Holocaust artifacts tell ugly saga in new Berlin exhibit

BERLIN — A new exhibit here provides a disturbing look at the Holocaust and marks the latest chapter in Germany's attempts to confront its past.

The exhibit at the German Historical Museum features artifacts from the nation's wartime past, including concentration camp uniforms and Nazi propaganda, as well as period artworks.

As Germany prepared to mark its sixth annual National Day of Memory for the Victims of National Socialism on Jan. 27, the exhibit helped provide a point of departure for Germans seeking to come to grips with their nation's history.

In what is believed a first for German museums, the exhibit traces the development of 20th-century anti-Semitism and racism in Germany to its completion with the Nazis' attempt to solve what they called the "Jewish Question."

Museum Director Hans Ottomeyer sought to avoid such euphemism in the exhibit, "Holocaust: The National Socialist Genocide and the Motifs of Memory."

The exhibit "makes its point through hard evidence, through objects," said Ottomeyer, 56. "We wanted to demonstrate the causes and the reality of the Holocaust without arguing about it and without moralizing."

The exhibit's opening on Jan. 17 coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference. Historians believe the Nazis officially planned the genocide of Jews at the conference, which took place on Jan. 20, 1942.

The exhibit's closing on April 9 will coincide with the 59th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

In the exhibition hall on a recent evening, visitors gazed silently at the exhibits, which include early Nazi stickers featuring swastikas and sayings, including one that reads, "The Jew is the Tapeworm of Germany." There is a desecrated Torah scroll from Pultuk, Poland, which is on loan from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington; and the album of an unknown German soldier, containing photos of Polish Jews and annotated with crude observations.

"I came here because I am a German, and this is part of German history," said Erwin Kuester, 65, of Stuttgart. "I know much of this information already. But today's younger people know less."

Kais Souayah, a 22-year-old Berliner, disagreed.

"I learned this history in school and also on my own," he said. "I would suggest that people go here first and then go to Sachsenhausen," a former concentration camp located about one hour outside Berlin.

His suggestion goes to the heart of a debate in Germany about the educational value of "authentic sites" versus memorials with no clear historical link to location.

In recent years, the German federal government has earmarked increasing funds to the preservation and restoration of former concentration camps.

This year, the government is spending more than $6 million for such efforts at sites around Germany, according to Thomas Lutz, director of the memorial museums department at the Topography of Terror Foundation.

In addition, Topography of Terror, which houses a temporary exhibit and archive on the site of the Nazi Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, has received a verbal pledge of nearly $32.5 million in federal and state funds to build a permanent museum.

The flow of money to memorial sites increased after the unification of Germany in 1990, said Lutz, when the government realized that exhibits in the former East Germany were filled with Socialist propaganda.

Not only was the identity of victims generalized and the genocide against Jews rarely mentioned, but also the perpetrators were said to be in West Germany and the heroes of resistance in the East. And the postwar use of former Nazi camps as Soviet prisons was not dealt with at all.

Even with growing support for preservation of on-site memorials, exhibits such as the new one here draw appreciative visitors.

Hannah Cordts, 15, said she already knew about the Holocaust, but seeing the exhibit was still "shocking. More people should visit it. It is important to remember."

Terry Breuer, an ex-Londoner who has lived in Berlin for 17 years, brought a different perspective to the exhibit.

"It's encouraging after all these years that everything is being brought out into the open by the Germans, but isn't it rather late?"

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.