For my second report for this module, I am writing about the Jewish man Otto Weidt who lived in Rosenthaler Straße. His workshop for the deaf and blind Jewish men and women who lived nearby became famous after the war as a place of refuge and aid for persecuted workers threatened with deportation.
When visiting the city I hadn’t heard of Weidt or his incredible story, but it moved me so much that after visiting the museum I knew one of my reports had to be about him. I also want this report to look at some of the remnants of Jewish life in Scheunenviertel after the war. I knew that his narrative was such a strong contrast to Hitler in Downfall, that it would make a very interesting essay to juxtapose the two men I’ve reported and how they are represented and live on in Berlin’s history.
The museum was an incredibly moving experience. It was located upstairs in the building that used to be the workshop (Fig 1). The museum had an exhibition about his life, and also other shows such as ‘Jewish Athletes in Berlin before and after 1933’. The place was calm, with whitewashed walls and wooden floors. There were documents and information boards depicting life in the workshop and telling accounts of those who were saved through Weidt, either by him hiding them, employing them or bribing Gestapo to send them back from concentration camps. There were also tragic stories of when he wasn’t able to save his workers and their families.
The exhibition changed as you walked, about halfway through the walls changed from white to something that looked like the wallpaper had been removed, and there were lots of layers of old colours and styles beneath. This changed the atmosphere for me entirely, the place changed from museum to the actual workshop. It was impossible to see the layers of old wallpaper without imagining the place during the war, and how the workers must have looked at these same walls. Most poignant of all, almost reducing me to tears, was the back room, which had been hidden behind a wardrobe. It had been left untouched since the war. The windows had been covered and the air was so still and heavy. I imagined families hiding for days in such a space, some of whom were caught and taken away by the SS from this room.
Coming outside into the vibrant courtyard afterward made me feel mixed emotions. I wondered, should this place be covered in graffiti? Should there be such indulgent shops such as Michael Kors or Prada mere meters away? Shouldn’t it be more of a revered and respected place? Especially since the Anne Frank museum was also in this courtyard.
However I could also see that the area looked bright and vibrant, and that it had been rejuvenated with new life through youth and consumers. It looked like a well-loved and well-visited area by many. The graffiti wasn’t disrespectful, but full of pop culture and liberal political messages. The area had moved on in a positive way, yet still the museums were there to remember the past.
This made me very aware of the biggest questions Berlin faces: How to respectfully show a dark history and honour its victims, yet also move on into the future?
I had also pondered this question when visiting the old Jewish part of Berlin around Scheunenviertel, Mitte. I visited the Jüdische Mädchenschule (Jewish girl’s school) here, which had been turned into a café bistro and art gallery space. I felt they successfully honoured the school’s past by retaining original architectural features such as the mosaic floor and tiled walls, however they had also given it a new creative future by turning it into a recreational space. This regeneration can also be seen in the Kunstwerke across the street, now a contemporary gallery space bringing some economic and creative energy to an area that still feels tangibly melancholic.
Interestingly there is no mention of this entire district in my Marco Polo travel guide, perhaps because it still holds a lingering sadness that wouldn’t attract many tourists.
A very successful way of commemoration is Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine cobbles which were seen around the city. They are made of brass and measure 9.6 x 10 cm. The artist has laid these not only in Berlin but 60,000 in 1,800 locations in Europe where there were victims of National Socialism. This subtle remembrance will stand the test of time and doesn’t feel as if its dominating the street.
The holocaust memorial in the Tiergarten is a massive complex, striking and impossible to miss in comparison to Demnig’s work, the Weidt museum and Biedermann’s statue. The atmosphere here is strange to define. The grey cement blocks remind me a lot of the tall townhouses of Scheunenviertel. The shallower blocks are also similar sizes to coffins. It feels constricting and cold to walk amongst them in the shadows they create. However, you can see children running and climbing on them, and hear the sounds of the city much louder than in the quieter neighbourhoods from earlier which counteracts their melancholy.
This memorial reminds us that history is present in our everyday lives especially in Berlin, similar to the site of the führerbunker in the carpark amidst a housing estate.
To return to Otto Weidt, I feel that the memorial to him and his work as a respectful museum is a successful way to preserve his legacy, rather than a statue or installation like the memorial or the cobbles. The survival of Weidt in such desperate times, and his ongoing presence in the museum juxtaposes my previous report on Hitler’s downfall, whose presence in Berlin has been mostly eradicated.
Fig 1. Thomas Bruns, Werkstattraum in der Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt. Digital Image. Museum Blidenwerkstatt. From: Museums Portal Berlin. https://www.museumsportal-berlin.de/en/museums/museum-blindenwerkstatt-otto-weidt/ (Accessed 3.3.2017)
Fig 2. Thomas Bruns, Ausstellung des Museums Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt. Digital Image. Museum Blidenwerkstatt. From: Museums Portal Berlin. https://www.museumsportal-berlin.de/en/museums/museum-blindenwerkstatt-otto-weidt/ (Accessed 3.3.2017)
Fig 3. Thomas Bruns, Ausstellung des Museums Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt. Digital Image. Museum Blidenwerkstatt. From: Museums Portal Berlin. https://www.museumsportal-berlin.de/en/museums/museum-blindenwerkstatt-otto-weidt/ (Accessed 3.3.2017)
Fig 4. de Silva, Emma. The Courtyard with Workshop on the Left. February, 2017.
Fig 5. de Silva, Emma. Graffiti Walls in Rosenthaler Straße. February, 2017.
Fig 9. de Silva, Emma. Holocaust Memorial in Tiergarten. February, 2017.
Fig 10. de Silva, Emma. Holocaust Memorial in Tiergarten. February, 2017.
Marco Polo. Berlin. Basingstoke: Marco Polo Travel Publishing Ltd. 2012.
Websites for information
“Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt,” German Resistance Foundation. http://www.museum-blindenwerkstatt.de/en/first-of-all/ (Accessed 3.3.2017)
“Jüdische Mädchenschule Home Page,”Ehemalige Jüdische Mädchenschule. http://www.maedchenschule.org/en/art.html (Accessed 3.3.2017)
“Stolpersteine Home Page,” Gunter Demnig. http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home/ (Accessed 3.3.2017)
“Stolpersteine Information PDF,” Gunter Demnig. http://www.stolpersteine.info/fileadmin/pdfs/STOLPERSTEINE_steps_2013.pdf (Accessed 3.3.2017)