9. November – Stolpersteine vor der Haustür: die Familie Goldbrenner

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Die Stolpersteine für Lea (1888-1942) und Josef (1890-1942)  Goldbrenner. Foto: Robin Oomkes
Heute ist 9. November – ein Tag der in Berlin vor Allem mit dem Mauerfall verbunden ist. Und das ist gut so – auch wenn es an diesem deutschen Schicksalstag noch vieles anderes zu gedenken gibt. Neben der Hinrichtung Robert Blums am 9.11.1848, der Abdankung des Kaisers am 9.11.1918 und dem Hitlerputsch am 9.11.1923, ist das vor Allem die Reichskristallnacht am 9.11.1938. An dieser Nacht (und an der Nacht des 10.11) überfielen die Nazihorden und ihre Mitläufer Jüdische Geschäfte, Synagogen und andere Eigentümer. Die Aktionen trieben etwa 400 Juden in den Tod; viele mehr wurden verhaftet und in Konzentrationslager überführt.

Zum Gedenken der Reichskristallnacht 1938 finden an viele deutschen Orten von Freiwillige veranstaltete Putzaktionen für Stolpersteine statt – jene kleine im Bürgersteig eingelassenen Gedenktafeln aus Messing, die seit 1992 vom Künstler Gunter Demnig überall in Europa  vor den letzten frei gewählten Wohnungen ermordeter Juden angebracht werden.

Das Haus Invalidenstrasse 2, Berlin-Mitte. Vor der Haustür befinden sich die zwei Josef und Lea Goldbrenner gedenkenden Stolpersteine. Foto: Robin Oomkes

Vor unserem Wohnhaus in Berlin-Mitte befinden sich zwei Stolpersteine, für Josef und Lea Goldbrenner. Die Steine gab es schon als wir Anfang 2014 einzogen, und uns war von der Familie Goldbrenner nicht mehr bekannt, als was wir auf die Steine lesen konnten: Josef wurde 1890 geboren, 1939 verhaftet und nach dem KZ Sachsenhausen gebracht, und wurde dann 1942 nach verschiedenen Verlegungen (über Dachau und Buchenwald) in der Tötungsanstalt in Bernburg/Saale ermordet. Lea Goldbrenner wurde 1888 geboren und 1942 nach Riga deportiert, wo sie ermordet wurde.

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Günter und Gisela Wongel putzen die Stolpersteine der Fam. Goldbrenner. Foto: Robin Oomkes
Aber im Juni 2016 erfuhren wir mehr: vor unserer Haustür traf ich zwei geknielten Personen, die die Stolpersteine putzten. Es waren Günter Wongel (geb. 1941) und seine Frau Gisela. Sie waren, zusammen mit den Enkelkindern der Familie Goldbrenner 2013 für die Initiative zuständig, Stolpersteine für Josef und Lea Goldbrenner anbringen zu lassen. Günter Wongel ist im Haus Invalidenstr. 2 aufgewachsen; er wohnte mit seinen Eltern in der Wohnung am 5. Stock. (Durch Kriegsschäden gibt es diese Wohnung nicht mehr; das Haus ist heute oben des 4. Stockwerks mit einem flachen Satteldach ausgestattet.)

Günter war zu jung um die Deportation 1942 Lea Goldbrenners bewusst zu erfahren, und zur Zeit der Verhaftung Josef Goldbrenners 1939 war er noch nicht geboren. Trotzdem hat seine Mutter Emilie, die im Haus die Hauswartsstelle inne hatte, ihm viel über die Familie Goldbrenner, die im 1. Stock wohnten, erzählt – wie Lea geweint hat, als Josef von der Gestapo weggeführt wurde, und wie sie damals für die Goldbrenners am Sabbat Feuer gemacht hat. Als es Juden schon nicht mehr erlaubt war, einkaufen zu gehen, hielf Emilie Wongel die Nachbarin indem sie für sie einkaufen ging. Emilie Wongel wurde beschimpft dass sie ‘wohl wieder für die Juden einkäufe’, weil die von ihr gekauften Waren, zum Beispiel frische Gurken, für die Familie Wongel wohl zu teuer waren.

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Günter Wongel, Blick auf das Gemeindehaus der Elisabethkirche, Öl auf Pappe1976.
In den siebziger Jahren haben Günter und Gisela Wongel selber noch einige Zeit in der Invalidenstrasse 2 gewohnt, und immer wieder an den weggeführten Nachbarn gedacht. Seitdem sind die beiden nach Pankow umgezogen, aber ein Kunstwerk von der Hand von Günter, gelerntem Grafiker, erinnert noch an die Zeit in der Invalidenstrasse.

Mindestens einer der Kinder der Familie Goldbrenner, Willy, hat den Krieg und die Konzentrationslager überlebt. Willy weichte nach Frankreich aus. Er und seine Frau Estera bekamen 1943 einen Sohn, Jean-Claude. Estera wurde kurz nachdem verhaftet und in Auschwitz ermordet. Jean-Claude Goldbrenner überlebte den Krieg geschützt von seinen französischen Grosseltern und lebt heute in den USA. Über seine Lebensgeschichte erfährt man mehr unter http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700168866/Holocaust-survivor-treasures-mothers-last-letters.html?pg=all.

Günter und Gisela Wongel haben ihre Erinnerungen an und Spurensuche nach Josef und Lea Goldbrenner in zwei Dokumente erfasst, die ich gerne empfehle:

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Heute Abend werden meine Frau und ich für Josef und Lea Goldbrenner bei den Stolpersteinen eine Kerze brennen.

Nov. 9, German Date of Fate. Part 2: 1918 – the Abdication of the Kaiser

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November 9th is known in Germany as its ‘Day of Fate’. It wasn’t only the date on which in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. So many other important historical events occurred on this day that the German government could hardly turn it into Reunification Day (that became October 3rd instead).

In 2014, Paul Sullivan, myself and some other Slow Travel Berlin writers divided the historical events of the ‘ninths’ between us and published stories on them on slowtravelberlin.com. As that website is now, sadly, partly unavailable, I am reposting my articles on this blog. (Check here for the 1848 story on the execution of Robert Blum).

Nov. 9, 1918 – the Abdication of the Kaiser

In early November 1918, Germany was in chaos. Even though the country no longer needed to fight on two fronts (the Russian revolution of 1917 had led to Moscow’s unconditional surrender), the arrival of United States on the Western Front, with its almost unlimited reinforcements, was the beginning of the end for the German Imperial Army.

From August 1918 onwards the Allies were on the offensive, and German Supreme Army Command realised that total military collapse was near. The population was grieving for the men lost in the war, food was severely rationed, and, since the example of the Russian surrender of 1917, both the Social Democratic and Communist parties were clamouring for peace.

The ultimate trigger for the events that occurred on 9 November 1918 was a last attempt by the Imperial Navy to turn the military tables in Germany’s favour. On 24 October of that same year, battle cruisers stationed at Kiel were ordered to make their way to the North Sea for a final showdown with the British Royal Navy. But the sailors refused to sail, and before long, their mutiny had spread from the ships to the town of Kiel itself.

The first Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council was proclaimed there on 4 November, and representatives of the Council spread throughout Germany to urge workers and soldiers to form revolutionary councils of their own. At the same time, on the home political front, Friedrich Ebert, leader of the moderate Social Democratic Party (SPD), had already secured concessions from the Kaiser and Supreme Army Command that effectively turned Germany into a parliamentary democracy. Ebert and his number two, Philipp Scheidemann, considered these concessions sufficient and certainly wanted to avoid a full-blown revolution.

Meanwhile, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had left – some say fled – Berlin on October 28 for German Military Headquarters in Spa, Belgium, was slowly coming to terms with the fact that support for the monarchy was slipping away. When he suggested he return to Berlin to restore order with the help of the Imperial army, he was told by military commanders that the army was no longer his to command, and in fact might turn against him.

On November 9th, Wilhelm, still in Spa, had started to consider relinquishing the title of German Kaiser but staying on as King of Prussia. Developments in Berlin, however, had long passed the point of no return, and the Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, had by that time already announced the Kaiser’s abdication.

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The ex-Kaiser’s study at today’s Museum Huis Doorn, where he took refuge after abdicating. Photo: Robin Oomkes

Finally facing up to reality, Wilhelm took the royal train to the Dutch border, where he was granted political asylum in the early morning of 10 November. He wasn’t the only one to lose his throne of course. King Ludwig III of Bavaria had been forced to abdicate on 7 November by radical Socialists, and between 9 and 30 November, the twenty remaining German Kings, Archdukes, Dukes and Princes followed suit.

Ex-Kaiser Wilhelm II spent the last 23 years of his life at a country estate in the Netherlands, Huis Doorn, now a fascinating museum. He maintained a make-believe Imperial Court, with the aid of 59 railway carriages full of Royal furniture, treasures and uniforms that the Weimar regime had allowed him to transport out of his three Berlin palaces. He spent his days chopping wood in the surrounding forest, and his evenings debating astrology and archeology with any scientist willing to come over and agree with the Kaiser’s views.

As the Dutch government was quite embarrassed at having to host the Kaiser (he was after all wanted as a war criminal by the Allied governments of the UK, USA, and especially France), he was under a kind of house arrest. He could go for drives in the vicinity of his country house, but only within a radius of some 10 kilometres. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands famously wanted nothing to do with her distant relative – in the 23 years of Wilhelm’s exile, she never received him. Until his death in 1941, the Kaiser never gave up hopes of resuming his role in Germany – he even wrote to Hitler offering his services, which understandably didn’t improve his standing with the Dutch government either.

Back in Berlin on the afternoon of the 9th of November 1918, rumours had reached the SPD’s Philipp Scheidemann, lunching with Ebert at the Reichstag, that Karl Liebknecht, leader of the Spartacus League (the precursor of the German Communist Party) was about to declare a Soviet Republic. To steal Liebknecht’s thunder, Scheidemann stepped onto one of the balconies of the Reichstag to give a spontaneous speech, in which he declared “The old and rotten, the monarchy has collapsed. The new may live. Long live the German Republic!”

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Philipp Scheidemann addressing the crowd from the Reichtag restaurant’s window on 9 November 1918.

Ebert, the SPD’s chairman, was furious and told Scheidemann he had no right to declare a republic – the political form of the new German state should be for the Constitutional Assembly to decide. But the rumour about Liebknecht had been true enough; gaining a balcony of the Stadtschloss (City Palace) on Lustgarten, two hours after Scheidemann had made his own proclamation from the Reichstag, and fuelled by the momentum originating from the sailors’ mutiny at Kiel, Liebknecht indeed declared a Communist (Soviet) Republic.

Liebknecht’s action resulted in the creation of a revolutionary Council of People’s Deputies. In a classic “if you can’t beat them, join them” spiel, the SPD’s Ebert and Scheidemann, who wanted to stay on the parliamentary track, got themselves elected to the revolutionary Council to prevent the most radical elements taking control.  The SPD gradually gained control of the Council, and dissolved it in favour of the democratically elected Weimar National Assembly in February 1919.

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The ‘Liebknecht portal’, the only preserved part of the old Berlin City Palace, destroyed in 1950.Photo: Robin Oomkes

The Stadtschloss, the centrepiece of these momentous events, was blown up by the GDR regime in 1950, though it made sure to save one piece: the portal from which Liebknecht had declared the revolution. Carefully restored, it was integrated into the new building for the GDR Council of State on the other side of Schlossplatz, where it remains today – and is now part of the management institute that currently occupies the building. By the time the new Stadtschloss will be finished, possibly by the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall in 2019, there will actually be two Liebknecht Portals – one in the recreated City Palace, the other in the ex-GDR building across the square – but very little will be left of Communist Germany otherwise.

It is hard to say which of the many fateful “ninth of Novembers” dotting German history had the most long term impact. Ironically, the events of November 1918, which  could have done so much good for the country – the dismissal of a totally outdated, autocratic monarchy in favour of a modern, liberal democracy – ultimately caused such a violent backlash both on the populist as well as the conservative sides of society that it paved the way for the Nazis to take over.

Words: Robin Oomkes

Editing: Paul Sullivan

Nov. 9, German Date of Fate. Part 1: 1848 – the Execution of Robert Blum

November 9th is known in Germany as its ‘Day of Fate’. It wasn’t only the date on which in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. So many other important historical events occurred on this day that the German government could hardly turn it into Reunification Day (that became October 3rd instead).

In 2014, Paul Sullivan, myself and some other Slow Travel Berlin writers divided the historical events of the ‘ninths’ between us and published stories on them on slowtravelberlin.com. As that website is now, sadly, partly unavailable, I am reposting my stories on this blog. (Check here for the 1918 story on the Kaiser’s abdication).

November 9th, 1848: the Execution of Robert Blum

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Carl Steffeck (1818-1890, attributed), Execution of Robert Blum, 1848/49, Deutsches Historisches Museum (wikicommons)

Germany may  not have escaped Napoleon’s seemingly unstoppable armies – but it did, for a long time, manage to avoid the liberal, bourgeois revolution that had allowed Napoleon to come to power in France in the first place. When the dust from the Napoleonic wars had settled, Germany was still as Ancien Régime as ever, a very loose federation of 38 independent states (including four “free cities”), each of which had their own form of usually monarchic and absolutist government.

The revolution of 1848 initially changed all that. Remembered both as a bourgeois, liberal uprising as well as the first expression of the socialist or communist movement (the terms were still used interchangeably at the time), the event came about via an emphatically diverse set of players: lawyers, historians, professors of German linguistics, socialist thinkers…even the German gymnastics league. Each group’s purposes and goals were equally diverse. Some wanted liberal reforms such as freedom of expression and an end to censorship, others wanted social reforms or greater political and national unity throughout the German speaking parts of Europe.

The revolution itself was triggered by events elsewhere in Europe but in Germany it began in the Grand-Duchy of Baden and rapidly spread throughout present Germany and Austria. The revolutionaries, much to their own surprise, were often initially successful in forcing their absolute monarchs into accepting new, liberal cabinets. Within a short time, they had in many places managed to abolish press censorship, liberate crofters from serfdom and initiate the first steps towards greater national cooperation by holding elections for a constituent National Assembly (which held its sessions in Frankfurt’s St. Paul’s church).

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Today’s Gorki Theater (just off Unter den Linden), Schinkel’s old Singakademie, was the home of 1848’s short-lived Prussian National Assembly. Photo: Robin Oomkes

However, by mid-1848 it started to become clear to the ruling classes that the “Liberal” (right-wing, bourgeois) and “Democrat” (left-wing, socialist) strains of the revolution were hopelessly divided on many issues. A counter-revolutionary movement began, in which monarchs and the aristocracy joined forces with the Liberals in order to defeat the Democrats.

Enter Robert Blum (1807-1848). The son of a cooper from Cologne, Blum tried his hand at many trades before starting a career as a writer. Moving to Leipzig, he started a newspaper that promoted democracy. Working as a journalist helped feed his conviction that the Kingdom of Saxony’s political oppression and heavy hand of censorship should be replaced with a republic. Despite his controversial views, the authorities allowed him to be elected as a Leipzig city councillor in 1847.

In 1848, Blum was a key player during the March revolution in Saxony, where, through his rousing speeches in Leipzig and Dresden, he managed to get the King to replace his government with a more liberal set of ministers. He was elected to the Frankfurt Parliament, and joined its Constitutional Committee. But as the rifts grew in the Frankfurt Parliament between Liberals and Democrats, Blum accused the Liberals of being too cosy with the old clique of monarchs and aristocrats.

Things came to a head in September 1848 after a number of failed parliamentary votes. The Liberals finally won the vote, the Democrats staged demonstrations in protest, and the Liberals proved Blum’s earlier point by asking the Prussian and Austrian armies to crush the Democrats’ protests.

In Vienna, developments had turned to violence too. Revolutionaries had occupied the city and ousted the Habsburg Kaiser and his army. Blum travelled to Vienna to convey the sympathy of the Frankfurt Democrats, joining the insurgents as a commander on the barricades. The Imperial Army retook Vienna after heavy fighting on 1 November, and Blum was arrested. Despite diplomatic efforts both from the Frankfurt Parliament (who claimed Blum’s immunity from prosecution as a deputy) and from the Saxon authorities, the Imperial military command, who considered Blum a most dangerous anarchist, condemned him to death in a two hour trial on the night of 8 November. He was shot at 9 in the morning of November 9th, 1848.

The Frankfurt Parliament protested at the death of one of their most prominent deputies, and decreed that those guilty of Blum’s death should be punished – but no action was ever taken. The shocked reaction among the German people upon learning of Blum’s death initially strengthened the revolutionary movement, but the reactionary forces had by then already regained the upper hand and the revolution of 1848 lost its momentum.

Blum became something of a martyr for democracy throughout the nineteenth century, and interest in him was renewed in the centenary of his death in 1948 – when both Germanies needed new national examples. However, although the German revolution of 1848 fit the socialist narrative of being a crucial stepping stone in Marx and Engels’ dialectics (not entirely coincidentally, it was also the year that Marx and Engels published their ‘Communist Manifesto’) – Blum’s emphasis on democracy and freedom of speech meant he could not initially be positioned as a hero by the incoming Communist regime of East Germany. However, there are many monuments to the revolution of 1848 in East Berlin, such as the one on Sredzkistrasse near Kollwitzplatz.

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GDR-era monument to the ‘Heroes of 1848’, Sredszkistrasse, Berlin. Photo: Robin Oomkes

There’s also the Cemetery for the Fallen of the March Revolution hidden away in Volkspark Friedrichshain (the monument there also remembers the fallen of the November revolution of 1918 – more on which we’ll cover in another story in this series). The Friedrichshain monument has an excellent, bilingual indoor and outdoor exhibition on the significance of 1848’s revolt – admission is free.

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Cemetery for the March Fallen, Volkspark Friedrichshain, Berlin. Photo: Robin Oomkes

Looking back at importance today of the first fateful ninth of November in German history, the murder of Robert Blum on that date is a symbol of all that the Revolution of 1848 failed to achieve – had the initial promise of progress on liberalization, democracy, unification and a representative national parliament been fulfilled, then there possibly might have been no war with France in 1870, no Kaisers, no World War I, no Versailles, no Nazis and World War II, and probably no GDR either.

Words: Robin Oomkes

Editing: Paul Sullivan

 

 

The House of the Wannsee Conference – a memorial finally

img_2625The House of the Wannsee Conference, a lakeside villa located roughly halfway between Central Berlin and Potsdam, is a place that is important and interesting for several reasons. First of all because it is the location where a group of senior Nazis and government officials on 20 January 1942 cemented the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ – the euphemism they used for the mass deportations of all European Jews to death camps in Eastern Europe.

Secondly, the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site, to give it its full name in English, can also be seen as a piece of “meta-history” – a symbol of the way our society deals with history and remembrance. And finally, the villa’s lovely lakeside setting on the Wannsee just makes it a very pleasant place to spend some time – possibly combined with the Max Liebermann Villa just up the road – although that also has a bleak part to its history.

But back to the House, and the Wannsee Conference itself. The SS had purchased the turn-of-the-century Villa Marlier, as it was originally known, as a conference centre and a guest house in 1940. On the occasion of the infamous Conference, Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the Security Police and SD, had booked it for a 90 minute meeting that was to confirm the primacy of the SS in orchestrating the mass-murder of European Jews. By getting representatives of all other involved government agencies to attend, Heydrich achieved the dual goal of asserting his leadership in the ghastly project, as well as making the representatives of the other agencies complicit to the fact.

I must say I was disappointed with the exhibition at the House. It’s very text-based, which makes it look old-fashioned – a problem, as one of the purposes of the memorial is to reach out to young people and educate them on the Holocaust. I don’t think it connects anymore with the visual and interactive culture that today’s school-going generation is used to. Content-wise however, it does a good job of explaining of how Nazi anti-semitism and racism finally led to the plan to murder all European Jews (up until 1941, the Nazi leadership still toyed with the idea of deporting all captured Jews to a remote place like Madagascar, but not necessarily kill them).

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Dr. Fischer with a group of high school students

We spoke to Stefanie Fischer PhD, postgrad researcher on antisemitism at Berlin’s Humboldt University, and a freelance tour guide at the House. “Visitor reactions to tours of the House can vary a lot – depending on the background of the group”, she says. “There often is genuine anger in the group at the callousness of the Nazi’s plans.”

The story of the tour also needs to be adapted to where the group comes from, and how much the participants already know about the Holocaust. Dr Fischer: “I recently showed round a group of school children from Norway. Even though Norway did suffer from the Nazi occupation, there wasn’t a Jewish population of significant size, and this may be why schools there don’t pay much attention to the Holocaust in their teaching”. Another interesting demographic for tours are groups from the Middle East: “Groups from countries like Egypt can be totally unaware of what happened to Jews in the Nazi era”.

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Another school class in the room where the conference took place – see the period photograph at top right

Dr. Fischer keeps her tours limited to a few a month – she says “the less of them I do, the better they are”. I observed her doing a tour with a group of Bundeswehr officers, where she was very direct on the execution methods used during the Holocaust.

“The popular image may be that these killings were industrialised, clinical, even humane, through the use of poison gas. But there was nothing humane, clinical, or industrialised, about it. Of the 5.2 or 5.3 million Jewish Holocaust victims that modern research agrees to, around 2 million may have been killed by poison gas, but 2.5 to 3 million were shot dead. This means that the murderers were in direct contact with their victims. It is important to realise this. The clinical image of gas chambers is absolutely fatal to our proper understanding of how this happened.”

Dr. Fischer admits that going to this level of detail sometimes can lead to emotional reactions in some visitor groups – for example, in case of Bundeswehr groups, if they have seen military action in Afghanistan, and she has to walk a fine line of gauging how much a group can take.

History of remembrance

The House of the Wannsee Conference is also a symbol of the history of remembrance or memorialisation. When in Berlin today (or in other places in modern Germany), I am always impressed by the Germans’ talent for it. There are monuments, memorial plaques, and museums everywhere that try to do justice to the horrors of the past – the Nazi period or more recently, the East-German communist dictatorship. In fact, modern Germany is so good at showing contrition for the darker periods of its history, and does this with so much respect for all parties involved, that it is widely seen as a role model by other countries dealing with the aftermath of conflict.

However, the sensitivity displayed towards difficult periods from the past is a relatively recent phenomenon. The GDR, for example, didn’t consider itself at all responsible for its Nazi inheritance. It consistently labeled West Germany as the ‘fascist state’ and, in its monuments for the Nazi period, only focused on the persecution of communists and socialists – certainly not on the suffering of Jews, homosexuals or Roma and Sinti.

But also in West Germany, as well as in West Berlin, there were examples of a “let bygones be bygones” attitude that today seems incomprehensible, and the House of the Wannsee Conference is one of them.

Joseph Wulf

The history of the House as a memorial is closely linked to Joseph Wulf, a Jewish historian of German-Polish origin. A survivor of Auschwitz, Wulf moved to Berlin in 1952 and was the first writer to publish on the Holocaust in German. He was very outspoken, and his message was not a welcome one in post-War West Germany, where a considerable part of the population bore some kind of responsibility, even if only passive, for the crimes committed during the Nazi period. Wulf did, however, obtain respect, if not applause, for the thoroughness of this work.

From 1965 onwards, Wulf worked on his initiative to turn the House of the Wannsee Conference, a villa which by that time had become a children’s holiday hostel for Neukölln, one of West-Berlin’s municipalities, into a documentation centre on the Holocaust. His initiative was well received in Jewish and international circles, and his committee soon included famous names such as writers Ralph Giordano and Golo Mann, clerics Cardinal Döpfner and Heinz Galinski (leader of the Jewish community in Berlin), and even Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia.

However, the committee’s attempts to get the Berlin Senate to release the building as a Holocaust documentation centre all fell on deaf ears. “Why should Neukölln children pay for the sins of a past generation?” was one of the excuses. Even when the World Jewish Congress offered to pay for a new children’s home in the grounds of the villa, the plans were turned down.

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Joseph Wulf’s apartment building in Giesebrechtstrasse 12, Charlottenburg, where he committed suicide in 1974

In 1973, the committee gave up all hope of success of convincing the city council and disbanded. One year later, Joseph Wulf committed suicide by throwing himself from the window of his Charlottenburg apartment, soon after his wife’s death. Whether his act was a result of his disappointment with the House of the Wannsee Conference, or a sign of his inability to accept his wife’s death, has never become really clear, but shortly before his death, he wrote the following in a letter to his son David:

“I have published 18 books here on the Third Reich and all without effect. You can document yourself to death with the Germans, they may have the most democratic government in Bonn – but the mass murderers walk around free, have their little houses and grow flowers (the small SS people, who only followed orders, do get convicted but are released later on because of vague health complaints)” (my translation, letter on display at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, copy at the House of the Wannsee Conference)

Only by the 1980s, attitudes began to change sufficiently for the children’s hostel to move out and the current memorial and educational site to open (in 1992, at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference).

Changing attitudes to Holocaust memorials

But why did it take so long for authorities’ attitudes to change sufficiently to allow the creation of a memorial?

Dr. Fischer: “The main reason for that was purely generational. As long as the generation that had been active during the Nazi period were still in positions of power, they were reluctant to create memorials to what were either their own crimes, or the crimes of their peers. But don’t forget either about the simple lack of space in West Berlin. It was important to give children the opportunity to experience the countryside, and there wasn’t much of that around within the confines of the Wall.”

Another reason why it took so long for the villa to become a memorial may be that the citizens’ initiatives (Bürgerinitiative) that finally led to the creation of memorials at concentration camps like Bergen-Belsen and Dachau from the 1960s onwards, originally focused on the sites where the actual horrors took place, not where they were planned. Dr. Fischer: “In this sense there is a parallel with post-war prosecutions: these originally also focused on the actual henchmen in the camps, not the Schreibtischtäter (“desk criminals”) that planned everything from Berlin.”

A terrible story in a lovely setting

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Lakeside view of the House of the Wannsee Conference

However beautiful the settings of the villa on the lake, a visit to the House of the Wannsee Conference is, like many journeys into Germany’s history, “not a pleasure trip” – by the time you leave you will be deeply impressed by the sheer callousness and the meticulous planning that led to the massacre of five to six million European Jews in as little as 24 months.To take your mind off these horrible facts, an antidote could be to combine your visit with the Liebermann Villa a few hundred meters up the road.

This lovely place, Berliner Sezession protagonist Max Liebermann’s summer retreat, also serves tea and cakes (no food or drinks are available at the House of the Wannsee Conference). The Liebermann Villa might restore your spirits with its beautiful paintings, drawings and garden – even though Liebermann himself, who died in 1935 in his house on Pariser Platz, had professionally already fallen victim to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies.

House of the Wannsee Conference

www.ghwk.de

Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58

14109 Berlin

Open: 10-18 daily except some public holidays – check website

Admission: free

Liebermann-Villa am Wannsee

www.liebermann-villa.de

Colomierstrasse 3

14109 Berlin

Open 10-18 daily except Tuesdays (11-17 Oct-Mar), closed on 24 and 31 Dec

Admission: 7/4 EUR

S/DB Berlin-Wannsee, then bus 114

This story originally appeared in 2014 on slowtravelberlin.com. Editing by Paul Sullivan.

Happy Kaisersgeburtstag from Vienna!

Statue of Franz Joseph I, an 1898 gift from the Austro-Hungarian armed forces, at the Albertina Museum
In 1916, the Austrian-Hungarian double monarchy, composed of many peoples speaking many different languages, had been in decline for a long time. The only symbol that still united it was, in fact, its “double monarch”, Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. When he died in 1916, after an incredibly long reign that started in the revolutionary year of 1848, the last vestiges of unity disappeared from the nation and it was to no-one’s surprise that when World War I ended in an Allied victory, Austria-Hungary disintegrated into states that more or less mirrored their ethnic composition.

Urania, an observatory in art-nouveau style, opened by FJ in 1910.
The famous Vienna Staatsoper, on the Ring, also bears an inscription honouring the “Eternal Emperor”.
But in Austria, and especially in Vienna, you might be forgiven for thinking that Emperor Franz Joseph, and his incredibly popular consort Empress Elisabeth, better know as Sissi, passed away only recently. There are inscriptions in his memory everywhere, his statues dot the city’s avenues and Kaisersgeburtstag, “the Emperor’s Birthday” (August 18th) is still a thing. To draw a rough comparison – his German and British more-or-less contemporaries, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Queen Victoria, are definitely not as fondly and widely remembered as old Franz Joseph. 

Emperors Franz Joseph I and Wilhelm II, shortly before WW I. By this time, FJ’s motto ‘With joined forces’ was taken to allude to the strong bond between Germany and Austra-Hungary.
His likeness, with the martial moustache, was famous already during his reign (he widely used portraiture and later photography in an effort to spread some kind of presence through his vast empire) and is still instantly recognizable today.

The popularity of the long-dead Imperial couple shows from the fresh flowers that are often found at Empress Elisabeth’s tomb in the Imperial Burial Vaults.
This Kaiser’s Birthday, in the year that is also the 100th anniversary of his death, I happened to be in Vienna and visited the Kaisergruft (Imperial burial vault), and an exhibition at the Austrian National Library called ‘the Eternal Emperor’ (der ewige Kaiser). As you can imagine, for the Dead Emperor’s Society, things can’t get much better!

Spanish Siglo de Oro and Dutch Gouden Eeuw: Golden Ages of Art in Countries at War

A temporary exhibition at one of my favourite Berlin museums, the Gemäldegalerie, introduced me to the Spanish Golden Age. The phrase “Siglo de Oro” didn’t ring any bells, even though as a Dutch history buff I know all about the Golden Age – the one in Holland, of course, not the Spanish one. It turns out that both countries’ Golden Ages coincided, both covering the late 1500s until the late 1600s.

Interestingly, during most of these two countries’ Golden Ages, they were actually fighting an (at times) bloody war: in the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), the Protestant Northern Netherlands, under the aegis of the Orange-Nassau dynasty that still rules today, sought to gain independence from Roman Catholic Habsburg Spain.

Rembrandt van Rhijn – The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis – Nationalmuseum (Stockholm) – wiki commons

Another parallel between the Dutch and the Spanish Golden Ages is how they manifested themselves in painting. The Dutch Gouden Eeuw gave us the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the Spanish Siglo de Oro Velásquez and El Greco, to name a few important representatives. Here are some pictures that shed some light on the religious and political conflict between north and south, Protestant and Catholic, and republic and monarchy.

The Rembrandt picture, originally even larger than The Night Watch but later cut down by the artist, shows Claudius Civilis, a Germanic fighter of the Batavian tribe, who lived on the lower Rhine. He led an uprising against the occupying Romans in 69 CE. It is, of course, an allegory of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish.

Johannes Vermeer, Allegory of the Catholic Faith, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, wiki commons

Vermeer, who converted to Catholicism upon marriage, spent the last years of his life living next door to a clandestine Jesuit church in Delft. His story reinforces the fact that the northern Netherlands, to this day, never became fully protestant, but that large groups of Roman Catholics remained.

Diego Velásquez – The Surrender of Breda. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wiki commons

This picture, one of Velásquez’ most famous, shows one of Spain’s rare military victories in the second half of the Eighty Years’ War. General Spinola, a friend of the painter, conquered Breda, a frontier city between the Northern and Southern Netherlands and a Nassau stronghold, but is said to have shown mercy on the besieged.

El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Iglesia de Santo Tomé (Toledo), wiki commons

Finally, El Greco, “the Greek”, who may have carried Byzantine influences to his Toledo workshop, worked almost exclusively on church commissions and did not include political themes in his works. However, he was probably the catalyst that triggered the Spanish Golden Age of painting.

El Siglo de Oro at the Gemäldegalerie

The Berlin exhibition, showing some famous masterpieces of the era, does give a fine impression of the importance of the arts in 17th century Spain. Many works, especially from Seville and Valencia, were commissioned by the Church, such as these statues of two Jesuits.

Juan Martines Montañés and Francisco Pacheco: Ignatius of Loyola (r.) and Francisco de Borja, polychrome wood and cloth. Pic: Robin Oomkes

They show Ignatius de Loyola and Francisco de Borja, first and third Superior General respectively of the famous and powerful religious order at the heart of the Counter Reformation.

But my favourite picture must be “Mars resting”, created by Diego Velásquez while court painter to King Philip IV (1605-1665). Mars, the God of warfare, is shown in a rather despondent state. His weapons lie at his feet, and his drooping posture seems to say that he is weary of war. Would its assorted enemies, the Netherlands included, finally have gotten the better of Spain?

http://www.elsiglodeoro.de

Gemäldegalerie, Kulturforum Berlin, until 30 October 2016.

The Battle of Cedynia (24 June 972) – medieval history with a communist twist

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Living History-buffs at the Cedynia Days festival. Pic: Dni Cedyni 2015

Some 50 miles east of Berlin lies the Polish town of Cedynia. Since the 1960s, on every 24th of June it is the scene of a festival commemorating the Battle of Cedynia, which took place there in 972 CE. Reenactment aficionados replay the battle in mediaeval costumes, there are open air concerts, and blacksmiths and potters display their trades.

The battle itself, then, took place over 1000 years ago, between the forces of German count Odo I and Polish warlord Mieszko. Odo was as a vassal of German emperor Otto I. His attack on Mieszko’s lands was against the wishes of the Kaiser, as Mieszko himself, the first documented ruler of Greater Poland, also paid tribute to the empire. Odo was unable to beat his Polish opponent and the battle ended in a truce. A year later, Otto, the old emperor, would lay down a judgement settling the matter, but the conflict was only fully resolved when Mieszko married a German noblewoman some seven years later.

But why does this ancient and forgotten battle (at least until after World War Two) get so much attention now? The reason is Cedynia’s situation on the Oder river, part of the famous Oder-Neisse line.

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The bridge on the Oder river at Cedynia. This frontier crossing was reopened as late as 1993. Pic: Robin Oomkes

When Stalin demanded that Poland should be shifted westwards at the end of World War Two, this happened at the expense of German territories like the easternmost part of the Prussian province of Brandenburg. The town of Cedynia (which was called Zehden until 1945) became Poland’s most westerly city. All German-speaking citizens were deported from the area, and the town became the new home of refugees that Stalin had chased from the east of pre-war Poland.

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The Polish shift from East to West. The red line on the left is the Oder-Neisse line.

The selection of the Oder-Neisse line as the new Polish-German frontier had a long diplomatic aftermath. The GDR accepted the new border as soon as 1950, but the Federal Republic (or West Germany) didn’t formally agree until 1970. The German reunification treaty of 1990 again acknowledged the border specifically, hoping to assuage Polish fears of German expansionism. So, in the 1950s and 60s, it is understandable that Poland’s communist regime was not quite certain of the status quo of its new western frontier. Politicians knew perfectly well that the area had been German for a long time, and the state did its best to justify its claims on the territory. Clearly they weren’t fully convinced that the atrocities inflicted upon Poland by the Nazis during the war were justification enough for some compensatory annexation.

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1972’s Polish eagle monument, on a hilltop half way between Cedynia and the Oder river. Pic: Robin Oomkes

So, Polish politicians started looking for any historical sources that could justify their


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Recreating Mies’ Villa Wolf at Gubin

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s first and last modernist works at Berlin’s Kulturforum

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Model of Villa Wolf at Gubin, Poland. The terraces overlook the Neisse river, the post WW-II border between Poland and Germany. The model was created by students of Potsdam’s University of Applied Sciences.

In the public entrance hall of Hans Scharoun’s Staatsbibliothek on Potsdamer Straße, there’s a temporary exhibition on a fantastic architectural project: the planned reconstruction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Wolf in the now Polish town of Gubin.

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Mies (1886-1969) originally trained as a bricklayer, which shows in the extensive use of the material in his early designs.

Villa Wolf, built in 1925/6, was Mies’ first modernist construction, and it is generally accepted to also be the first modernist building in the world. Bombed in World War II and never reconstructed, it is now one of those mythical places of architectural history – just like Mies’ famous Barcelona Pavillion. Created for 1929’s World Fair, Mies built the Pavillion as a showpiece of Germany’s newfound intellectual creativity after the suffocating historicismof the imperial era. It was disassembled after the show and vanished, and only photographs survived. When it was reconstructed in 1986, it drew massive attention.

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Berlin’s Kulturforum. From left to right: Mies’ Neue Nationalgalerie, Friedrich August Stüler’s St. Matthew’s church, and Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie and Staatsbibliothek.

Showing this exhibition at the State Library creates a nice juxtaposition with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s very last design, the Neue Nationalgalerie built in 1969. It sits just across the road from the library and also is part of the Kulturforum. Mies returned to Berlin from the United States, where he had moved in 1937 to escape the Nazis, one more time to finish this project, which can be considered as the architect’s reconciliation with Germany.

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Mies’ architectural drawings of the Villa Berg have been preserved at the New York MoMA.

And that’s exactly how the sponsors of the new Villa Wolf at Gubin see the project – as a reconciliation between Germany and Poland. As was the case in Frankfurt and Görlitz, two other towns on the Oder-Neisse border, the new border created in 1945 split Gubin and Guben (on the German bank of the river) in two. But when the building is completed, it will be a monument for one of Germany’s most famous architects, sitting on the Polish side of the river but overlooking Germany. Construction is planned to start in 2017 and the rebuilt villa will serve as museum for Mies van der Rohe’s work.

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Poster for the exhibition and conference at Berlin’s State Library

The exhibition at the State Library has now ended, but more information on the villa’s resurrection project can be found at www.villawolfgubin.eu.

Esterwegen Concentration Camp – a memorial to the Peat Bog Soldiers

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From Esterwegen Memorial, a short walk takes you onto the moors themselves
On a recent drive from Berlin to the Netherlands I found myself on an 80 km arrow-straight stretch of two lane highway next to a shipping canal. There was nothing much to see for the whole distance. A few farmhouses, a junction with traffic lights and a bridge across the canal every 10 km or so, and one town, Esterwegen, where there’s another traffic light.

But at Esterwegen, there were two road signs,  Esterwegen Memorial and Esterwegen Cemetery, printed in the font Germany reserves for Official Places of Significance. I’d never heard of either, and the signs also didn’t say what the memorials were for, but with a sense of foreboding and curious as to what might be so important in the middle of nowhere,  I followed the signs.

Walking from the impeccably maintained (and empty) parking lot to the memorial itself, I soon found out from the displays that Esterwegen was the Nazi concentration camp most famously associated with the song of the Peat Bog Soldiers – or Die Moorsoldaten in German, a tune I’ve known for years. Here is the short version of the lyrics, in German and English.

Die Moorsoldaten

Wohin auch das Auge blicket.
Moor und Heide nur ringsum.
Vogelsang uns nicht erquicket.
Eichen stehen kahl und krumm.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.

Auf und nieder geh´n die Posten,
keiner, keiner kann hindurch.
Flucht wird nur das Leben kosten,
vierfach ist umzäunt die Burg.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.

Doch für uns gibt es kein Klagen,
ewig kann nicht Winter sein,
einmal werden froh wir sagen:
Heimat du bist wieder mein.

Dann zieh´n die Moorsoldaten
nicht mehr mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Dann zieh´n die Moorsoldaten
nicht mehr mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Peat Bog Soldiers

Far and wide as the eye can wander,
Heath and bog are everywhere.
Not a bird sings out to cheer us.
Oaks are standing gaunt and bare.

We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.
We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.

Up and down the guards are marching,
No one, no one can get through.
Flight would mean a sure death facing,
Guns and barbed wire block our view.

We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.
We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.

But for us there is no complaining,
Winter will in time be past.
One day we shall rise rejoicing.
Homeland, dear, you’re mine at last.

No more the peat bog soldiers
Will march with our spades to the moor.
No more the peat bog soldiers
Will march with our spades to the moor.

Here’s a version sung by American folk music hero Pete Seeger, performed in 1967 at the East Berlin Oktoberklub folk club (that’s another interesting story!), in German as well as in English.

The buildings of the memorial look like what you’d find on any  industrial estate, but once inside I found myself in a stark museum-like space. I later found out that the memorial for Esterwegen Concentration Camp has only been created as recently as 2011 – when the Bundeswehr (German army) vacated the site. Hence the industrial look – the buildings originally were military barracks.

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Main hall of Esterwegen Concentration Camp memorial
Inside, there’s an exhibition that again drives home the chilling message of the horrors of nazism. This part of the current state of Lower Saxony has always been dirt poor, with very bad soil and no industry to speak of. During the depression of the 1930s, the Weimar government had already started New Deal-like employment projects in the area, using the unemployed’s cheap labour to dig peat and reclaim farm land from the marshy soil.

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A display of the names of the other Peat Bog concentration camps at Esterwegen. Bergermoor is where the famous song was written.
As soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933, they started using the existing workers’ camps as prisons for their political enemies. These were mainly socialists and communists, but also liberals and centrals – anyone who would speak up against the regime.

One of the very earliest concentration camps, the inmates were not treated quite as inhumanely as at the destruction camps the Nazis later built further east, but deaths among prisoners were frequent and the treatment of the inmates was completely at the mercy of the fascist prison guards. Many took personal revenge on political prisoners from their old home towns.

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Postcard sold at the memorial – one of the song’s earliest versions.
But the prisoners were granted one favour – on Saturday nights, they were allowed to organise entertainment, ghoulishly calling themselves the Zirkus Konzentrazani (a play on the many travelling circuses of those days with Italian sounding names). This is where the famous Peat Bog Soldier song was first performed – as early as August 1933, when the Nazis had been in power for just over six months! It soon became known outside the camp and even became a battle hymn of sorts for the Republicans fighting Franco’s forces in Spain from 1936 onwards.

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None of the original buildings at Esterwegen remain – so gates and roadways have been reconstructed using steel sculptural elements
Ironically, even the prison guards liked the song – they possibly also viewed themselves as Peat Bog Soldiers, being stuck in the middle of nowhere with their charges.

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Some elements of the original prisoners’ barracks have been preserved inside the memorial
What keeps surprising me when looking at the exemplary German culture of remembrance as it exists today (with memorials for the murdered Jews, homosexuals, and Sinti and Roma all within a stone’s throw from Brandenburg Gate, the country’s most cherished symbol, and television programmes about the horrors of World War II almost every night), is that much of it is relatively recent. The memorial at Esterwegen was only created in 2006, when the Bundeswehr saw fit to leave the site. The House of the Wannsee Conference was only turned into a memorial in the 1990s, when the building was released by the city of Berlin from its former use as a children’s home. And many of these memorials would not even exist if it hadn’t been for ‘citizens initiatives’ that collected the necessary signatures. It just goes to show how much time is needed for any nation to truly come to terms with the negatives in its past – usually until all active participants in the era concerned have either died or at least are old enough to have lost their political influence.

Speaking of political influence: at 2016’s annual holocaust memorial ceremony on 27 January in the Bundestag, the German parliament, this beautiful version of the Peat Bog Soldiers was sung (in German of course) by RIAS Kammerchor, one of my favourite classical choirs.

Which version do you prefer? Pete Seeger’s emotional song accompanied on the banjo performed at a GDR state sponsored concert, or the mathematical precision of the arrangement by RIAS Kammerchor in the heart of modern German democracy, the Bundestag? Let me know in the comments!

Esterwegen Memorial
Hinterm Busch 1
D-26897 Esterwegen, Germany
Tel.: 00 49 (59 55) 98 89 50
http://www.gedenkstaette-esterwegen.de
info@gedenkstaette-esterwegen.de

Opening hours:
From April to October Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
From November to March Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On Easter Monday and on Whit Monday open

Closed from 15 December to 15 January