Traverse City Record-Eagle


April 12, 2014

Tragic past, rebirth in Berlin's Jewish community


Exhibits include vivid recreations of family life from 1850-1933 through paintings, writings, everyday artifacts and even a 16mm home movie, showing a family skiing, swimming and playing with their dog before moving to California in the 1930s. Although past suffering is starkly portrayed, there are also games and cartoons for children and displays celebrating prominent German Jews from poet Heinrich Heine to jeans inventor Levi Strauss.

If you want a glimpse of what city life was like in 1929, before the diaspora from Berlin of some 80,000 Jews, stop by to watch “People on Sunday,” a short silent film of residents enjoying a sunny weekend made by Billy Wilder, an Austrian-born Jew who was to become one of Hollywood’s great directors.

Perhaps the most gripping of Berlin’s Jewish sites is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Many do a double-take when in the bustling heart of the city, between the Potsdamer Platz and the Bradenburg Gate, they are suddenly confronted with a vast cluster of 2,711 coffin-like slabs of concrete.

The impact is most visceral when wandering through the labyrinth formed by the greyish rectangles. The sepulchral chill, abetted by a bleak winter sun and a few bare trees, is only lifted by children playing hide and seek within the maze.

Just north of this historic center is the Scheunenviertel, the Jewish Quarter, an area of sedate 19th century apartment buildings, contemporary art galleries and lively side-streets.

The centerpiece is the soaring New Synagogue. With 3,200 seats, it was Germany’s largest before it was bombed in 1943. Partially reconstructed, it now serves as a museum about the synagogue and the former surrounding community. Worship does take place at two other synagogues and some 10 houses of prayer — compared to the 33 synagogues in pre-war Berlin.

Close by, the former Jewish Girls School has been converted to an art gallery, a museum to the Kennedy family and a New York-style Jewish deli, Mogg and Melzer (pastrami sandwiches and New York cheesecake are the hot items).

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