First day in Berlin

I arrived here early yesterday morning. I already have been able to get a taste of the city. The instructions on the site of the summer academy on how to get to the hotels were perfect. I got to my hotel (walking distance from the hotel where I will stay during the seminar) easily. I love big cities with excellent public transport facilities.

Berlin appears to be fascinating: both gray and colorful, ugly and gorgeous, a great place to watch people, full of history. Tip: make sure to have a bottle of water with you at all times. The weather is beautiful but it is hot, and there is no airco in buses, the trams and the metro. After I walked around in the area of the Hackescher Markt I went to Gleis 17, the station from which 186 trains with over 50.000 Berlin Jews left for Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Riga and other places in the east, where almost all of them were murdered. I highly recommend that - unless you keep Shabbat - you take the tour that Frank Gellert has offered to lead to this memorial. For me personally it was important to start my visit to the city there, and I wanted to do it alone. The pictures that you see were all taken there.

After that I went to two less known but very impressive memorials, both in the Rosenthaler Strasse (39-41), right next to each other (and next to an Anne Frank museum, which I skipped). The Gedenkstaette Stille Helden (Memorial for the Silent Heroes), which tells the often not very well known stories of Germans who helped Jews and of Jews who were helped by Germans. One interesting group of resisters was called The European Union, read about them if you visit the museum. The other is dedicated to the memory of Otto Weidt, a non-Jewish German who did everything he could to save his workers, many of whom were blind or handicapped in another way. In a few cases he succeeded. We can not even start to imagine the anguish of the people in the pictures, people whose situation was even more difficult than that of their fellow-Jews who happened to be healthy. I was reminded of an article that I wrote for a Dutch newspaper in 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the attempt to kill Adolf Hitler. In the article I wrote why I don't believe in terms like ""the other Germany" (or, in the context of one of my specialities, "the other France"): Von Stauffenberg and - for example - Sophie and Hans Scholl are just as much a part of Germany as Hermann Goering and Roland Freisler. History is something holistic, you cannot separate the composing parts. All the heroes that I saw and read about yesterday were very, very German, as are all the wonderful young Germans that I have met and that I am sure I will continue to meet. We should never ignore that, just as we should never forget what was done by Nazi Germany and its many, many helpers.

Anyway, Berlin is much more than a collection of Holocaust memorials (although the city deserves some praise for its efforts to helps us remember that ugly part of its (and Germany's) history) , but for me (as a historian and a Jew who happens to have more than just a professional interest in the subject) it was important to start my visit to the city with these places.