I don’t know what I expected. This photo seems to capture something of what I found. Berlin was a strange mixture of old and new. New images and lights on old style buildings. But nothing really old. In London there are little Tudor alleyways next to brand new office blocks. Here, everything has been built (or re-built) since 1945. And its very quiet with lots of electric trams and bicycles. We stayed in a little hotel in the East side of the city. Several people I had spoken to in England had warned me that it would be grim but it wasn’t. In the 25 years since the wall came down the city has been transformed. The old buildings, built by the GDR in the 50s, are still there but painted and with new windows. At street level they are full of cafes and boutiques.
On the first morning we visited the Jewish Cemetery at Weissensee. This is the grave of my Great-Great Grandfather and mother, Elias and Flora Sachs. He was born 1829 near Katowice in (what is now) Poland. After running a successful metal processing plant the family moved to Berlin where he retired to help bring up his children (according to my Dad, he wasn’t very good at it).
After looking at the grave and discussing how we could keep it in better condition we wandered through the cemetery. Two things struck me: One was how many other Sachs graves there were, the other was that the cemetery was completely intact. It was a bus ride out of central Berlin but, unlike everything else, it was completely undamaged. Grand monuments had been placed next to modest grave stones; some of them quite old. There were some new graves as well, but these all seemed to be in this century.
Me and my Dad started talking about Jewish history in Germany. He is a keen amateur historian and has co-authored a book called ‘German Family Snapshots’. On the way back to the bus stop he talked about various members of the family. Some of these had been quite prominent members of German society, some had lived quiet respectable lives. Some had died peacefully, others had their lives ended or disrupted by the Holocaust.
When I was in Oxford last year I met a Church of England Vicar. He seemed much engaged with the problem of suffering, especially on a mass scale. ‘How do we deal with this as Christians?’ He asked. My answer, then and now, was ‘One life at a time.’ Each person who died in the Holocaust lived a life. Each person who survived it, but was forced into exile, lived a life. Those lives may have been shorter than they should have been or lived far from home but they were all important to God. Each one of those people felt love, pain, sorrow and joy. We can remember and celebrate this as well as the millions of other German people whose lives were ended or changed by the war.
Later that day we relaxed in these deckchairs in the Alexanderplatz, sipped iced coffee and chatted. With the brightly coloured trams and blue sky it felt like being in a picture postcard.
So, what have I brought back from Berlin? I feel rather proud. Proud to have our Jewish connection with this great city. Follow another branch of my family and you find James Simon (My Great-great Grandfather’s cousin). He was a great benefactor to the city. This notice is next to a park named after him. But I also feel proud of my German heritage. Berlin is a brave, amazing place, a huge project to bring together East and West. It is a city being created and built in a way I’ve never seen before. It didn’t have to be done and it may still fail but I’m glad that the German people have decided to do it.
It has taken some time to get to Berlin. There were many times in the last few years when it could have happened. But it felt like the right time and I was able to come with my husband and children (aged 15 and 20, so not really children any more) as well as my Dad. What also feels right is that we are all Christians. The circle has turned and we have come back to God. A different faith but the same God.