doing back to your enemy what your enemy does to you. Jewish revenge, rather, is seeking to completely undermine what your enemy does to you; in this case, building a thriving Jewish community in the city from which the Nazis attempted to stamp out Jewry altogether. And, though it is, we were told, hard to live there as a Jew ("is it possible to live here without thinking about what has happened here?" "Yes, about three days a year"), it's not impossible.

Another piece of relevance is that the Masorti movement had its origins in Germany 151 years earlier (though Masorti in the UK arose autochthonously* in the 1960s). Though the German Masorti community was wiped out in the Holocaust, there is a Masorti community in Germany once again today.

* Yay, I got to use "autochthonously"! :o)


I arrived a day early, because I didn't want to get an early morning flight. Consequently, I had a little time to kill before the seminar began; and spent it on a bus tour of the city. It was really rather striking just how many old buildings there were in Berlin. Berlin and London were both badly damaged during the war - the photographs of utter destruction of Pariser Platz save only for the Brandenburg Gate were as shocking as those of St Paul's arising alone from the wreck of central London - but where London got rebuilt with soaring modern concrete and glass, in Berlin many of the older buildings were rebuilt or reconstructed. As a result, central Berlin is rather more pleasing to the eye (or at least my eye) than central London.

The Brandenburg Gate I found distinctly odd in my appearance. I have a mental image of it as being a medium grey colour, and was startled to discover it was actually light yellow. Now normally I have nothing against cleaning sandstone monuments, but the Brandenburg Gate this colour just looked wrong, to me.

Of the Berlin Wall almost nothing remained, and what was there was in many cases reconstituted (as at Checkpoint Charlie) or moved from its original site. Nevertheless, the original line of the wall is marked throughout its length as a double-line of cobblestones, zigzagging crazily across roads. Also visible if you look down are Gunter Demnig's stumbling blocks, each commemorating the living place of one victim of the Nazis, many of them Jews.

I did some more touring with some other people after the seminar finished. We queued for three-quarters of an hour to get into the Reichstag so we could go up onto the roof, with its view out across Berlin. After climbing up into the glass dome, we were sitting sunning ourselves on the roof when a couple of policemen turned up and told us we couldn't sit there. Presumably they wanted to get us to leave the building so they could let in more people without crowding the place, but the only reason they gave us was "It is so." (Perhaps English wasn't their forte.) So now I can claim to have been moved on by the police after staging a sit-in on the Reichstag roof. :o)


When I got back to the hostel after my initial touring, people were turning up for the seminar. We had participants from all over Europe (though with some curious exceptions, such as Spain). To my surprise (and my absolute amazement when my mother guessed it), the largest contingent was from Hungary. They don't actually have a Masorti movement there per se, but they have something similar, called Neolog. (ObLinguisticGeekery: And I finally found out how to pronounce "zs" in Hungarian.)

The second largest contingent was from the Ukraine, who turned up having driven twenty-four hours across Poland to get there! There are, apparently, thriving Masorti communities in several Ukrainian cities. I didn't know, during the course of the weekend, whether to be more amused by the socialists amongst the British contingent singing Billy Bragg songs to the Ukrainians, Yelena (a Ukrainian) teaching Alex a Ukrainian political anthem from the last year's Orange Revolution, or Yelena later singing the Beatles' "Back in the USSR". :o)

The Portuguese group were largely Benei Anusim - crypto-Jews. (Marranos was the term I would have used beforehand, but it appears this term carries pejorative connotations so should be avoided). These were Jews whose ancestors had carried their Judaism underground following the expulsion of Jews from Portugal five hundred years ago. Today some of them are trying to rejoin the world Jewish community, but the Orthodox community is not recognising them as Jewish (despite the fact that they have, they told me, been marrying amongst themselves the while). Personally, I think this is disgusting. For five hundred years conversos in Spain and Portugal have been discriminated against and denied proper integration as Christians; now, when they try to return to their Jewish roots, that they should have the door slammed on them from that side too!

Fortunately, not all Jews are as unaccommodating. The Masorti movement contacted the Benei Anusim and brought representatives to the Marom Olami and Mercaz seminars in Berlin; and now they intend to go home and set up Masorti communities back in Portugal.

There were also nine of us from the UK; and smaller groups from France, the Czech republic, Germany (all immigrants from elsewhere in Europe - mostly Russia and the Ukraine - plus one South American and one Uzbek(!)), Portugal, and a couple of people from Russia. In both Germany and Russia Marom does not officially exist, because they feel the interdenominational bickering setting up the movement would entail would undo the good work that could be done working within a non-denominational framework.

Amusingly for me, there were three people there with names I'd previously only come across in novels: Romanelli (from Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates); and a couple of Hungarians called Horváth (from John Dickson Carr's classic locked-room mystery The Hollow Man).


Our seminar began with a tour of the Neue Synagoge. This magnificent building, seating 3000, was built by the Liberal movement in the mid-nineteenth century. On Kristallnacht (9 November 1938) it was partially plundered by the Nazis - though the head of the police there, astonishingly, was able to stop them trashing it completely (and got away with it without finding himself in a concentration camp afterwards). (Something I learned that weekend was that Berlin was not actually a Nazi stronghold, and into the 1940s the mayor of the city was able to prevent Goebbels carrying out his plans for making the city Judenrein. (Though not out of the goodness of his heart, it's true: his reason was the city's Jews were indispensable for slave labour in the factories contributing to the war effort.))

During the war, the Neue Synagoge was hit by an British incendiary bomb, and the building was gutted, but its shell still stood. After the war, the small Jewish community which returned to Berlin was unable to pay for its reconstruction, and the East German authorities demolished the building. I see this as a microcosm of what happened to the German Jewish community as a whole: a fragment of what had been managing to escape the Nazis, only to suffer under the communists afterwards.

During the 1980s, the front part of the building was reconstructed; the majority was left unrebuilt. Inside, a photograph along the rear wall reconstructs the view people entering the building would once have seen; outside, a framework of wires holds in its original place fragments from the ornate marble steps leading up to the Ark.

We davened מנחה in an upstairs room where the ladies' gallery had once been. The shul, being built by the Liberal movement, was not oriented towards Jerusalem, but perpendicular to the street (about 45 degrees out from מזרח); nevertheless, Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, who took the service, chose to daven towards the site of the Ark, in memory of what had been there*.

* Rabbi Wittenberg had already told me, on Purim when מזרח was one way, the (locked) Ark a second, and the ספר תורה on the בימה a third, that one should adopt the direction of כיוון the congregation were using, so I now know I was wrong not to do so in your parents' shul, livredor.

Afterwards, we went on a walking tour of Jewish Berlin. The group I was with didn't get to see much, though. (ObIrrelevant: the Berlin circular S-bahn rail line is constructed along the line of Berlin's mediaeval moat, when it was filled in in the nineteenth century.) Our guide took us to see the site of the Old Synagogue, Berlin's first shul, which suffered pretty much the same fate as the Neue Synagoge, and all that remains now is an East German sculpture commemorating how the 1943 Rosenstrasse uprising by non-Jewish women married to Jewish men had forced the Nazis to backtrack on the deportation of two thousand Jews, and even resulted in some being brought back from Auschwitz.

The guide told us of how the first time she went there, she found a man walking his dog across the site; when she told him that the Old Shul had been there, he was mortified and picked his dog up to carry it away. Likewise, this time we found a couple of teenagers playing frisbee. The guide went to have a word with them, and afterwards the girl with the frisbee appended herself quietly to our group to hear what the guide had to say.


Friday began with a visit to the Jewish Museum. We didn't get as much time there as it really needed (partly due to the fact this group was absolutely atrocious at leaving and walking anywhere on time), but as some people mentioned, the museum was perhaps more directed at non-Jewish visitors; not so much would have been news to its Jewish visitors.

In the afternoon some of us went to have a look at the new Holocaust memorial designed by Daniel Libeskind. I wasn't very whelmed with it. I can see what he was trying to do with it, but I don't think it works. If you walk into it you end up surrounded by concrete monoliths and cut off both sight and sound from the street; but I found any feeling of solemnity and symbolism of the concentration camps was destroyed by the fact every few seconds somebody would walk past, somewhere on your line of sight, with a camera.

Also, though the facelessness of the many monoliths captures the way the Nazis depersonalised their victims, I don't think that is appropriate for a memorial. These were real people, they had their own lives, their own stories. Even just putting a name on each of the monoliths would have helped. Six million people, devoid of context, is just a statistic; it doesn't have the power to move you like, for example, the continual recital of names, ages and nationalities in the memorial to the children at Yad Vashem.

Later, we had another workshop before Shabbos; then a beautiful קבלת שבת service with lots of lovely singing. After dinner, there was a workshop on constructing Jewish memory. Curiously, all bar one of the three or four people asked at the start to volunteer a Jewish memory came up with something negative; I wonder what this says. In my case, I talked about how, on the first Jewish student peace process tour of Israel, Egypt and Jordan in 1995, after doing the normal places in Israel, we had crossed over the Allenby Bridge into Jordan. As the bus headed eastwards across the floor of the East African Rift valley into Jordan, this strange new country where we were not at all sure how we would be received, I looked back and, seeing the mountains of Judaea receded into the distance behind me, felt a yearning and sense of loss for the Promised Land as never before - and for the first time understood the Jewish yearning for a homeland we had lost nineteen hundred years earlier.

The Shabbos morning service was as tuneful as the Friday night one; I think we sang even more than in Assif. Afterwards, we had an interesting workshop on "Israel and the Diaspora: What is the Promised Land"; which was well-conducted in that it exposed deep divisions of attitudes towards Israel whilst maintaining a civilised debate throughout.


In the evening we had a session on Herzl, which was most interesting. I didn't really know anything about him beforehand, certainly not such things as that before inventing Zionism he leaned towards such solutions to antisemitism as converting the entirety of the younger generation to Christianity! The session left me wanting to read his novel, Altneuland. Apparently the utopian Zionist state he depicted in it was quite a bit different from how Israel actually turned out, but there were some quite startling things he got right:

Attention was diverted from the humourists when an elderly gentleman sitting next to Mrs Loeffler remarked in a slightly raised voice that things were becoming worse in Moravia. "In the provincial towns," he said, "our people are in actual peril. When the Germans are in a bad mood, they break Jewish windows. When the Czechs are out of sorts, they break into Jewish homes. The poor are beginning to emigrate. But they don't know where to go." [...]

"I feel it coming," cried Laschner, "We'll all have to wear the yellow badge."

From the point of view of the novel's original readers, Jews being forced to wear distinctive badges was a throwback to the Middle Ages. Few people at the start of the twentieth century could have foreseen it was going to come round again.


And that more-or-less wraps it up, apart from the fun and games on my way home. Twenty minutes before my flight, having already gone through passport control, I went into the toilet to brush my teeth and shave. I put down on the ledge below the mirror in front of me the booklet on Herzl which I was reading, using my passport as a bookmark. Whilst I was doing so a couple of men came in and out, and the cleaning ladies came in and cleaned a bit. During this I have to confess I completely forgot about keeping an eye on my passport; when I came to pick it up again afterwards, I discovered it had gone - taken from right in front of my eyes. Either it was an opportunistic identity thief, or the cleaning ladies had taken it as rubbish. If the latter, since it never turned up in lost property, they possibly threw it out without even realising it there was a passport inside the booklet.

Moral of the story: it's always worth taking the time to put your passport back in your pocket, even for just a couple of minutes.

Anyhow, I missed my flight, but Easyjet booked me on the next one, and the police contacted the British Embassy and got me a temporary passport. By this time it was twelve o'clock so I had a little time to kill, though I wouldn't have had much more than an hour in Berlin by the time I'd gone back in and come back out to the airport again.

My second set of problems started when I went to the police after checking in the second time, to see if my passport had turned up. I had to wait five or ten minutes for a policeman to show up, and then got one who didn't understand English very well; I made the mistake of letting him walk off with my replacement passport. Another five minutes passed; it was now twenty minutes before my (second) flight and I had no passport, and there was no sign of the man who had taken it. I ended up wandering into the maze of corridors where he had gone and bellowing at the top of my voice until I'd attracted enough attention to be able to track him down and get my passport back.

After that my next problem was passport control not accepting my replacement passport; they took me over to the Easyjet desk and they didn't accept it either. They ended up 'phoning elsewhere (the British Embassy?) to get authorisation. Then, despite saying they'd 'phone ahead to make sure my passport was accepted by the other desks between me and the 'plane, I had hassle with every one of them too.

Oh well, it all ended all right in the end; I got to the 'plane with a few minutes to spare.

Second moral of the story: It's always worth taking out holiday insurance, even for only a weekend away.

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