Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke briefly last week at the 80th commemoration of Kristallnacht; a pogrom against the Jewish people in Germany at the hands of Nazi paramilitary forces that served as an antecedent to the crimes against humanity that occurred during World War II. The service was held at the synagogue in Rykestrasse in Berlin and reflected on the important turning point that day marked for countless numbers of Jews that had called Germany their home.
Chancellor Merkel referred to the Shoah– the Hebrew word for the Holocaust– as a “unique and singular” moment in history that was nothing like what came before it and included the mass industrialisation of murder and concentration camps. “In the November pogrom, the way to the Holocaust was shown,” Merkel said, citing over 1,400 Jewish religious buildings as having been destroyed and a further 7,500 Jewish businesses destroyed, burned or looted during the pogrom.
Merkel used the opportunity to reflect on the opinions of the majority of Germans at the time and what modern lessons we can learn from history. “Racism and anti-Semitism doesn’t disappear easily,” Merkel said, adding that it remains in public view online, on internet chat rooms and in growing nationalism across the world. The German Chancellor concluded that “the state cannot stand by when people
are mistreated on the grounds of their skin colour or religious beliefs.
Dr Anja Siegemund, who was present at the service, noted how appreciative everyone was to have the Chancellor at the Rykestrasse Synagogue. “Even as Angela Merkel went to the microphone–before her speech–applause sounded. Almost as if to say, ‘we’re glad that you’re here’,” Dr Siegemund said. “She again sends an important signal; that she is resolute in her remembrance of Nazi crimes and learning from them as the basis of German society.”
Dr Siegemund is Director at the Jewish Center in Berlin (Centrum Juadaicum) which operates a museum and archive as a testament to Jewish life in Germany. The Center is located where Berlin’s largest synagogue used to be–the Neue Synagogue–and as history would have it, the building originally survived the pogrom of Kristallnacht but was demolished after being severely damaged during the Second World War.
And although the country has been incredibly welcoming to people of other nations and other faiths, much like Chancellor Merkel stated in her remarks, people are wary of the same historical violence bubbling up again in the future. “There are some–and more than before–who clearly say: we do not want to be seen as Jews in public,” Dr Siegemund said of the rising hostility towards Jews.
Berlin is now home to a diverse Jewish population that includes not only more traditional believers but also an entirely new generation of Jews who now call the German capital their home. From new hummus restaurants to newly-arrived Israeli students learning German, Berlin shows how an uncomfortable history can stand alongside with a hopeful future.
Dr Eitan Dabah was one such Israeli student who came to embrace this modern-day Berlin when settling here as a Phd student in Materials Science. “My family accepted my move without any objection” Dabah said of his move to the southern neighbourhood Schöneberg where he lives with his half-German wife and 3-month-old baby. “They were not against it. Nowadays it’s not a big issue as Germany is a big friend to Israel. If you had done this interview 50 years ago it would have been different.”
Photos by Arjun Harindranath