A while after you get back from a trip, you start to see which things truly stuck with you. For me in light of my trip last month to Berlin, this is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or Holocaust Memorial.
It’s become a recognisable icon in Berlin, with the imposing grey slabs, varying gradually in height, but remarkably structured in ordered rows. This was the first thing to strike me: they stood like an army and together with the grey, they looked so cold, so imposing. I immediately felt withdrawn into myself, and the real emotion hadn’t even started yet.
I read a blog post a while back when I was researching Berlin (for the life of me, I can’t remember who it belonged to; whoever you are, I apologise and thank you!) and the mystery girl in question said that the further you walked into the midst of the slabs, as the ground gets lower and the slabs get higher, the more suffocated and helpless you felt – she related this to the experience the Jews were going through. They were in this suffocating mess that was bigger than them, something they didn’t have any control over, yet were getting deeper and deeper into it as time went on.
That thought stayed with me, and completely made sense as something I thought I’d probably feel. And I did. Having studied English Literature at uni, symbolism sort of comes naturally to me (even when I’ve clearly made it up…).
Some steps on the outskirts of the slabs lead down to an exhibition, documenting the tales and experiences of Jews around the world who suffered under the Nazi regime. It’s free, which made me respect Berlin even more than I already did (and it’s also a good way to persuade you to go if you find yourself in the city).
Well. This was more than I bargained for, but exactly what I had needed. Walking through the rooms, everyone is quiet. Not a soul speaks except those of the Jewish people captured in the exhibition; and, beautifully, we all listen. In one room, you read the chronological order of what the Nazi’s did, the laws, the disgusting aims they had. Setting up the background information, the other rooms were all the more harrowing. In another, figures lined the walls, next to a country. I saw my own Czechoslovakia (being half Czech), as it was called then… and the number of the Jewish victims during this time. I was mortified – it was like seeing a personal attack. I also learnt that Jewish people as far out as Greece and Italy were killed, too.
Between 5.4 and 6 million Jews died under the Nazis. Seriously, think about it. That’s a huge number of innocent lives.
On the floor of this room were lit-up screens, each with an exerpt from a Jew’s diary who was on the way to a concentration camp, or the family of someone who was, or even a final letter to a loved one; or from the loved one.
Me and my friend Alex walked around this room at our own paces, pausing at those we wanted to spend more time on. Sometimes I sat down on the occasional bench, in some effort to take it all in when I found it so overwhelming. The words people wrote were bigger than me, bigger than any of my problems, and I formed an intense respect for the bravery of these people. I was surprised how much they had all heard of what awful things were happening… things that could happen to them. And yet their words they wrote – in their diaries, to others – were full of fight, full of love. I thought how I’d probably be bawling my eyes out, unable to write. But the integrity and strength they all had in their weakest, most helpless moments are so admirable.
My generation knows nothing of this kind of pain. We all learn about the world wars at school, as though it was some other planet. We grow up relatively ignorant – reading things in text books isn’t enough. In Berlin, the history lessons went from text book/teacher writing on a whiteboard/exams to real life. Real words written and thought by real people. It all happened, and I could see the real diary, the real letter, right infront of me.
When we came out from our overwhelmed trance, Alex and I couldn’t do anything but look at each other and just whisper, “Wow”. And just like that, we were back above ground, back to real life as we know it. I suddenly became shocked to remember how central the Memorial is in Berlin, and I saw a lone red balloon floating above the grey, cold slates.
Talk about symbolism…