Suzanne Fields

BERLIN - Berlin is an ugly city of considerable beauty. Historical memory, like its architecture, is an aesthetic mix of emotions - crude and sumptuous, vulgar and ambitious, hateful and generous. A Jewish visitor walking through the modern metropolis is aggressively assaulted by monuments testifying to the evil of the previous century, while declaring the 21st-century German's willingness to reflect on this cruel past while looking with an energetic spirit to a better future.

Nothing about Berlin is static. A tourist rides a roller coaster of attitudes through an artless design that challenges the spirit to accept that the past is past. The subway station at Hausvogteiplatz is a metaphor for the New Berlin. The visitor climbs from the underground into the light on steps memorializing each of the textile factories that were "Aryanized" by the Nazis in the 1930s.

"Aryanization," or "transfer of Jewish businesses to Aryan hands," was how Jews were forced to sell their businesses for prices far below their actual value. The Berlin fashion industry disappeared from this neighborhood with "Aryanization."

Several generations of the Mendelssohn family presided over the family's bank in the neighborhood until the Nazis "Aryanized" it. Though the Mendelssohns had converted to Christianity, the Nazis considered them unreconstructed Jews anyway. Berliners recently placed a bronze plaque at the entrance of the building that once housed the bank. It's engraved with a crane, the Mendelssohn family's logo, emblematic of vigilance, duty and responsibility.

The Mendelssohns were typical of Jews often regarded by others of their race as more German than Jewish, contributors to the business and cultural life of Berlin before Hitler. The Mendelssohn women held salons for great German writers, artists and composers.

Moses Mendelssohn, founder of the family dynasty, entered Berlin in the middle of the 18th century through the only gate open to the Jews - the gate for pigs and cows. Although he became known as the "German Socrates," and once edged Emanuel Kant for first prize in a contest sponsored by the philosophical society of Berlin, he suffered many personal indignities simply for his race, indignities illustrated in the city's Jewish Museum.

More than any other European country, Germany confronts its history of anti-Semitism (sometimes with a heavy hand) through museums, monuments, libraries and conferences, extensively documenting the horrors of the Holocaust. But anti-Semitism survives, in two varieties.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

Be the first to read Suzanne Fields' column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.

©Creators Syndicate