What Berlin can teach us about facing our painful history

 The group tours the 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a 5-acre field at the center of Berlin of some 2,700 concrete blocks, or stellae, set slightly askew in a grid pattern.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. –David Lerner

As the video feeds of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., scrolled across the television weeks ago, my wife and I looked on in shock. We had visited Charlottesville for the first time earlier this summer. Our visit did not take us past any Confederate statues, though we were struck while visiting Monticello, just outside the center city, by the careful attention paid to Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, including reconstructed slave quarters and an entire tour dedicated to the subject. We had dinner on the downtown pedestrian mall where James Alex Fields allegedly plowed his car into the crowd and killed Heather Heyer. Upon our return we told friends and family what a beautiful city it is, and how we were struck by its great vibe and notable diversity. Seeing that very same spot turn into hateful violence less than two months later was disturbing to say the least.

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In July we made our first visit to Berlin, after years of ambiguity and reluctance. Many Jewish friends and family had asked us, “Why would you go there?’’ What we found on our trip astounded us. Berlin and its residents have openly and honestly taken ownership of their racist crimes against Jews, gypsies, people with disabilities, gays, and so many others at a level that we’ve never seen anywhere else.

We found no statues in Berlin of Nazi leaders, in spite of the fact that they made a major contribution to German culture and history. To the contrary, Berliners have openly and publicly explored their terrible history through public monuments in a way that Americans have seldom done with our own legacy of racism, in spite of a few recent exceptions like Monticello and the new National Museum of African American History. During our visit we kept asking ourselves, how did the Berliners come to this point, and how are they able to so openly discuss these painful issues? We didn’t get a full answer, but their efforts have a lot to offer Americans at this particular moment in time as we debate public monuments, their symbolism, and what place they have in today’s America.

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It is impossible to visit a neighborhood, or even street in Berlin without seeing some painfully honest and painfully detailed testimony to the former Jewish residents of the city and other victims of Nazism. Brass plaques embedded in the sidewalks of homes formerly occupied by Jews tell their name and when and where they were murdered. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a powerful multi-block memorial and museum with a name that speaks to the honesty of the city. In an afternoon visiting Berlin neighborhoods, we saw a pyramid of mirrors in a park dedicated to the memory of the once thriving largely Jewish fashion industry; a bronze desk and overturned chair in a small park in a quiet residential neighborhood, symbolizing those who were abducted by the Gestapo in the middle of the night; conceptual sculptures memorializing gay and handicapped victims of Nazism, and the most comprehensive museum of the history of Jewry in the world.

When we planned a visit to the Topography of Terror memorial in Berlin, we expected a degree of hyperbole, given the name. In fact, its name may be understated, as this largely outdoor memorial tells the lessons Berliners have learned as they’ve grappled with the past. It tells the story of the rise of Nazism in excruciating graphic and written detail, built on the foundation of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, and stretches for several hundred yards hard against a large remaining section of the wall that separated East and West Berlin. It is an uncanny physical intersection of two of the most insidious terrorist ideologies known to modern civilization, experienced by Berliners in adjacent decades that ended only 27 years ago.

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Berlin has honestly opened its terrible history for all to see in its public squares and quiet neighborhoods, through all manner of monuments, sculptures, and displays that allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions. We can learn a great deal from Berliners about how to publicly discuss painful issues, a process that ironically is already underway at Monticello, right in Charlottesville.

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December 14, 2017 | 7:18 AM