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Berlin’s monuments to horror

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Frank Meisler's bronze sculpture pays tribute to the Kindertransport.

Berlin is a hip place, replete with jazz clubs, art galleries and cool cafés. It’s also a city of memorials: more than 300 public exhibits, monuments, plaques, stones, documentation centres, and installations address Germany’s dark 20th-century history.

It’s all quite in-your-face – the German capital does not shy away from its not-so-gradual slide into horror. But as a fellow traveller of ours noted, it’s lamentable that all this commemoration is needed in the first place.

To find your bearings, use the grand Brandenburg Gate, which once formed part of the border between East and West Berlin, as a landmark.

READ: MORE THAN HALF OF CANADIANS DON’T KNOW SIX MILLION JEWS DIED IN HOLOCAUST: POLL

Immediately to its west is the 200-hectare Tiergarten, an inner-city park that’s home to two outdoor Holocaust-era memorials.

The Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered During National Socialism was opened in 2012.

Because the two ethnic groups, commonly lumped together as “Gypsies,” could not agree on a designer for the project from among their own ranks, they settled on a Jewish one: Dani Karavan. The result is a moving monument, with a central fountain, ground-level stone markers with the names of the death camps at which Roma, Sinti and other subgroups were murdered, and glass panels etched with their history of despair under the Nazis.

The nearby monument to homosexuals murdered during the Holocaust is mystifying. Consisting of a large cube of black concrete, it features a small slit through which one can view a film loop of men or women kissing. That may have shocked people in the 1930s, but hardly does today. Devoid of explanatory markings, it’s rather cold and odd.

More emotive is the memorial, located just outside the park at 4 Tiergartenstrasse, to those murdered under the Nazis’ so-called T4 euthanasia program, in which up to 400,000 people who threatened to pollute the “master race” were forcibly sterilized because of “congenital idiocy” and various physical and mental disabilities.

The first systematic murder of Jews in Germany was in 1940, when nearly all Jewish psychiatric patients were killed.

As many as 70,000 people were gassed in killing centres all over Germany from 1939 to 1941, and a further 20,000 concentration camp inmates were killed at those venues. Even after the program was formally shut down in August 1941, the murders continued, as doctors and nurses killed some 90,000 institutionalized patients through neglect, starvation and drugs. Some figures put total T4 deaths at between 200,000 and 275,000. An untold number were children.

The story is told on long panels that build to a wrenching climax.

These 2,711 concrete blocks form the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. (Ron Csillag photo)

Within walking distance, on Hannah Arendt Street, is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the country’s central Holocaust monument. Designed by Jewish-American architect Peter Eisenman, it’s stirring. Begun in 1988 and opened in 2005, this is an outdoor panorama of large, coffin-like stele that seems to stretch on forever.

No two of the 2,711 concrete blocks are precisely the same and walking among the maze-like stones – fashioned in uniform, bureaucratic grey – one can feel disoriented and lost. Our guide called it “an open wound” on Berlin’s landscape.

More uplifting is the Block of Women sculpture on the former site of the Old Synagogue, which was destroyed during the war. Here, tribute is paid to the non-Jewish women whose Jewish husbands were arrested in February 1943, in the final roundup of Berlin’s Jews.

About 600 women gathered daily for a week to protest their husbands’ fates, until the prisoners were released in early March. It was peaceful and the only protest of its kind in Germany. The reddish sandstone sculptures tell a different story from every angle. Take your time.

The “Block of Women” sculptures pay homage to the non-Jewish women who protested on behalf of their Jewish husbands. (Ron Csillag photo)

Much more simple, but no less poignant, is the book burning memorial at the Babelplatz. It was on May 10, 1933, in front of the library of the University of Berlin, now Humboldt University, that students, egged on by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, gleefully burned some 20,000 books that were deemed a threat to Nazi thought. Targeted were Jewish authors, but also such luminaries as Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway and Jack London.

A plain, plexiglass square covers a pit in the cobblestones. Viewed from a certain angle, one can see empty white bookcases underground – and, eerily, one’s own reflection.

Outside the Friedrichstrasse railway station, a bronze sculpture commemorates the 1.6 million children murdered in the Holocaust and the 10,000 children whose lives were saved when they were granted entry into the U.K. in 1938 on the Kindertransport.

Trains to Life – Trains to Death is a remarkable work by the late Israeli sculptor Frank Meisler, who owed his own life to the Kindertransport. We see two healthy, well-dressed children, suitcase in hand, striding toward safety in the west. Facing eastward are five disheveled children, eyes downcast, in a darker bronze, their suitcase split open on the ground. Their fate is sealed.

Though not a memorial in the sense that Yad Vashem in Israel is, a must-see in Berlin is the Topography of Terror, an indoor and outdoor museum that is dizzying in its detail. Once the site of the headquarters of the Gestapo, the SS and the Reich Main Security Office, it was here that the Final Solution was planned (the famous Wannsee House, about 30 minutes outside the city, was where the plans were unveiled on Jan. 20, 1942, before 15 high-ranking Nazi officials).

Opened in 2010, the centre pulls together thousands of documents, photographs, newspapers, posters and miscellanea to show that Nazi officials did not, and could not have, acted in a vacuum. The takeaway is that this sort of madness can happen virtually overnight, even in the most civilized place on earth, given the right stew of fear, ignorance and anger – and someone to blame.