Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

April 12, 2014

Tragic past, rebirth in Berlin's Jewish community

The epicenter of the Holocaust, the city where Hitler signed the death warrants of 6 million Jews, seems an unlikely candidate for the world’s fastest growing Jewish community.

But despite this stigma of Nazism, Berlin’s dynamic, prosperous present and its rich, pre-World War II Jewish past initially attracted an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. The community has kept growing with the arrival of thousands of Israelis and smaller numbers of often young immigrants from Australia, France, the United States and elsewhere.

And this upsurge in the Jewish population — believed to be more than 40,000 — has also spurred tourism to an array of monuments, synagogues, museums and workaday places related to Jewish history and present life in Germany’s capital.

In fact you can literally trip over this history while walking the streets and looking down on some of the 2,800 shiny brass tiles embedded in sidewalks by artist Gunter Demnig. These palm-sized “Stolpersteine,” or stumbling stones, bear the names of those murdered by the Nazis, and are placed in front of their onetime homes.

Like these stones, Berlin’s most prominent Jewish sites are connected to the tragic past, but a healthy antidote and probably the best way to begin a tour is a visit to the Jewish Museum, a multi-layered panorama of 1,000 years of Jewish culture, lore and history in Germany. And it’s housed in one of the city’s most striking contemporary buildings, a jagged structure coated with silvery zinc plates and punctured by slanted windows slits.

“What we didn’t want to do is just present the death, persecution, prejudice. There was a great deal of normal life, regular life too. Before you die, you live and we want to stress the living,” says Cilly Kugelmann, the museum’s vice director.

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