Commemorating Tisha B’Av in Berlin

Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Niki Nagy from Pexels.

As a Berlin resident, preparing for Tisha B’Av, the most somber day in the Jewish calendar, has been disorienting. I’ve been struggling to grasp what makes this day in this city different from observing in other locales. For one, Berlin is full of memorials commemorating the destruction of Jewish life that occurred during the Shoah. I can barely go on a walk without passing by a Stumbling Stone, a decentralized memorial that marks the last residence of those persecuted by the Nazis. In addition to physical reminders of Jewish suffering in the German city, many months bring some sort of memorial observance. From International Holocaust Memorial Day and Asarah B’Tevet in early Winter to Yom HaShoah in the spring to the Novemberpogrom (Kristallnacht) anniversary on November 9, the act of remembering is often on my mind. 

Yet Jewish life in Germany, particularly in Berlin, is growing. I don’t feel comfortable saying that Jewish life returned to normal in Germany—after genocide, returning to the old normal is impossible—but since the 1950s, when it became clear that Jewish Displaced Persons, German Jews, and Eastern European Jewish immigrants were going to remain in Germany, a new normal has gradually been reached. And as more Jewish North Americans and Israelis immigrate to the country, the community continues to grow. 

It’s my first Tisha B’Av in the city. I moved to Berlin last summer, which surprised few people. I grew up interested in the German-speaking Jewish world that my ancestors inhabited. In school, I learned German for many years and even studied abroad in Germany. When I got the opportunity to work in the Education Department at Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, I took it. 

All of this is why I find preparing for Tisha B’Av this year so complicated. I’m trying to hold the atrocities of the past with the realities and the optimism of the present at once. This dichotomy is true of many places here. I think of the various synagogues that survived the Novemberpogrom that now house exuberant congregations. While the buildings are historic, and a testament to resilience, it’s the people, the members of the congregation, that matter. They are what give life to a place, saving it from becoming another Jewish museum in Europe, telling the stories of their ancestors and the not-so-long-ago residents of the synagogues they now inhabit. 

It’s the vulnerability of being in a community that defied the odds that many outside of it, particularly in the US, cannot understand. This makes Tisha B’Av all the more raw in Berlin. Here, the idea of destruction, and of total loss, is not just a story told in Hebrew school, but a reality. To live in Berlin is to be reminded of Jewish destruction: through physical monuments, community rituals, and tales of survivors and their children, the first generation born after World War II. 

Over the past year, I’ve asked my friends, and myself, many questions about what it means to choose to live in Germany. Many of these questions were prompted by far-right attacks that impacted the Jewish community in Germany and Europe, as well as (but not limited to) Muslim and immigrant communities in Germany. Last June, German politician Walter Lübcke was assassinated by a neo-Nazi extremist. Last October, a neo-Nazi assailant planned to massacre synagogue goers in Halle, Germany, on Yom Kippur, but then failed to force his way in. In February, a far-right extremist killed nine people and injured five in Hanau, near Frankfurt. And, more recently, a special unit of the German military, the KSK, was disbanded due to the presence of far-right extremism in its ranks. 

In addition to the legacy of the Shoah and the murdered Jews of Berlin, I also carry these events, which have directly impacted the communities I’m a part of, into Tisha B’Av. It’s scary to live in a society struggling to address the rise of the far-right and its wide-reaching networks. Of course, Germany is not alone in dealing with this problem. Many Western Democracies, including my birthplace, the United States, are struggling to deal with emboldened far-right movements. 

Even with all of this on my mind, what makes this Tisha B’Av different is knowing firsthand that Jewish life is not only possible but exists in locations that so many people primarily know as places of destruction. Due to my work at a memorial site, I am very familiar with the history of Nazism in Berlin and in Brandenburg, the surrounding state. However, outside of work, I’ve been reminded again and again that the arc of Jewish presence in what is now Germany is long. In fact, it’ll be 1,700 years long in 2021. 

After various disasters and expulsions, we’ve found our way back to Germany. Through my move, and my involvement in local life, I’ve become a part of this narrative. I’ve attended study sessions that place German translations alongside Hebrew originals. I’ve been invited to countless meals for Shabbat and holidays. I’ve eaten at restaurants that combine Israeli hummus with German beer. I was even able to attend the 75th anniversary celebration commemorating the liberation ofAuschwitz in January 2020 as a Hillel representative with a group sponsored by the German parliament. 

For me, it’s the final lines of Eicha, the book traditionally read at Tisha B’Av, that best describe how I can mourn and be optimistic about the future simultaneously. “Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old,” reads Lamentations 5:21. In the past year, I’ve been able to grasp how miraculous and radical these words are, coming at the end of a book that details destruction and death. 

These words are particularly appropriate in Berlin, a city often remembered more for Jewish destruction than Jewish life and innovation. Yet the Berlin I live in, the Berlin I call home, is not limited to destruction. This Tisha B’Av, I’m prepared to mourn and go for a walk in one of the Jewish cemeteries here, honoring those who have no one to remember them. But as the sun sets and the day ends, I’ll continue living in the present, full of Jewish vitality and life. 

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Thanks for sharing your reflections. I was only in Berlin once, for 14 hours, but I came away with a similar feeling.
PS just shared this on my FB author page...

How to cite this page

Harouse, Paige. "Commemorating Tisha B’Av in Berlin." 29 July 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 7, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/commemorating-tisha-bav-berlin>.

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