Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Burning Memorial (Germany #4)

BERLIN--German culture is ancient, but only the twelve years of Hitler’s infamous Third Reich (1933-45) seem to get much attention. Perhaps this is inevitable, given that the Nazis systematically murdered six million Jews and caused the terrible destruction of WWII. Before turning to other periods of German history, I want to discuss two dramatic memorials I visited with my excellent guide Burkhard.
At a central square by the opera house and Humbolt University, a glass window in the ground looks down on a room with empty bookshelves with enough space for 20,000 volumes. It’s a monument to remember a book burning ceremony held on this spot May 10, 1933 by the S.A. brownshirts and Nazi youth groups. The book burning was the idea of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. In all, 20,000 were burned.
Nothing announces this memorial until one is standing virtually on top of it; but then it is arresting. Viewed from certain angles, surrounding buildings are reflected in the glass, along with the sky and, of course, ourselves. At night, its glow amid the darkness is even more powerful. Various subtle interpretations of this memorial are possible, but the overwhelmingly obvious message is that we must not forget that one of the first things the Nazis did was to take over the universities and burn the books. As a writer, I find this appalling beyond words.
In mid-sentence, Burkhard pauses, upstaged by a most amusing sight peddling by: half a dozen bicyclists yoked together with a bar top and a keg of beer. I’ve never seen such a thing before, and this veering from the sublime to the ridiculous seems very in character for Germany to me. We’re at the very end of Oktoberfest, which actually occurs during September, and I have missed the party. But this place is far more interesting than any mere festivities, however massive.
In another part of the center city, Burkhard leads me to a second highly unusual memorial: the Jewish Museum Berlin, which covers two thousand years of German Jewish history. I am not Jewish myself (nor is my guide), but I find this eccentric building fascinating, in part thanks to Burkhard’s expert commentary. The museum, like so much German art I’ve seen, becomes more meaningful the more you learn about it.
It consists of two buildings. One is an eighteenth century former courthouse, the other an addition designed by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind's radical, zigzag design is shaped somewhat like a warped Star of David. Intersecting underground tunnels connect the museum proper to the Garden of Exile, a forty-nine pillar structure whose foundation is tilted to make visitors feel anxious, and to a tall empty concrete silo called the Holocaust with only one dim light source at the top. No wonder the Nazis tried to control art.

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