Yom Kippur in Nineveh or the teshuvah of Berlin
In Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, tourists gawk at Assyrian soldiers frozen in an alabaster relief, remnants from the ruins of Nineveh. The sins of Nineveh are overshadowed by the relief’s artistic merit. On Yom Kippur, in synagogues throughout Berlin and the world, we read about Nineveh’s sins and repentance in the Book of Jonah.
I live in Berlin, this 21st century-Nineveh, a city in the process of teshuvah ever since 1945. As Germany’s capital, the city plays a special role in how it reacts to its murderous past and what it does to ensure that “Never again” is not only a slogan.
How does a city repent?
On the most superficial level, Berlin’s public engagement with its past is evident in its many memorials, museums and other explicit references to Nazi crimes. On nearly every street are stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks,” small brass-covered concrete squares wedged within the cobblestones with the words in German “Here lived …” and the name, personal information, date of deportation and death of the victim who lived at that very space. In horrifying statistical brevity, the stolpersteine demand Berliners to remember their neighbors’ blood.
There are many seasonal memorials in major commercial and tourist areas. For example, last winter, a walk down the touristy shopping boulevard, the Kurfuerstendamm, involved encounters with large photos of the murdered Jews who wrote, sang, danced and acted in the cafes, cabarets and theaters that once lined the street. The Berliner cannot escape his past, even in his leisure moments.
What about these cafes, cabarets and theaters? They have been bombed out of existence, and none of those that remain are anything like what they were before the war. To understand the significance of this, we can look at Vienna, which has a whole industry selling a reified version of an extinct aura. At Vienna’s Cafe Landtmann, a tourist can comfortably sit, admiring an interior made to look like nothing happened between 1939 and 1945, and never know that Sigmund Freud, Max Reinhardt and all other Jews flaunted by the cafe owners as “regulars” either fled, were deported or murdered. In Berlin, there is no equivalent “aura industry.”
Not replicating the Weimar-era cafes reminds the world that the aura of the Jewish Berlin of Walter Benjamin, Kurt Tucholsky and all the other Jews that gave Berlin its special feel, has been extinguished. Because these cafes were completely destroyed, there is nothing original left to renovate. Pathetic enterprises by businessmen seeking to capitalize on Weimar-era Berlin, like the Waldorf Astoria’s attempt to rebuild Berlin’s legendary Romanisches Cafe, usually fail to re-create that special feeling they are aiming for. The aura is missing in this age of chicanery.
The architecture as a whole in Berlin remains in a wounded state. The ruin of the 19th-century Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church with its partially destroyed spire is nestled between a cluster of postwar functionalist constructions. The adjacent new church building is not rebuilt in the original style, but instead completely modernist, and to many Berliners another postwar eyesore, annoyingly ensuring that everybody knows things are different now. There is always a debate when reconstructing a building exactly as it was before the War. Some argue that Berlin must never be the same, that it is a crime to forget the crimes of the past.
Berlin’s architectural chaos may be as powerful a reminder of the war as memorials, which may soon become objects devoid of meaning like the Nineveh reliefs. Immersed in this tohu vavohu metropolis, without a single major square as it was before the war, every visitor will see something is not right. The question is whether Germany’s capital is different from the architecturally congruent Paris. Absence is the defining factor of Berlin’s teshuvah.
What about the people? Like Berlin’s Nazi-constructed Zoologischer Garten station, an integral part of the transportation system, fascist elements are still rooted within the populace. Last summer, crowds of German youth shouted “Jew! Jew! Cowardly Pig!” (This time with Palestinian flags instead of swastikas, the latter illegal here.) The far-right National Democratic Party campaigns with racist posters. In recent months, various leaders in the centrist Social Democratic Party have called to cut off arms sales and impose economic sanctions on Israel. Some things haven’t changed.
But if there is some antagonism, there is also acceptance. If you don’t want to be understood in Berlin, don’t think you’re safe speaking Hebrew. You will be surprised that the blonde in the subway car spent a year volunteering to wash dishes in a kibbutz kitchen. Don’t use Yiddish either. Many Yiddish words are still part of the Berlin jargon. Some things haven’t changed.
There are strong voices across the spectrum that, because of the history, are more sensitive to anti-Semitism and Israel hatred than in America. Where else in the world is there a far left who sides with Israel? These inspiring Germans look back to the anti-Nazi side of prewar Berlin that made Berlin one of the most progressive cities in the world.
This return, teshuvah in its pure sense, has been largely successful. A rabbinical seminary has been re-established. Jewish cultural institutions abound. Hipsters from throughout the world flock to Berlin for its cheap rent and inviting art scene. Israelis are everywhere.
Berlin has succeeded where other cities failed — it has rejected the false teshuvah, and remembers its crimes. By engaging with its history, by choice and by circumstance, that magnetic aura that once made this city so great has returned. Like Jonah, who found difficulty with Nineveh’s teshuvah, many Jews today, understandably, find it challenging to accept Berlin’s repentance. Yet like Nineveh, Berlin is a “great city” that deserves its chance for teshuvah.
Micki Weinberg, a native of Los Angeles, lives and writes in Berlin.