The waning sunlight reflects off of the golden dome of the Moorish-style Neue Synagogue, located on Oranienburger Strasse. Built in 1866, the synagogue was a center of Jewish life in East Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood. Today its insides are mostly gone, the combined casualty of Kristallnacht and Allied bombing, and the Friday night service is held in a tiny sanctuary just beneath that golden dome. (There are about 100,000 Jews in Germany today, mostly from the former Soviet Union, and few of them attend this Reform-supported synagogue.) The elaborate outside facade looks as if it is inviting you into a huge building, but aside from the staircase, the dome and a rather thin front section, the synagogue’s front obscures a looming empty lot where the rest of the building once stood.
This is not unusual: In Berlin, history is marked by emptiness.
Next door to my hotel on Oranienburger Strasse is one of the most thing-filled empty lots I’ve ever seen. It’s called Tacheles— as in, tacheles, Yiddish for “straight talk” — and it is essentially a receptacle for artists. The official Web site history explains the Yiddish derivation of the word and also how the remains of the building were once part of the Freidrichstadtpassage, a giant shopping mall, built in 1907, owned by Jews. During World War II, the Nazis used the building, where they also detained French prisoners of war. Allied bombs partly destroyed it, and the East German government didn’t have money to restore it.
After German unification, young artists staked claim to the building and its environs, expanding it to international acclaim. With a giant red “Zapata” flag commemorating the leader of Mexico’s 1910 revolution, Emiliano Zapata (a universal radical symbol), flying from its outside rafters, the building hosts a sculpture workshop, galleries (inside and outside), a cinema, a bar and more. On one side of the building is a falafel caravan, advertising kosher Egyptian falafel complete with nargiles on the outdoor picnic tables. Once a main drag in Jewish life before the Nazis, Oranienburger Strasse woke from its Communist slumber to become more East Village than the East Village, with every outdoor restaurant serving a different international cuisine and all of them open way past midnight.
Behind the street life, however, more emptiness lurks. A few blocks away, just off of Rosenthaler Strasse — another once major Jewish thoroughfare — through an alley dotted with graffiti and a coffee bar, is the former workshop of Otto Weidt, which is now a museum. His workshop for the blind employed Jews to manufacture brushes for the Nazis, a maneuver he used to save his workers’ lives. He even went to the deportation point to bring back people headed to their death. German students — most of whom, like Mona Buren, the generous 20-year-old serving as my tour guide, never met a Jew in their life –– revived Weidt’s workshop.
Buren, who works at the museum as part of her social year of community service before college, took me around the corner to another empty lot, on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, which was a main deportation site and also marked a Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Nazis, who pulled up the gravestones to use as shields against Allied bombing. Today, the only remaining stone in the yard (now a pocket park) is that of Moses Mendelsohn, the scion of Jewish Berlin, although when the spot where it’s planted was chosen, his exact burial spot was unknown. “It’s a spooky peace and quiet,” Buren remarked to me. “Perhaps there are bones under our feet.”
On the other side of town, in Kreuzberg, there’s a horrifying constellation of emptiness. Next to the Martin-Gropius House exhibition hall, there is a near-empty bit of ground the size of a football field, rimmed by a remaining section of a wall. Directly beneath the remaining bit of wall is a corpse of a building unearthed in the 1970s: Located on what was known as the Prince Albrecht Terrain, it was the headquarters for the Gestapo, the SS and the Reich Security main office. As Gereon Sievernich, the Gropius House director, described it as he walked me through the basement’s exposed skeleton, this was the “nerve center of Nazism.” But the organizers of this vital bit of memory have run out of money to complete the restoration.
Somehow, this typography of terror, as it is called, deserves the emptiness of an open field and sky, unshielded from the elements. A light rain was falling as I took my guided tour. Just above the excavation is a segment of the wall that once separated East from West Berlin. Layer upon layer of history lies exposed here to nature’s desires.
There are many memorials in Berlin, commemorating human misdeeds — the most recent being that created by New York-based architect Peter Eisenmann, just to the side of the Reichstag in front of what will be the new American Embassy. But unlike Mendelsohn’s lone cemetery stone or Weidt’s preserved workshop, this memorial, comprised of casketlike concrete blocks in varying sizes cast among lop-sided cobblestones, inspires neither solemnity nor sorrow. On the day that I visited, a spike-haired American teenager was jumping across the top of the large stones screaming, “The big ones suck,” to his friend below, and kids were running and yelling. One person already has fallen from playing on the stones; a fall to the bottom means a hard thud on pure rock.
In total, it was a completely unpleasant experience. What’s more, with so much prominent public space being used for a monument to Hitler’s victims, the controversy beforehand included a debate on whether to make it solely for Jews. In the end, that’s what happened. Yet, I was told by an Israeli living in Berlin that Israeli sculptor Dani Caravan is creating a monument in Berlin to the Roma victims of the Nazis, so by caveat, of a sort, the Roma’s memorial will be included with that of the Jews. Across the street from the Eisenmann memorial, the construction crews are building the U.S. Embassy, lending a loud din to the traffic circling past the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. Yet, across the street, the Tiergarten — a dense, compact urban forest — offers some quiet, as well as respite from memorials filling all the emptiness in this remade city.