Sunday, July 23, 2006

Wannsee (July 23)

Well, out of the frying pan into the fire. We have exchanged high heat for high humidity. It's hard to know precisely which is worst

Still, I slept in til 8 am and after breakfast headed out to Wannsee. This is often described as a suburb of Berlin, but it really is where wealthy Berliners built summer homes at the turn of the century, in order to enjoy the forests and lakes. My goal today was the house where the Wannsee conference was held.

In films, such as "Conspiracy" or even in Lanzmann's "Shoah," I had gotten the impression of a large, isolated mansion. In fact, it is located on a side street of similar summer homes and, while set back from the street, is not any further back than the houses of its neighbors, nor is it significantly larger. The house is in no way remarkable, other than the fact that the implementation of Nazi genocide was planned there.

Not the decision to commit genocide; that was made some (maybe 2-3) months before by Hitler and Himmler. This was where Himmler's assistant, Richard Heydrich, gathered the leading bureaucrats together to agree to his leadership of this project. When he was assisinated a few months later by Czech partisans, the named the major death camps in his honor.

Even though the house has recently undergone extensive renovations, no one bothered to add air conditioning, so we all had the soft drip drip of sweat from the humidity, accentuated by the heat from the display lighting. The display on the origins of racism, the rise of antisemitism, the rise of the Nazis and the increasing persecution of the Jews is all handled quite well, as is the material covering the early years of the war. The exhibit nicely distinguishes between the murderous policies of the Nazis during the first two years of the war and the growing extermination campaign that began with the invasion of the Soviet Union.

At that point, we move into the conference room itself, where the surviving copy of the protocols (and an English translation) is on display in the center of the room, so that one can read for oneself the complete text (it's not very long). On the walls, there are biographies of the participants, with each ending with the individual's fate after the war. Those who didn't die in the fighting, rarely received more than a few year's imprisonment for their actions. It was Stalin who said that the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.

I decided not to have lunch next door, but instead walked 10 minutes down the road to Max Liebermann's villa. I had noticed it from the bus, and I thought it would be much more pleasant place to eat. Liebermann was one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement in Germany, and by the 1920s had become the head of the Prussian Arts Academy. At the turn of the century, he built this summer house in Wannsee, and put particular emphasis on the garden, which he incorporated in many of his paintings. The house and gardens have recently been restored, and it was a nice respite from my earlier tour of the Wannsee Conference house.

Not that one can ever really escape awareness of the Holocause anywhere in Europe. Liebermann was Jewish and forced to resign his post by the Nazis in May 1933. At his 87th birthday party in 1935, the Nazis tried to discourage non-Jews from attending. Liebermann died later that year and his daughter and granddaughter escaped to America in 1938, but his widow was forced to give up the house in 1940 when it was "aryanized," and she committed suicide in 1943, when faced with deportation to the Theresienstadt ghetto.

After touring the house and gardens, which are lovely (but not airconditioned), I made my way to my last museum for this trip: the Brücke Museum in Dahlem. This was rather complicated, as I had to first take a bus, then the u-bahn, and then a second bus, but it wasn't that bad. The museum is small, but quite enjoyable. The current exhibition strongly emphasizes the work of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, with several works showing the strong emphasis of Seurault, Van Gogh, and other French Impressionists and particularly Post-Impressionists on the work of these German artists at the forefront of German Expressionism. A truly delightful museum and well worth the small effort to find it.

My only trouble was not buying the set of 3 large exhibition catalogues on sale for an absurdly low price. I just kept reminding myself that even if I threw out all my clothes so that it would fit, it would still weigh too much to lift repeatedly, as I will have to the next few days.

So now all that's left is to find some souvenirs as gifts for my niece and nephews, and have dinner. Today is really the last full day of being a tourist. Tomorrow morning I'll make a quick stop at the Schönhauser Allee Cemetery, where the man who founded my profession, Dr. Leopold Zunz is buried. Then one quick visit to KaDeWe again before taking the express train to Frankfurt. After that, I'll really be more in transit than on vacation. I have to get up ungodly early on Tuesday for my flight back to the States.

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