… I want to share my trip to the site of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and some final thoughts.
I have always been fascinated with stories that have to do with the Holocaust, both the tragic tales and the inspiring stories of survival. One of the very first books I read as a girl was a small book called the Secret Cave, about a group of orphans who discovered a small cave near the home that they live in, and a friendship that they developed with a group of new kids who at first they found odd and very different; which of course you later discover are Jewish kids who lost their parents at Camps and are escaping the same fate from the Nazis. Which began an interest on such subjects, which years later was followed by of course the Diary of Anne Frank and many other books and TV specials. I think I have to explain though, that in the Philippines, the schools that I went to, especially in the neighborhood I grew up in, the Holocaust and the stories of the Jews is something not talked about. Not because they did not want to, but the only way I can explain is that not many knew or were interested about it. You might say that we of course had our own side of the story during WWII, that the west had the Nazis and we had the Japanese on our side of the world, not many of the kids I grew up with were not very interested in that part of the Philippines’ history, what more of something that happened thousands of miles away.
In high school, I looked forward to tackling it in world history, but if it were discussed it must have been buried under all the dates and names I was forced to memorize. It wasn’t until college that I had met people who I can talk about such things, people who really understood what it was about (which included JG). Which is why for years I found it odd that I was the only one interested in such stories, and like to read about them, whether in fiction or in history books. And it’s really refreshing to be able to go to such places as Berlin and Prague where everyone is so very much aware about that time in history, where information and stories are everywhere to be learned and heard.
And so, part of our plan was to take one of the tours that actually take you to an actual Concentration Camp, but we found that we did not have time to insert that in our schedule. But when we arrived, one of the places Ms. Banana insisted that I visit, when she found out I was interested in such topics, was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews’ Site which had a small museum underneath. We first passed by during the tour and went back on our time to go down the said museum.
If you haven’t heard or seen any pictures of it, the site is about a block wide of huge gray concrete slabs with different sizes, set in sort of grid. From a farther perspective, it does look that way, but when you come closer or go into the blocks, the floor is uneven and slopes , and in the middle part the huge concretes will actually tower you. It was designed by an artist from New York who they say was inspired by the Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Another explanation I heard was that the artist wanted to recreate how the Jewish family would put stones on top of a loved one’s tomb, and the site stands like a big tomb with huge rocks on it.
It is however subject to interpretation, and has gotten several variations from the tourists and the locals of the city. I for one think that if the artist was going for depressing in a modern simplistic way, he was spot on. But that’s just me. And I guess I can see the connection to it being a huge Jewish tomb with the boulders representing the rocks that are traditionally placed atop of it.
The best part is what’s downstairs. The museum isn’t the usual kinds with old artifacts and materials protected inside glass boxes. In fact you will find none of that, just pictures and papers that are placed in a sort of minimalist office. You can go around on your own and read the panels by yourself, but if you’re ever there, I really suggest that you get the audio guide, which definitely makes the tour extra special. JG wasn’t much for paying four Euros for such things, he can be a cheapskate in some things, but I convinced him that it was a bargain since you can get in for free, and we saved a bunch of money by opting to go there instead of going to the paid tour.
So after you get your audio guide you start with a row of pictures that showed a lot of the things many Jews went through during the war, from public humiliation to gruesome ones, including one of bodies of naked women in ditch after they were all shot dead; if you look closer in the picture you will see one survivor who dares raises her head and a soldier pointing a rifle at her temple. At the end of the first room are huge portraits of five people, and their stories.
In the next rooms, you can find a collection of letters and postcards written by people before they were taken to the camps. Some of them I think were written while on the trains and were only found because someone picked them up after the letter was thrown off from the train. The letters were short but was really heart wrenching especially the ones who described the horrors that they saw and experienced. Across the walls of the room you can read written are places and the number of people who were killed in that area.
The next room is the family room where you can photos of different families, how they lived and whether or not they all or some of them survived the whole thing. This is where the audio guide comes in because it comes with stories by the actual survivors in the pictures. One of them was a woman whose picture was in the room as a little girl with her brother and her mom, she was asked to speak in the inauguration of the memorial site and it was really touching the things she said, her questions as a child and why all those things had to happen to them, why her mother and brother had to die. Those were the parts that actually had me at the brink of tears, thinking about that elderly lady as she spoke in my ears, while looking at her picture as a little girl.
After the family room is the room of names. Nothing but seats, and a dark room, all you have to do is sit and listen. At the walls all around a name and the years they lived is flashed and projected, each name is of every recorded person who was killed during the war. You know how sometimes you are asked to have a moment of silence for people who died? One variation of this is saying the name of the person who passed out loud or in your thoughts as a form of remembrance. The room of names is sort of like that, you can choose to sit there and remember everyone but they say it would take you more than a few days none stop. I sat for a few minutes and listened to a couple of person’s names and stories, including the one of Semyon Blyakhman who was 14 years old when he died.
The last two rooms is the Site of Murders where pictures of the Camps are shown and more stories straight from some of the survivor’s accounts. One in particular that really stuck to me was told by a mother. She said they were asked to line up as doctors inspected and interviewed them one by one. She said she wanted to save her son who was then a little over 12 years old from being sent to do hard labor so she told the doctors that he was not yet 12, and to look after them she convinced her mother to stay with the children, and then she said that she had no idea that she had unknowingly sent her son and her mother to their deaths since children and the elderly who could not work were sent away to be killed.
The last room is one surrounded by pictures of monuments all over the world that also commemorate the hundreds of thousands who were killed. But around the room are also some computers were you can search names and information on the many victims that they have documented. You can read papers and documents about them. But the best thing about this is that they are also there so that in case you know someone who was a victim of the Holocaust and has not been documented you can enter their name so you that they too can be counted and remembered.
Although I also thought that the museum was very strip down, it was very effective just the same. Effective in a way that it does give you an idea of what all the victims of the Holocaust had to go through during the war, more precisely it effectively makes you remember them and commemorate all those who died and all those who survived. I could have gone to the Camps and been told of stories of torture and depressing imprisoned life, but it was a better choice to have gone to the memorial because it was there that I got the stories I was looking for.
Aside from all the history and the tours, one of the best things about visiting Berlin was seeing it and how it is for Ms. Banana. It was amazingly nice to see her and how she has embraced living there. She did not simply showed us around, she showed us the Berlin that she discovered and in my opinion fallen slightly in love with. I say this because you know how you fall in love you make sure you sure you are into the same things as the person, and Ms. Banana, although not perfectly has now a grasp of the language, introduce us to their food, and can take you to favorite sites, nooks and crannies that most tourists will not bother to see.
Through her I was also able to see a very different side to the Germans. My whole life I have always had an idea of them, the same as they are stereotyped in movies, blond hair, blue eyed, no sense of humor and absolutely unapproachable. But Ms. Banana would come to them ask for help on directions or some help with some shopping and they would cheerfully put down what they are doing and help you out.
I could not help but be envious of how Ms. Banana has developed as sense of home in Berlin, how I wish I could be like her already familiar of her surrounding and able to know her way around. She is this petite lady, very different from everybody else there and yet she discovers it and its people as if she has belonged there all along. And so, I take this opportunity to thank Ms. Banana for not only opening her home to us, but by showing me her version of her new love that is Berlin.