A chance meeting with a Holocaust survivor at a remarkable exhibition in Berlin.
Jan. 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
BERLIN—Hanni Levy doesn't live here anymore. She hasn't for decades. When it was her home, the city was in ruins. Whole blocks had been flattened; buildings were crushed like toys. Hanni couldn't quite believe that her hiding place, the apartment she'd lived in for the last two years of the war, was still standing, but it was never hit in all the bombings, even though, each time the planes came, she was sure she would return after the raid to find nothing left. When the Allies arrived, Hanni went to work for the Americans and picked up a bit of English. They needed a native German speaker, preferably someone who hadn't been a Nazi. She was the perfect fit; a Jew. For a long time, she struggled to retrieve her own name, it had been so well-erased in hiding. It was 1946 when she left the city for good, though she's been back dozens of times since. Unlike most Jews who survived the Holocaust, Hanni has plenty of good things to say about her years under Nazi occupation. And that has everything to do with why she's in Berlin's Mitte neighborhood today. She has come to speak to Dr. Beate Kosmala.
Kosmala is very, very quiet. Blond and bespectacled, she walks lightly, speaks softly; her presence is unobtrusive to the point of nearly being absent. It is as though she fears she will distract visitors. She is a senior researcher at the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand—the German Resistance Memorial Center, a kind of umbrella organization that funds several small museums and a clutch of historians who quietly toil away on projects dedicated to exposing pockets of good that existed during Germany's darkest period. Kosmala is also the lead curator of the Gedenkstätte Stille Helden—the Silent Heroes Memorial Center, a tiny new museum devoted to the 10,000 to 12,000 Jews who, like Hanni, attempted to hide in Germany during the Nazi period; the 5,000 or so who survived in hiding (1,700 in Berlin alone); and the 20,000 non-Jewish Germans who helped them survive until the end of the war.
This fall, the cult-of-Hitler exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum on Unter den Linden was talked about everywhere. In its careful displays of the love Germany showered upon the Führer (quilts made in his honor, letters sent on his birthday, board games created in his name), the exhibition was called taboo breaking and a " first." But only the foreign press saw it as groundbreaking. Germans of the post-'68 generation have been schooled well for the most part; they are more than equipped to tell the stories of a duped nation. Less attention has been paid to the histories of ordinary people who rejected the cult of Nazism. That's partly because anything that might appear to be self-congratulation runs contrary to the culture of flagellation that has existed since the end of the 1960s.
And yet, says Kosmala, "there is now a kind of openness to become aware," of those who resisted, to borrow a phrase, becoming "willing executioners," to remembering those who actively pushed back against the system. We are standing downstairs in the Silent Heroes Memorial. It is a two-floor affair tucked down a graffiti-encrusted alley in Mitte, a narrow passage that is a throwback to old East Germany, next door to an indie movie theater and near several smart restaurants.
"We cannot now create a new story—'all these wonderful rescuers in Germany'—but we know the group is bigger than we expected, and that is really amazing," says Kosmala. "We are careful not to overestimate it—that's important I think—but there are ordinary people here, and not only people with money or people who had very good positions. So visitors see that ordinary people could do something. That is our main message: People could act. Could react. Because many Germans after the war were saying, 'We ourselves had to suffer under dictatorship! We couldn't do anything! We were persecuted as well!' These examples show what was possible, what people could do."
The museum, if it can even be called that, is a minimalist duplex with dark-stained wood floors and an open stairwell, as though an architect had donated her home to the cause. The first floor is filled with an enormous table into which are embedded a series of large, flat, touch-screen computers. When pressed, each word, each photograph, becomes the entry point into a seemingly endless web of interconnected rescue histories. One screen reads "Spontaneous Assistance" and tells of how Ruth Abraham gave birth to her daughter Reza and hid the baby—in 1943!—with the help of false papers provided by a woman named Maria Nichols. Each person has a paragraph, each detail further explicated with a new series of screens. It is very text-heavy. The few visitors are completely silent as they read.
Upstairs is a small forest of tall, blond-wood steles. They have text on one flank, the headphones of an audio guide (in German and in English) hang from the next, and then, in the hollow center, artifacts. The first narrates the story of Alice Lowenstein, who hid her daughters in Weimar after two hiding places in Berlin fell through; the younger daughter, barely out of toddlerhood, had a dangerous habit of telling strangers about the men who took her father away. In the summer of 1944, the girls, then aged 4 and 6, were denounced. A piece of period notepaper from the Landesarchive in Potsdam describes how the Gestapo dragged the girls back to their old building in Berlin, asking each of their neighbors if the girls were Jewish. All said no. And then, as they walked away, the building's concierge ran after the SS men and told them, "These girls are Jewish." At the end of the war, their mother returned to fetch them from Weimar, only to discover that her children had been murdered in Auschwitz.
"We wanted to present this in order to show that there are not only happy ends. That hiding often meant other family members didn't survive, and the survivors had a burden on them," said Kosmala, as I struggled, ineffectually, not to cry. A daughter born to Alice Lowenstein after the war donated photos, a doll once owned by her murdered sisters, and a diary her mother kept while on the run.
Sarah Wildman is a visiting fellow at the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.