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Searching for Signs of Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust in Berlin

 

The unique feature of the extermination camps is not that the Germans exterminated millions of people—that this is possible has been accepted in our picture of man, though not for centuries has it happened on that scale, and perhaps never with such callousness. What was new, unique, terrifying, was that millions, like lemmings, marched themselves to their own death. That is what is incredible; this we must come to understand.

—Bruno Bettelheim

Take the U2 to Senefelderplatz and walk one block north on Schönhauser Allee. Iron gates set in a large marble wall lead into the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin. There is a tray on a table with yarmulkas, and I take one. This is the third time in my life that I have worn one; the first was when I was three or four. I was at the funeral of my grandmother, who had immigrated to the United States from Persia around 1920. The second time I was two weeks short of twenty—my uncle Sid’s funeral. My research partner, Anna-Delia, has been here several times before, and she draws me to the large black stone that stands near the entrance, next to the tiny office. It reads:

When you stand here in silence, though

When you look behind you

There is only silence, the silent night.

She translates the German, and I stand with my back to a building enclosed in marble and glass. Inside are beautiful gravestones, tall, majestic. “Are these stones for sale?” I ask. 

“No. Those are the stones that they don’t know where they go.” Unsure of her meaning and thinking something has been lost in translation, I ask for clarification. “Well, the Nazis knocked over so many stones. After the war, people weren’t sure where all the stones belonged.” 

We turn to the cemetery and start to walk. It looks like a landscape of ruins from another age. Hundreds and hundreds of stones rest under a canopy of trees twenty to forty meters above: an abandoned city, the city of the dead. Many of the stones are broken or toppled, and all are covered in ivy which grows up from the ground as if trying to swallow the stones; the earth swallowing up the dead. As we walk through the sea of stones, birds sing and the sun shines on the graves, one side of which is usually engraved with Hebrew, the other German. 

We walk to the left from the entrance, and Anna-Delia points out the broken columns scattered across the cemetery. “These are people who died young. The column is broken because their lives were cut off early.” The graves we see from 1938 and 1939 are made of cement, shabby in comparison to the elegant marble which decorates the burial places of those who died before the Third Reich. Their money stolen by the Nazis, the Jews could not afford proper tombstones, though at least they were buried. Those who were deported were given “a grave in the air” as the poet Paul Celan wrote. 

As we are about to turn right, we stumble across a square fence, one meter tall and wide on each side. The fence encloses a hole covered with a metal grate. The hole is lined with bricks, and I feel as though I am looking down a chimney. A small, unmemorable plaque reads: “Their aim was to prevent the death of others, and that was their death. Here enemies of war hid in the end of 1944. They were discovered by the SS, hanged in the trees, and hastily buried.” 

The office staff of the cemetery doesn’t know how the monument came into existence or what it commemorates. Neither does the Jewish Community of Berlin. We check the book Memorials for the Victims of the National Socialism II, which describes the monuments of Berlin. All that it lists is the inscription on the plaque, though we do find out that in 1997 the cemetery was vandalized and twenty-seven gravestones were smashed. The police denied that the vandals had any anti-Semitic motivations. 

In some sense, the memorial in this cemetery is indicative of the memory of the Jewish resistance to the Third Reich in Berlin. The resistance is rarely focused on, and when it does come into the picture, it is in the periphery. The memorials, physical landmarks of our collective memory, are paradoxically unmemorable, like the plaque in the cemetery. Only one man seems to be remembered among Jewish resistors in Berlin: Herbert Baum. 

Herbert Baum was a Jewish communist in the Berlin underground movement during the Nazi reign. Baum had taken a job as an electrician, though in his spare time he coordinated resistance against the Nazis. He, along with his wife Marianne Baum, headed a group of communist resistors which met in drawing rooms and discussed issues of resistance to the Nazi regime. As many as 100 hundred youths participated in some of the meetings, and the group set to work distributing anti-Nazi leaflets and painting anti-Nazi slogans under bridges. Baum’s group, though, is almost exclusively remembered for the arson attack of the Nazi propaganda exhibit, “Soviet Union, Paradise,” which was held in the Berliner Lustgarten. The group failed to destroy the exhibit; the fire merely closed the exhibit for one day. However, as an act of resistance it was a success. 

The Nazis in return rounded up 500 people, most of them Jewish, and deported 258 to Sachsenhausen, where they were immediately shot. Their relatives were deported to Theresienstadt. Later, 250 were sent to Auschwitz via Sachsenhausen. The New York Times ran an article on the resistance shortly after it happened, but after obtaining the figures on how many people the Nazis had arrested, they assumed that the act of resistance was much larger than in actuality. The Nazis apprehended Baum, who died after several days of torture. 

Now, as Anna-Delia and I set out on a quest to discover what remains of the Jewish resistance to the Holocaust in Berlin, Herbert Baum seems to confront us at every turn in the search. This quest is somewhat personal; Anna-Delia’s father, according to Nazi race laws, was a Halbjude (half-Jew) who, as a boy during WWII, was brought up in hiding by his Aryan grandfather, a German WWI hero. I am further removed. My father, also Jewish, studied under Bruno Bettelheim, who cemented the idea in the general public that there had been no German Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. Scholarship on the matter, which points to the contrary, was only developed in detail in the 1970s, and even so, most of the work that has been done has focused on the Polish ghetto uprisings. Marek Edelmann’s heroic fight in the ghetto of Warsaw and the poet Abba Kowner’s appeal to resist and to fight back in the ghetto of Vilnius have become famous all over the world. But what about the German Jews? What about the Jews in Berlin, the German capital? 

A few blocks from Potsdamer Platz on Stauffenbergstraße, past the Berlin Philharmonic, the city library, and the art museum, lies a dull mass of bricks and windows —the Benderblock. This complex of buildings, constructed around a courtyard was formerly the site of the leadership of the Armed Forces (Reichswehr). It was here on February 3, 1933 that Hitler declared his places for Lebensraum (“living-space”). Much later, on July 20, 1944, German military officers planned to kill Hitler and stage a coup. Today, the site houses the German Resistance Memorial Center (Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand). The first exhibit opened here in 1968 after the surviving members of the resistance lobbied the Berlin Senate. The first exhibit consisted of presentations in three of the historical rooms. In the 1980s, the exhibit was dramatically expanded; in 1983 a small amount of information on Jewish resistance was included. The museum now has twenty-six sections. 

The texts of the museum are exclusively in German, but I manage to navigate the museum with the help of an audio-guide, a clunky, phone-like contraption that looks somewhat like an old car-phone, and a small English book which Anna-Delia purchased at the counter. The book is eighty-seven pages long, and only two of the pages are devoted to Jewish resistance. On one page, under the title “Self-Image and Self-Assertion” (Selbstbehauptung), the book includes some vague background information about Jewish identity being threatened and then one sentence about Jews forming their own sports clubs and the Jewish Cultural Federation (Kulturbund), the cultural center that the Jews formed after they were forbidden from pre-existing cultural events. The next page, under the title “Defiance and Resistance” (Widerstand), spends a few sentences listing concentration camp and ghetto uprisings. The majority of the book discusses German military resistance to Hitler and reads almost like an apology for the German military in the Second World War. The book seems to say, “It was Hitler’s fault, not the people or military of Germany.” 

The book, though, is paralleling the exhibition. Of the twenty-six sections in the museum, only one is devoted to Jewish resistance. Pictures of the Herbert Baum hang on the wall with an explanation of his group’s attempt to destroy the anti-communist exhibit, “Soviet Union, Paradise.” There are also a few pictures from the Jewish Cultural Federation, the museum’s only nod to “self-assertion,” though the director says that a museum is working to develop a new memorial site in Rosenstrasse, which will be devoted to Jewish resistance. Disappointed with the scant material on Jewish resistance, we exit the Gedenkstätte and walk into the courtyard. In the courtyard stands a bronze man eight feet tall. Naked, he looks forward coldly. A meter or two in front of him on the courtyard floor, a plaque reads: 

You could not endure the shame

You resisted

You gave the great

Eternally Vital

Sign of change

Sacrificing your glaring lives

For freedom,

Justice and honor.

This, of course, commemorates Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944. The sculpture stands tall and strong, an ode to German Widerstand. 

In the Berliner Lustgarten, next to the Berliner Dom, we find a concrete cube with plexi-glass panels affixed to the four sides perpendicular to the ground. Beneath the panels, we can see letters rising out of the concrete. This monument was erected by the GDR in 1981. It is the most famous and prominent reminder of the Jewish resistance in Berlin, not a terrific feat considering there are only a handful. When the memorial was first designed, it failed to mention that Baum was Jewish and that most of the group was Jewish. Rather, the text on the monument, which is now very difficult to read because of the heavily scratched plexi-glass installed over it, emphasizes the fight against fascism and Baum’s commitment to communism. 

The plexi-glass panels, installed in 1986, retell the story of Baum’s group, emphasizing that the majority of the members were Jewish and recount the Nazi retribution of arresting 500 Jews, “who were further victimized in Nazi reprisal,” all of which the original monument omitted. The text is written in German, English, French, and Russian, though the English translation fails to mention, as the others do, that Baum’s group was comprised mainly of Jews. 

The obvious next-step seems to be to find the memorial on Baum’s gravesite. We take the M4 tram to the Weißensee neighborhood and get off at Berliner Allee, where we walk a few blocks northeast, past an underwear store and a discount shop. There, we come across Herbert-Baum-Straße. This is East-Berlin, so it makes sense for a street to be named after Baum, the Jewish communist who spear-headed the attempt to destroy the Nazi exhibit denigrating the Soviet Union.

We turn right on this street and head towards the Jewish cemetery where he is buried, the largest Jewish cemetery in all of Europe. The cemetery’s entryway is barred by an enormous iron gate, behind which a courtyard is encircled by beige brick buildings. In the center of the courtyard is a stone commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. We enter through the side door, and I wear a yarmulka, the fourth time in my life. 

Herbert Baum’s grave lies at the beginning of the mausoleums and gravestones, which span acres. His gravestone is made of black marble. Baum’s name and birth and death dates are etched in gold paint, along with the words: “He was a model fighter against war and fascism.” On the back of the stone, names of Baum’s accomplices, starting with his wife, are to be read. The lower-most names are not visible. A row of bushes block our vision, erasing these names from public memory. As we stand there, a few tourists walk by with telephoto lenses, probably on their way to the mausoleums. 

There are other memorials to the Baum group—a plaque above Gipsstraße, where two of his accomplices lived and the group often met. There is also a memorial near Rosa Luxemburg-Platz, the Monument of Historical Change, which commemorates old memorials that have either been destroyed or changed. The Herbert Baum Memorial from outside the Berliner Dome is poorly replicated in its 1981 state before the plexi-glass panels were attached. The focus of this monument, which is comprised of several other monuments that have been destroyed or changed, is not Baum or Jewish resistance but the changing of monuments to accord with current historiography. This monument, esoteric as it might seem, gets at the truth that Berlin is covered in monuments—to the point that it needs a monument to commemorate monuments. In a city saturated with them, individual monuments fade into the cityscape, where a few prominent memorials rise about the rest. Only the curious individual with time to stop, most likely a tourist, a non-Berliner, will have time to pay attention to the stone and glass edifices which direct our attention to a forgotten past.  As Anna-Delia and I stopped at each monument while people walked by, uncaring, or perhaps to busy to stop, I recalled the words of the Polish poet, Csezlaw Milosz: 

“Meanwhile the city behaved in accordance with its nature,

Rustling with throaty laughter in the dark,

Baking long breads and pouring wine into clay pitchers,

Buying fish, lemons, and garlic at street markets,

Indifferent as it was to honor and shame and greatness and glory,

Because that had been done already and had transformed itself

Into monuments representing nobody knows whom,

Into arias hardly audible and into turns of speech.”

 

Yes, the Jewish Resistance was done already, and we are indifferent. And if you look for any further for signs of it - you will not find anything but a small plaque above a hole whose story has been lost.

Near the Hackescher Markt a massive memorial sits in a park filled with the noise from loud Americans at the hostel across the street. The monument commemorates the Rosenstraße protests in which German women protested the deportation of their husbands, who were eventually released. Enormous red stones have been hewn by an artist to show strong women rising up together. Across the lawn, there is an advertising column, but instead of being plastered with concert ads, it is filled with detailed information about the protests. Yet that was not an act of Jewish resistance but German resistance on behalf of Jewish men.  

From the Rosenstraße memorial, one can walk through Hackescher Markt, past the tourists sipping wine under neon palm trees, to the Otto Weidt Museum. The museum tells about Otto Weidt, who, in Nazi times, employed many blind Jewish workers in his workshop, allowing them to escape deportation temporarily. Otto Weidt, however, was not Jewish. 

After a week and half of tramping around Berlin, we were both exhausted. Privately, I had begun to question the task at hand. Perhaps Bettleheim was right. Then, a phone call. For several days, Anna-Delia had tried to contact Fritz Teppich, a German Jew who had escaped Berlin and become an officer in the Spanish Civil War. Now he had called her and agreed to an interview. So we took the S7 down to Grunewald, a suburb of Berlin and also where more than 50,000 Jews were deported from Berlin to concentration camps. There, in an apartment filled with stale air and old books, we met Fritz Teppich. Teppich’s wife brought some coffee and cookies, and he started to talk….and talk. Teppich talked for four hours. He talked about the Kempinski Hotel, a famous, elegant hotel in Berlin which his family used to own but was taken from them in Aryanization, a process in which a Jewish business was overtaken by its non-Jewish competitor. He talked about his affairs, about making love to women in the war. He talked about fighting for Spain. I know this only because Anna-Delia told me. After a few hours, Anna-Delia finally prodded him to talk about Jewish Resistance . 

After we left his apartment, we looked at the memorial for the deportees by the Grunewald station. Then we stopped at a café for a sandwich and a beer. Not knowing German, I sat in my chair for the past four hours sipping coffee and trying to not look bored while Teppich spoke to Anna. Periodically he would run off to the bathroom or to grab a photograph or newspaper clipping that mentioned him, and I would frantically ask for information. Now all I wanted was a beer and an account of the past four hours. Anna, almost in tears, explained to me what Fritz Teppich had said: “Resistance? There was no resistance. I had to pull myself out of there. I fought. There was no Jewish resistance there.”  

Yet there was Jewish resistance in Berlin. A travelling exhibit in the early 1990s documented three groups of resistors, the Herbert Baum group, “The Community for Peace and Reconstruction,” and “Chug Chaluzi.” The later two groups were primarily involved in assisting fugitive Jews, helping them to escape Germany. “The Community for Peace and Reconstruction” operated just outside of Berlin, while the members of Zionist youth underground organisation “Chug Chaluzi” managed to survive amidst the hurricane in the capital of Nazi Germany. At first Chug Chaluzi focused on the organization of emigration to Palestine. With the rise of terror they concentrated more and more on survival. This resistance was devoted to assisting Jews in the underground who were deprived of means of subsistence, providing them with food, false identity papers, finding safe shelters for them, supporting them morally and spiritually. An entry in the diary of one of the leaders of the organization, Nathan Schwalb, reveals that though the group was not participating in armed resistance as the Baum group did, they were resisting nonetheless. He wrote 1943 before he could escape to Switzerland: “With every life we save we combat Hitler.” The general public perception has been slow to accept that view, though. 

Instead, what is mentioned is violent resistance, as in the case of the Baum group, whose leaflets are always forgotten. The English-language entry on Wikipedia for “Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust” does quote Martin Gilbert’s book, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy: “Even passivity was a form of resistance. To die with dignity was a form of resistance….Simply to survive was a victory of the human spirit.” However, the majority of the entry discusses military resistance and uprisings—Widerstand, as in the case of the German Resistance Memorial Center. The entry closes with lists of partisan groups and resistance fighters. Wikipedia, though by no means scientific, can function as a litmus test of the general perception of Jewish resistance. Broadly speaking, the idea of resistance is reserved for violent resistance, Widerstand. The prominent cases of Widerstand (ghetto uprisings, Herbert Baum) obscure the resistance of those who waged a battle for survival in the passive resistance. This “self-assertion,” and the non-violent forms of resistance such as daring to pray when not allowed, forming various Jewish organizations dedicated to culture and sport, and even smuggling Jews out to other countries, are relegated to fat tomes housing historical studies that the general public does not read. Perhaps the most balanced view of Jewish resistance in Berlin comes from the Jewish Museum, famously designed by Daniel Libeskind and located just south of Check-Point Charley. The museum, which documents Jewish life in Germany from its inception to the present, is only partially devoted to the Holocaust. Yet within the portion that focuses on the Holocaust, the museum has a section devoted to resistance—Widerstand and Selbstbehauptung. The museum even acknowledges the question that Bettelheim and others affirmed: “Did ‘the Jews’ passively and fatalistically accept their persecution and murder.” The museum displays answers in the negative, continuing: “From 1933 a tight network of communal self-help was created. Until October 1941 this network aided emigration to the relative safety of foreign countries.” The display points out that even after 1941, the resistance did not stop. Pictures of Herbert Baum are exhibited on the walls. The display notes that there were a variety of resistance actions, apart from the violent resistance of the Baum group. Some Jews refused to wear the yellow star while others carried out acts of sabotage during forced labor or wrote leaflets. There are pictures of “Chug Chaluzi”, and Gad Beck, the leader of the group during the later half of the war. The display goes on to say that “The attempt to flee or to go into hiding was another act of self-assertion, as was the more drastic decision to commit suicide.” The resistance display also includes pictures and information of the protest in Rosenstraße and the Otto Weidt workshop, reminding us that Germans also resisted and helped Jews escape the grasp of the Nazis. 

George Orwell famously wrote that “Who controls the past controls the future.” In the case of the Jewish resistance, one has to wonder if he is not right. Today, all we see of the Jewish resistance are displays of ghetto uprisings and a few communist memorials to Herbert Baum. Little else is said. What does it mean for Jews to be always thought of victims, or worse, the lambs obediently following the Nazis to their own slaughter? It is important and necessary to remember those who suffered and died in the Holocaust. In fact, Jewish resistance in Berlin, in Germany, or worldwide, should not be the focal point in memorializing and documenting the Holocaust. The resistance that did occur is a small event in the narrative of the killing of Jews by Germans. Yet, as Zygmunt Bauman points out in his book, Modernity and the Holocaust, “Memory of suffering does not ensure a lifelong dedication to the fight against inhumanity, cruelty, and pain infliction as such, wherever they happen and whoever the sufferers.” Memory of resistance cannot ensure a renewed dedication to continue to fight injustice, but maybe it can remind us that it’s still possible.

 

References

 

Personal interview with Fritz Teppich, Berlin, July 1, 2007

German Resistance Memorial Center: Resistance to National Socialism. Accompanying Book to the Exhibition. 

http://www.weisbord.org/Professor.htm

Bauman, Zygmunt: Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989). 

Gedenkstätten für die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus II (Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 2002).

Löhken, Winfried and Werner Vathke: Juden im Widerstand (Berlin: Edition Hentrich 1993).

 

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