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German Lessons

Posted on 7 November, 2015

The Memory Void at the Jewish Museum in Berlin

I first visited Berlin seven years ago in 2008. It was only for a week, but I left impressed with the city, and certain I’d visit again soon. Part of what impressed me was the frequent and public acknowledgements of Germany’s darker past. I didn’t hear any of the locals talk about such topics, but memorials for both the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall are both prominent, and to me it was a strong part of Berlin’s vibe.

I still love Berlin - it remains my second-favourite city in the world after Melbourne - and I have returned several times. Right now, I’m back again with friends, both of whom have not visited this fine city before. What that has meant is that I’m getting to revisit some of those memorials, and visit others for the first time myself.

Today, we spent a few hours at the Jewish Museum, which is filled with haunting reminders of how badly people can treat each other. Certainly, the focus is (rightly) on the atrocities meted on the European Jewish community, but I was also struck by some parallels closer to home.

Not only were Jews scapegoats for any broader ills that hit society (including the plague), there have been campaigns against Jewish businesses, and by law Jewish Germans were not considered proper Germans until early last century, with the Nazis promptly reverting things when they gained power in the 1930s. This reminded me of how both Muslim and indigenous communities are treated in Australia.

There was also one note about how the Nazis initially had concentration camps appearing more like villages - with shops and schools and such - to deliberately hide the true intent. I don’t place the Australian Government at the same horrible depths as the Third Reich, but the secrecy around our treatment of asylum seekers in Nauru and on Manus Island is similarly troubling.

The photo above is from the Memory Void at the Jewish Museum. 10,000 metal discs with simple, distressed faces cover the floor, and people are encouraged to walk across them. I couldn’t do it - the idea of walking on people’s faces, combined with the clashing metal sounds it made - was just too disturbing. I guess that’s the point of the installation though.

The way that Germany does not shy away from acknowledging its history (as shown by Chancellor Merkel’s recent comments) is a lesson to Australian society, especially in regards to how we’ve treated (and continue to treat) Indigenous communities. Granted, my view of Germany is limited and quite likely idealised - and maybe that’s the same for non-Australians who could be aware of Prime Minister Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, but not that it was just the first step of many necessary steps recommended.

As I said, the acknowledgement of the past here in Berlin is part of what impressed me - but that is paired with a feeling of positive change: that even with the horrors of the Holocaust and the Wall, perhaps in spite of them, people here are striving to do great things. So I can’t help but think that open and honest acknowledgement of the past - and then learning from it - is essential for building a better future.

(Cross-posted at as well)