Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Burden Of History: Jews And Cattle

Hey, Berlinophiles! Recognize this place?

That's right: it's fabulous Rosenthaler Platz, looking north from the traffic island in the middle of its south side. We see Brunnenstr. stretching to the north, and Weinbergsweg, familiar to those of you who've stayed at Berlin's best hostel/cheap hotel the Circus, which is just visible as a yellowish building on the far right. Running right to left is Torstr. I've been walking around there for eleven years and some, because starting in January '94, I worked not too far away on Linienstr. I've lived near it for eight years, and walk through it on the average of five or six times a week.

So how come I never knew until recently that it once played an absolutely crucial part in Berlin's -- Germany's -- history?

But it did. A few months ago, I read an amazing book, The Pity Of It All, a history of the Jews in Germany by Amos Elon. Although there's a fascinating chapter at the beginning about the first Jews to come to Germany (I was blown away to learn that there were Jews in Cologne before there were Germans, but, since it was a city artificially created by the Romans -- Colonia -- as a colonial outpost, and doubtless included Jews from the Roman Empire, it makes sense), the book really starts in 1743, when a 14-year-old boy left his home in Dessau and came to Berlin to study.

At the time, Berlin still had its medieval city wall, which stretched along what is now Torstr. and it was studded with gates where armed guards took note of who came and went in the name of security. We're all familiar with the Brandenburg Gate, and just down Torstr. from me in the other direction is Oranienburger Tor, where a gate stood until the 19th Century. "Tor," in fact, means "gate," but except for a few which are memorialized by subway stops these days -- Schlesischises Tor, Hallesches Tor -- only the one which appears on German coinage is still standing.

So imagine my surprise to read the opening words of Elon's book: "In the fall in 1743, a fourteen-year-old boy entered Berlin at the Rosenthaler Tor, the only gate in the city wall through which Jews (and cattle) were allowed to pass. The boy had arrived from his hometown of Dessau, some one hundred miles away in the small independent principality of Dessau-Anhalt. For five or six days he had walked through the hilly countryside to reach the Prussian capital."

The boy, we learn in the next paragraph, was Moses Mendelssohn, one of the preeminent figures in modern Judaism, the philosopher who managed to show his fellow Jews that the ideals of the Enlightenment were compatible with Jewish thought. He fought for tolerance for the Jews in Berlin and won it, albeit grudgingly in some quarters. He founded the first secular, co-ed school for Jewish children, translated important Jewish texts into German, and is rightly revered as one of Germany's greatest thinkers. The revolution he started is the subject of Elon's book, and it is arguable that the history of the Jews in Germany is the history of Berlin, since Berlin was the Jews' central German city, and, as Germany unified into a single country, a place where Jewish artists, writers, businessmen, and politicians were increasingly prominent and powerful.

(Incidentally, Mendelssohn did almost too good a job: his children mostly converted, adding the name "Bertholdy" to his to show connections to a Gentile in the family tree, and his grandchildren Felix and Fanny became famous musicians -- Felix even writing Christian church music and conducting the famous revival of Bach's B-Minor Mass in Leipzig.)

So where do you suppose the Rosenthaler Tor, gateway for cattle and Jews was? Duhh.

And why did I have to wait until 2004, which is when I read this book, to discover that this place where several streets come together in my neighborhood held the gate where a man whose school is near me, whose family's banking business virtually built a whole street near me, and whose grave is just a few blocks from my house, came to this city?

Berlin has a very odd attitude towards its own history, I think. There is no lack of signs and monuments to the bad things that happened here. The city has allowed an artist from another city to come here and install his "Klopfensteine" (stumbling blocks), small golden squares hammered into the cobblestones in front of various buildings giving the names of the Jews who had lived there and were deported, the dates of their births and deaths. Berlin is building a mammoth memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe near the Brandenburg Gate. Wittenbergplatz has its list of concentration camps hanging outside the subway station. Nollendorfplatz has its bronze monument to the homosexuals murdered in the camps. Just next to the park where Mendelssohn's grave is, formerly the first Jewish cemetery in Berlin, there's a monument to the Jews who were collected in a building which used to stand there, an old-age home run by the Jewish community, and then deported to the camps. East Berlin is studded with small plaques memorializing Communists -- many, but not all of them, Jewish -- who were arrested and disappeared during the Nazi era.

So why isn't there a sign telling us where a very good thing happened to Berlin's Jews?

Because, as you turn Elon's pages, you realize that lots of good things happened to Jews in Berlin, despite waxing and waning periods of anti-Semitism (incidentally, Elon and several others I've read trace the origins of classic anti-Semitism to France, not Germany). Jews wrote poetry, ran salons (in the case of many notable women), filled the orchestras, made revolution, advanced science. Yes, the story has a sad ending, and that's why Elon named his book The Pity Of It All, but I guarantee anyone reading it will be uplifted and inspired.

A solution to this is near at hand, in Paris. If you've walked around Paris, you've undoubtedly noticed these shield-shaped plaques on buildings, headed "L'Histoire du Paris." There are plenty of them, and if you're just randomly walking around Paris, you can be surprised by chancing upon a gem. I was walking down a street there once because my map said it was the quickest way to get from A to B, and there was a very ornate building in the middle of the block. Thanks to the shield, I discovered it was once the city's central market for buying and selling horses, and that everything from dray-horses to fine purebreds were sold there.

The thing about these Parisian shields is they don't take up a whole lot of room, they're succinctly written (indeed, some of them don't make sense without a certain amount of context), and there are a hell of a lot of them. Berlin could do the same thing, but I suspect it never will.

So that's why I was at Rosenthaler Platz today, risking life and limb to get that shot. Just imagine young Moses walking down Brunnenstr. to the gate, nervous at the interrogation he was about to undergo (Jews without money were turned away, and pedlars were forbidden), eager to meet the rabbi who was sponsoring his education.

But there's something about this city which squirms when positive, uplifting, or optimistic stories are brought up. No, it says, I prefer to shoulder the Burden Of History. It's my fate, my duty.

Well, it's not mine.

1 comment:

Ed Ward said...

Darn good question, Dan. I was going to get into a thing about how the Jewish Museum prioritizes guilt over history, but didn't want this thing to get too big. I should also post a picture (better than this one, I hope) of the monument to Berlin's first synagogue.

Oh, you've never seen that? Well, there's a reason...