Travel | Berlin offers tourists compelling history of Jewish life

It used to be that few Jews would consider Berlin, or even Germany at all, as a tourist destination. But that has changed as Berlin has become a top European draw, particularly for young people and artsy types.

For Jewish visitors, it’s not despite the history, but largely because of it that Berlin is so compelling.

A good place to start is at some of the sites that have been turned into exhibits on Holocaust history. The House of the Wannsee Conference  marks the place where the Third Reich came up with the Final Solution in January 1942. The powerful exhibit there traces the history of the Third Reich’s plans to eradicate Jews, including both public propaganda and behind-the-scenes machinations. A table in the room where the conference was held contains facsimiles of the one surviving protocol of the meeting, in which euphemisms for mass murder are rampant.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin is a favorite among German school teachers. photo/jta-jüdisches museum berlin-jens ziehe

Perhaps the most famous Holocaust monument in the city is the national Holocaust memorial in central Berlin, which opened in 2005 after years of debate and discussion. The memorial, created at the initiative of a non-Jewish activist, includes the aboveground, abstract monument designed by American Jewish architect Peter Eisenman. It includes 2,711 tombstone-like slabs of stone of varying heights that occupy an entire city block and a subterranean exhibit that tells the story of the destruction of the 6 million.

The story of the perpetrators and their postwar prosecution is a short walk away, at the “Topography of Terror” archive and exhibit, where the Gestapo, SS and Reich security main office once stood. The site is impressive: outside, a crumbling remnant of the Berlin Wall; one level down, the cellar walls of the Gestapo headquarters, revealed during post-unification excavations. The new archive building, which overlooks these two layers of history, contains a permanent photographic and auditory exhibit on the “banality of evil,” as the political theorist Hannah Arendt put it. 

Germany’s Jewish history is about more than the Holocaust, of course. There are traces of Jewish life here going back nearly 2,000 years, according to the Jewish Museum Berlin. Opened in 2001 and one of the most popular museums in Germany, this is the best place in the city to learn about that history. The museum, which is inundated with school groups, also provides an introduction to Jewish traditions and holidays. Visitors can view circumcision tools, step under a chuppah and check out the bedecked Shabbat table under glass, among other things.

To get a taste for Jewish life in Berlin today, it’s good to step away from the museums. Jewish life has ballooned in Germany since the fall of the Soviet Union sent nearly 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews into the country, transforming what until then had been a population of around 30,000.

And Berlin is full of Israelis. Though the official number of Jews in the capital is 11,000, locals believe there may be as many as 30,000, half of them Israeli expats who have come for Berlin’s thriving cultural and arts scene. The Hebrew language website and Aviv Russ’ weekly Kol Berlin radio show offer a taste of Israeli life here.

If you want to meet local Jews, Shabbat services are a good bet. The official community umbrella organization provides a list, and there are alternatives as well. Bring your passport with you; there is a security check at all German synagogues.

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.