Columns | First Person | Local | News

A transformed Berlin beckons to Jewish Federation representatives

Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin on Feb. 19. “The photo,” he says, “does not even begin to capture the power of walking through and finding the pillars dwarfing you as they grow to 15 feet in the center of the installation.”

I sat between Grandmother and Aunt Etta.

I never had a chance.

Grandmother would point to

her forearm, the numbers tattooed there …

and that’s how I learned to count.


I sat between Grandmother and Aunt Etta.

Between spoonfuls of regret they fed me:

“From this you shouldn’t know

And may you never forget.”

— Excerpt from “Where I Sat” by Richard Michelson

Berlin wasn’t on my bucket list, for all the obvious reasons. I was invited by Da’at Travel, along with representatives of other Jewish Federations, with the hope that the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona might organize a community trip there. The response from my Tucson friends when I mentioned my upcoming trip ranged from “What a great city” to “I will never travel to Germany.”

I arrived in Berlin on Feb. 19. The juxtaposition of the beautiful city and its heinous history hit me square in the face one morning. I had given myself the gift of an hour alone before our day’s program began and strolled through a beautiful square, stopping to take a photo, enjoying the sunlight and the spectacular architecture. Not two hours later I found myself back in that same square, where our tour educator paused to show us a photo of Hitler addressing a Nazi rally that took place on that very spot. A beautiful city indeed — with an inescapable past.

There were high points on our compressed three-day trip. We met with Birthright students, parents and toddlers participating in a Federation-supported “Bambinim” program and 20-somethings from a “Studentim” program; all these programs are designed to nurture Jewish community engagement. We celebrated Shabbat in the Rykestrasse Synagogue and were treated to a Shabbat dinner at the home of Rabbi Josh Spinner, the CEO of the Ronald Lauder Foundation. Members of the Berlin Jewish community joined us and helped us understand the community’s Russian-dominated makeup, largely the result of massive immigration since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But the most profound awakening for me was how earnestly this current generation of Germans is encountering their past. Berlin contains a series of memorials and monuments, the most potent being the block-long Peter Eisenman-designed Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe located on prime real estate in the center of the city, which cannot be avoided. We viewed the Burning Books Memorial at Bebelplatz; some of the “Stumbling Stones,” the 30,000 commemorative memorial bricks to Jewish Holocaust victims placed throughout German towns and cities; and numerous other memorial sites. Emotions overtook me at Gleis 17 (Track 17), the memorial at the train station where 50,000 Berlin Jews were shipped via railcar to death camps — primarily Ausch­witz. Most impressive, as advertised, was Daniel Leibeskind’s world-renowned Jewish Museum.

Resistant as I was to my Berlin experience, it is undeniable that Berlin today is a more moral place because the current generation takes seriously their encounter with the past. It was apparently not until the 1990s that this process began in earnest, but for 25 years the government has been devoted to teaching the lessons of the Holocaust, instituting the most far-reaching and comprehensive education of the next generation on our planet.

For me, the timing of this visit could not have been better, as our Jewish community undertakes the culmination of a 30-year vision to create an expanded Holocaust History Center at Tucson’s Jewish History Museum in partnership with the Federation (see page 1). This expanded center will teach our children and our entire Tucson community about the Shoah through a state-of-the- art exhibition and highly refined programming. My Berlin experience was a powerful reminder that our investments today can enable us to actualize the essence of the closing line of Richard Michelson’s poem … “From this you shouldn’t know, and may you never forget.”

(Stuart Mellan is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.)