Report from Germany: A Visit to Bebelplatz

Bebelplatz, with St. Hedwigs Cathedral in the rear, Berlin, Germany.

Bebelplatz, with St. Hedwigs Cathedral in the rear, Berlin, Germany.

By Robert Israel

Today is an overcast afternoon, many decades after the hammer and sickle flag was hoisted precariously on the buildings in this once divided city by the conquering Soviet armies. There are no sounds of tanks or mortar fire in Berlin this afternoon, only the sing-song of a hurdy-gurdy man. Tourists toss coins to a monkey who crackles and deposits the coins into a tin cup; right on cue, he tips his little red cap as his trainer proclaims “Danke!” and the crowd applauds.

Looking at this street scene near St. Hedwig’s Cathedral reminds me of my own childhood in St. Michael’s parish, South Providence, Rhode Island, when so many families paraded their over-dressed freshly scrubbed children down the street closed to Sunday traffic. There was a trained monkey on a chain then, too, performing for the children. There were balloons, peddlers pushing wooden carts, the aroma of popcorn pop-pop-popping.

There are different memories attributed to this place in the center of Berlin.

It was here where the Kristtnacht bonfires were lit, November 9-10, 1938. Books were burned. Synagogues and Jewish stores were razed, plundered. There was cackling then, too, Walpurgisnacht howls of jackbooted thugs and the sickening sound flames make when they lick the sky.

Today in Bebelplatz people order sandwiches and beer, haggle for bargains from pushcarts, they listen to a calliope while helping their children off a carousel, and they toss pfennigs to a trained monkey who wears a little red cap. So, if everything is rosy here, why am I so jumpy when a sudden gust of wind snaps and unfurls the carousel’s tri-colored banners?

At the edge of Bebelplatz is a bronze plaque embedded into a brick wall. In untranslated German it tells of the “twisted Nazi mentality” that let loose the hellfires of the Holocaust. There is no other sign, no further evidence to remind anyone of the past. This is a place that has risen from the rubble and now stands gleaming, all glass and steel. The repetitive music from the calliope and the carousel’s endless spinning almost succeed in lulling me into a reverie of calm; I am dizzy, swaying in a hypnotic spell of wonderment, nostalgia.

But then when I hear the snap of the tri-colored flag, I remember that no carousel, no calliope can erase those memories, or disguise those scars.

Robert Israel can be reached at A previous version of this piece appeared in The Jewish Advocate (Boston).


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