It’s hard to put into words the feeling I get watching my children start to truly comprehend the holocaust. I’m proud of them for diving deep, for a weekend of relentless questions, many of which had no answers. I’m heartbroken that these stories are still being lived today in a world where the color of your skin or your religious beliefs can find you persecuted in a myriad of ways. That heartbreak leaves me with an urgency to show them what happens when a nation joins behind a leader in hate. This was the weekend it began to really sink in.
Caroline has expressed some disappointment that she would not be at her elementary school for the World War II project she'd watched Sam immerse himself within during his 6th grade year. I had promised her a WWII education of a lifetime while we were away. I thought I would have to focus on it a bit, but as we’ve walked through the streets of Dresden the questions have emerged on their own: why are the stones on the buildings different colors? Why do some to the buildings look like no one is living in them? Signs of the bombing, of the fall of the wall, of reunification. We’ve been chatting about it here and there since we moved to Dresden 2 weeks ago, but a conversation on the tram ride home interrupted by sibling banter and the jostling of humans has not served us well enough. I knew it was time to immerse ourselves to attempt to string the story together.
Friday night after school and work, we boarded a bus to Berlin for a weekend of play and education. In the course of 24,000 steps on Saturday we walked the city. From the site of Hitler’s underground bunker to Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Wall the stories unfolded and wove themselves together in a tapestry of understanding this human experience which is painful to understand yet must never be forgotten.
A few sites hit the kids particularly pointedly, but the hardest was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Just outside Brandenburg Gate, a stone maze which you can’t help but notice resembles a series of tombs covers several acres. Laid on undulating hills, the stones grow and fall with the land and in their own size. In the middle of the memorial, I found myself lost, overwhelmed by the magnitude, and disoriented geographically. You tunnel through, and hope to get to the other side, but the number and size is overwhelming. Walking through, you get it. The kids got it. It took very few words for us to understand among one another the symbolism of the memorial, and that while it was a token number of tomb-like stones compared to the millions who died, you can not escape the gravity of it.
Babel Platz was also a shock to them, home of the first Nazi book burning of more than 20,000 volumes in one fire, home now to a memorial appropriately made of enough empty shelves to rehouse all of those books, and a placard containing a quote by Christian Johann Heinrich Heine, which translates “Where they burn books, at the end they also burn people.” The quote was written during the Spanish Inquisition, long before the Nazis came to power. How history continues to repeat itself in new ways.
Alexander Platz, the center of east Berliner’s life, home to the famous TV tower which broadcast the one channel allowed in the east, was the beginning of our education about the division between east and west Germany, which continued on to Checkpoint Charlie and through Sunday’s visit to the Wall Memorial on the northern end of Berlin. The kids could touch the wall there, see the exhibit of what the wall and all it’s booby traps looked like, marvel at those who got over, and be saddened by those who caught by surprise at its erection, were separated from loved ones. Sam asked me if I would have tried to escape, and we wondered together for a while about what would make us risk our lives that way.
On the walk away from brunch this morning, the kids noticed a series of plaques installed in the sidewalk and wondered allowed about them. They were markers where individuals and families had been removed from their homes and deported. Germany gets it right here— there is no marker for Hitler, the bunker where he killed himself is buried beneath a parking lot without a statue or a plaque. A tremendously understated and clearly unglamorous sign lays out the bunker's interior schematic. There is no glorification of the person who caused such harm, yet the people whom he persecuted are remembered, and the story rehearsed in every classroom in the nation.
As we walked back to catch a train this afternoon, Sam asked why the US would be erecting a wall now if we already knew what happened when countries did this in the past. I can only wonder deeply with him; these are questions I just can’t answer, and instead can only sit with him in the wondering. I am profoundly grateful that my children are beginning to ask these questions though, and hope that these memories and their wonderings continue for a lifetime.