City of ghosts: Is Berlin finally a fitting place for Jews to visit?

For the first time Germany's tourist office has taken a party of British Jews on a trip to Berlin. what did they make of this city of ghosts?
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From a distance, we must have looked like just another bus load of British tourists, trudging from site to site on a guided tour of Berlin. But if you'd come a little closer you would have realised we weren't ordinary sightseers, because this particular coach trip was made up entirely of British Jews. Most of our party were Orthodox, many of them were wearing skull caps, and nothing stands out from the crowd quite like a yarmulke in Berlin.

Germany is one of our most important allies, one of our biggest trading partners, but for an awful lot of British Jews, it remains the last taboo. For Gentiles, Berlin has become the capital of cool, but for British Jews it's still the historical headquarters of the Holocaust. And that's why these British visitors were making a little history of their own. This was the first time the German National Tourist Office had ever taken a Jewish group to Berlin, on a tour tailor-made for Jews.

This pioneering party was drawn from a wide range of Anglo-Jewish institutions: charities, research centres, schools. There were a couple of Rabbis too. Some were simply coming to see the city, but others had come to try to answer a uniquely tricky question. A lifetime after the genocide that was initiated here, which led to the murder of six million Jews, is Berlin finally a fitting place for Jews to visit?

Nitza Spiro, a 70-year-old Israeli, is here with Spiro Ark, the education institution her British husband founded to teach Jewish history to Jews and Gentiles. "My family were all wiped out during the Holocaust, apart from my parents," she says. "For me it was a very difficult thing to come to Germany." Growing up in Israel, her family never bought anything made in Germany, yet her mother could still recite Goethe and Schiller. "The culture seeps into you," she says.

"I realise there is a new generation," Nitza says of modern-day Germans. "To be a child of victims, like my family, is much easier than to be a descendent of perpetrators." Yet for her, this is no holiday. "There's no tourism for Jews here," she says.

I was the only Gentile on this trip. Although I've lived my whole life in Britain, I'm actually half-German, and I've spent quite a lot of time trying to trace my German family, who were scattered all around the globe after the Second World War. In the course of researching my ancestry, the biggest surprise was that my German grandfather, a feckless toff who'd been disowned by his relatives after being sent to jail for insurance fraud, turned out to have sheltered a Jewish fugitive from a concentration camp in Berlin during the war, and helped him flee to Switzerland, a feat for which he was awarded the same medal as Oskar Schindler by the state of Israel. I never met my grandfather, but I managed to track down the Jew whose life he saved, and we became good friends. Like many people with German blood, my roots were intertwined with Jewish history. This journey felt important for me too.

Talking to the other people on this trip, I learnt there were no concentration camp survivors in our party, but plenty of them had lost relatives in the Holocaust, and when we arrived in Berlin the mood was amiable but subdued. People didn't pile into the shops and cafés, like Britons on a normal foreign holiday. They waited dutifully for their luggage, and filed on to the bus like anxious students, about to sit an important exam. As we drove into the city, the atmosphere seemed tense. You could tell people had no idea what to expect. Would this trip turn out to be a big mistake?

I can understand why lots of Jews will never come here. You can see why, for many, it would be too painful to spend time or money in a place that hatched the crime of the century, an attempt to wipe out an entire race, and that has now become Europe's top party town. But for all the attractions of the contemporary city – the bars, the clubs, the galleries – Berlin is a city full of ghosts.

Jews have lived here since the city was founded in the 13th century. During the Middle Ages they were driven out four times – and four times, they returned. The community finally found a secure foothold in 1671, when the Prussian Emperor invited rich Viennese Jews to settle here, to help restore the city after the Thirty Years War. During the next 250 years, Jews played a leading role in Berlin's cultural and economic transformation, from provincial capital to metropolis. Jews founded the Berliner Tageblatt, Berlin's leading newspaper, and KaDeWe, Berlin's top department store. During the Weimar Republic, Berlin was a hotbed of Jewish commerce and creativity, the New York of its day, and then ... Well, we know what happened then.

During the 1930s, as the Nazis enacted the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, 80,000 Jews fled Berlin. Albert Einstein, Walter Benjamin, Max Reinhardt and Billy Wilder were among their number. During the war, 55,000 were sent to the death camps. By 1945, only 6,000 remained. During the Cold War that figure remained fairly stable, but after the Berlin Wall came down it doubled, as thousands of Russian Jews flooded in. Today, Berlin has one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world, yet it'll never be a substitute for the community that vanished 70 years ago.

Our first stop was the Chabad Family Centre, a smart new €6m (£4.75m) complex that houses a synagogue, a library and a school. Our group was impressed by these plush facilities, but they asked the Centre's director some searching questions.

"Obviously, it was hard to come here," says the Centre's Director, Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, an ebullient man in his mid-thirties who arrived from Brooklyn 12 years ago. "My grandfather will never come here. Every time I speak to him, he says, 'It's wonderful that you're there, but I cannot come.'" Rabbi Teichtal's great grandparents were murdered on the way to Auschwitz. "The greatest revenge we can take on Hitler is, in the very same place he tried to eradicate Judaism, to rebuild it," he says. "The Nazis, with all their plans, they're gone. But we're here, and we're growing."

Officially, there are 12,000 Jews in Berlin, and about 200,000 Jews in Germany, but Rabbi Teichtal reckons another 12,000 Berliners identify themselves as Jewish, even if they don't attend a synagogue.

Rabbi Teichtal's task isn't easy. "Last year our kindergarten was vandalised," he says. "We didn't understand how people can be so low to paint swastikas on little children's toy cars." But they worked all night to repair the damage, and next morning the kindergarten opened at 8am, bang on time. Chancellor Merkel wrote to thank him for "meeting darkness with light". "We don't look at the past – that happened already – we look to the future," he says. "It's our task to make Berlin a thriving centre of Jewish life."

Our next stop was the tranquil villa on Lake Wannsee where Nazi bureaucrats planned the Final Solution. Here, as you can imagine, the mood was a lot more solemn. On the leafy terrace outside, I asked Joanne Lappin, the 34-year-old sales manager of the German tourist board, why she'd been so eager to arrange this trip. "I'm Jewish and I feel there should be more information on Jewish Germany," she says, as we look out across the lake. Lappin wanted to show visitors the paradox of German-Jewish history: Berlin is the scene of its greatest tragedies – and its greatest triumphs. Near this infamous spot, in an equally idyllic location, is the former lakeside house of Max Liebermann, the father of German Impressionism, and a Jew.

Lappin herself received criticism from some Rabbis for organising this trip. "A few of them said, 'How can a Jewish girl promote Germany? I should be ashamed of myself!'" Yet when you hear about her background, her stance makes a lot of sense. "My mother's family were all wiped out in the Holocaust, but I was brought up by an open-minded family who taught me that there's a difference between Nazis and Germans."

Back on the bus, I meet a few of Joanne's guests. "I had a few bad dreams before I came," says Dr Sharman Kadish, 49, director of Jewish Heritage UK. "My husband didn't want to come." Sharman has academic contacts in Germany, but until she attended a conference in Braunschweig last year, she'd never actually been. "It wasn't somewhere you'd go on holiday." Her father was in the British Army in the war. Her mother was evacuated from the East End. Conversely, two of her nephews have already been to Berlin. And Germany has changed too. There was a silent generation after the war who wanted to forget about the Third Reich, but modern Berlin is quite the opposite. "Here, it's almost like they're bending over backwards to talk about the war."

A little later, I get talking to Judith Nemeth, Principal of Hasmonean High School, an Orthodox comprehensive in north London. Last month she took a school party to Poland. This trip was a reconnaissance to see if she'd bring a school group. Judith is in her early fifties. This is her first visit to Germany. "I don't know why I'm going to Germany," she told a Rabbi before she came. "I'm in two minds about it." "Are there Jews there?" he asked her. "If there are Jews there, then go."

The feedback from her friends and family was more mixed. A relative who came to Britain on the Kindertransport – the pre-war evacuation of Jewish children from Nazi Germany – was very distressed ("I wished I'd never told her") but a friend whose father had been liberated from Auschwitz was fine about it. She'd even brought her father to Berlin. And yet for Judith, the old questions still linger. "How deep is it in the psyche," she asks. "How can it not be there any more?"

Next morning, in the hotel, I have breakfast with Rabbi Reuben Livingstone, 48, from Hampstead Garden Suburb United Synagogue. His great-grandmother came from Berlin. He'd been here once before, on a solo visit, to see Berlin with his own eyes. "Actually, as a Jew, there's something quite special about Germany, because all these issues are potentially on the table," he says. "The past is there and you can talk about it.

"In other places, anti-Semitism is there as an undercurrent – it's not spoken about," he adds. "In Germany it's more open. One feels the process of a nation having re-educated itself and having atoned more than anywhere else."

Of course, there's probably more to atone for here than anywhere, and after breakfast we make our way to Berlin's biggest symbol of atonement – the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, right beside the Brandenburg Gate. On the bus I sit next to Howard Falksohn, 47, an archivist at London's Wiener Library, the world's oldest Holocaust memorial institution. His dad came to Britain from Berlin on the Kindertransport in the 1930s. His great aunt and uncle were transported from Berlin to Auschwitz, where they died. He's been back to their old flat this morning, to take a photo. Howard's been to Berlin before, but says that "a number of my cousins wouldn't dream of setting foot in Germany. For many of them, it's a step too far to actually come to the country itself."

Howard understands their sentiments, even if he doesn't feel the same way. "It wasn't a few nutters who'd escaped out of the asylum – this was a substantial part of the population," he says, as we travel through West Berlin, towards the reconstructed centre of the city. "Even though everything's relatively hunky-dory nowadays, what was it that enabled that to come about in the first place?" For Gentiles as well as Jews, this is Berlin's enduring riddle. It's hard to imagine such barbarities in such a liberal city.

So maybe it's only fitting that the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is so enigmatic – a vast labyrinth of 2,711 huge concrete blocks, spread over 19,000 square metres, built by the Jewish-American architect Peter Eisenman in 2005. Some of our group found it inspiring. Others were underwhelmed. "I think there's a huge message here," says Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis of Finchley United Synagogue, as we gaze across this enormous maze. "Nobody was happy with what was being suggested, and eventually they've come up with something which is hotly disputed right now. And I think that essentially means that nothing in the world can properly represent what took place."

This is Rabbi Mirvis's first visit to Germany. Members of his family were victims of the Holocaust, and he grew up in a home where nobody touched anything German. "I didn't use a Faber-Castell pencil. We wouldn't step into a Volkswagen car." Now that's changed, but not for everyone. "There are still many Jewish people today who would be highly critical of spending a penny in Germany," he says. "That's totally understandable. But I think it is important to support and encourage the good Germans who are moving forward." So what has he found so far? "What has impressed me most is the extent to which the German government, but more significantly so many German people, want to recognise the horrors of their personal past, and the past of their nation, and are constantly reminding themselves."

The jagged, disjointed structure of Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum, a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie, evokes the genocide of German Jewry, but the permanent display within is a celebration of 2000 years of German-Jewish life. "I think this museum is brilliant," says Rabbi Mirvis. "What it shows is that Jews have been in Germany forever, just about, and that Jewish history here is an integral part of German history." As he says, one thing Jews resent most is being told to go back to where they came from. Libeskind's museum refutes this fiction.

The next few days became a blur of museums and memorials: the Otto Weidt Museum, which honours the blind businessman who saved countless Jews from the death camps; the Topography of Terror, an ad hoc excavation of the cellars of Berlin's SS and Gestapo HQs; the Grunewald Memorial, which lists the trains that took 55,000 Jews to the death camps, along the platform where they departed, and Babelplatz, an empty library on the spot where Nazi students burnt Jewish books. "Wherever books are burnt, you will end up burning people," reads the inscription alongside it. It's by the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine. It was written in 1821.

A lot of these museums and memorials are fairly new. If you'd taken the same tour 20 years ago, there would have been a lot less to see. Yet whatever reservations remain about yesterday's Berliners, you can hardly accuse today's Berliners of trying to cover up the past. "Reclaiming the Jewish connection to Berlin is something profoundly therapeutic," says Rabbi Livingstone. And from what I saw, he seemed to speak for most people on this bus. "The purpose of our visit is to see whether Berlin is a place for Jews to come and visit, because British Jews don't come," says Judith, as we neared the end of her first trip to Germany. "I feel there is a wave of difference." It was the people she met who made the biggest impression, as much as the places we visited.

It wasn't all memorials. We ate in kosher restaurants. We met Jewish artists, journalists and students. We went to Weissensee, Europe's biggest Jewish cemetery, where Howard found his grandfather's grave. Our final meal together was at the elegant townhouse of the Mendelssohn family, a dynasty that sums up the breadth of the Jewish contribution to German life. Felix Mendelssohn is the most famous name, but most of the composer's relatives were bankers, and his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was the leading light of the Jewish Enlightenment, the so-called "German Socrates". He's buried a short walk away, in a Jewish cemetery that became a collection point for transportations to the death camps, and finally a mass grave for Berliners killed in the Allied destruction of Berlin.

Over lunch, I ask Rabbi Mirvis how he feels now, at the end of his first trip to Germany. "I thought this was an opportune moment for me to carry out in practice what I've always believed is the correct thing – that we should be visiting here, and we should be giving our support." However, to actually travel here has been a huge step. "I didn't expect to enjoy it and I haven't enjoyed it. I found it very enlightening, in some respects even inspiring. I found it important and I'm pleased that I've come. But it's not easy for a Jewish person to walk down these streets." As the saying goes, never trust a bare lawn in Berlin – you never know what's buried beneath it. "The last few days have been very difficult ones for me, because there have been echoes from the past wherever I've gone," he says.

On our way back to the airport, we stop off at the Rykestrasse Synagogue, Germany's biggest synagogue, recently – and beautifully – restored. There's a Jewish school here, where Howard's father went after he was forced to leave his German state school in the 1930s. It feels like a fitting place to end our trip. After the Second World War, General Clay, the US military governor of Germany, said German democracy would be measured by the way Germany treats its Jews. In the grand timescale of European history, it may still be early days, but as we boarded our Lufthansa plane for London, it seemed to me that today's Berliners can tell the world they've passed that test.