BERLIN -- A cold dampness hovers over the streets and the skies turn bleak and dark early in the afternoon. Nevertheless, 'tis the season to be jolly. More than 50 Christmas markets celebrate the season, and none is as unusual as the one here at 14 Lindenstrasse behind the provocative new Jewish Museum, lit by a huge Hanukkah menorah and traditional Christmas decorations celebrating an exhibition titled "Chrismukkah."
Here, Christians and Jews gather to share a warm glass of Gluhwein, the seasonal spicy wine, warming the hands and lifting the spirit, or to nibble a potato latke or a stollen, the Christmas cake studded with dried fruit. The strains of "Maoz Zur," the most popular Hanukkah song with lyrics set to the melody of "Rock of Ages," soar over the gathering. The notes hark to a 15th century German folk song incorporated into chorals of Christian faith by Martin Luther.
Germans, like Americans, argue over the politically correct language of the season, but the Jewish Museum puts things into perspective, tracing the origins of the religious, cultural, commercial and political images associated with both Christmas and Hanukkah. A display of Bing Crosby’s "White Christmas" album is displayed at the entrance with a photograph of der Bingle, and the old crooner’s distinctive voice wafts through the hallways as a reminder that "White Christmas" was written by Israeli Isidore Baline, better known as Irving Berlin, who spoke Yiddish before he spoke English. Someone once asked him how a Jew could write the signature secular hymn of the Christian holiday, and he replied: "I wrote it as an American."
The exhibition is filled with such ironies, revealing the way traditions can lift the spirit or plunge it into despair, depending on who’s in charge of the message. A photograph from 1932, taken from inside the window of a rabbi’s home, depicts a graceful menorah with its candles lighting the windowsill and, beyond it, a Nazi swastika hanging from a rooftop across the street. A cartoon depicts a menorah morphing into a Christmas tree, satirizing the customs of German Jews whose assimilation could not save them from the "final solution." On display are Christmas-tree ornaments decorated with swastikas and other symbols of the Third Reich, wooden angels transformed into "winged end-of-the-year figures" of the socialist German Democratic Republic, and an American menorah made with tiny replicas of the Statue of Liberty as candleholders.
An episode of the American television series "The O.C." portrays the "December Dilemma" for protagonist Seth Cohen, who isn’t sure how he should celebrate the holiday season with his Jewish father and Christian mother. He wears a hat combining a Jewish yarmulke and a Santa cap, which he calls a "yarmaclaus." As testimony to the kitschification of seasonal taste, the "yarmaclaus" sold out before you could say "Judah Maccabee."
Christmas and Hanukkah in Berlin are rife with tragic memories of the Third Reich, and its streets are haunted by the ghosts of Jewish souls whose names are commemorated with bronze plaques, marking the spot where men, women and children were ripped from their homes and sent to death camps. But every time a visitor is tempted to blame every German for the Holocaust, he finds another example of the "Righteous Gentiles," the many heroic men and women who saved Jews because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Tucked away in an alley at 39 Rosenthalerstrasse in Mitte, a tiny museum now under renovation commemorates one Otto Weidt, a Gentile paperhanger who set up a small brush-and-broom factory for sheltered blind and deaf Jews to use their skilled hands to work with straw. After the SS raided the factory and arrested the Jews, Herr Weidt marched down to the transit camp where they awaited deportation to the death camps and, at great personal risk, insisted his employees were doing valuable work for the Third Reich. He "convinced" them with extravagant bribes. In subsequent raids, he hid Jews in a tiny room whose door was camouflaged by a cupboard until an informer told the Gestapo where they were hidden. Most eventually died at Auschwitz, but two survivors tell on videotape of their memories.
The Talmud, the sacred book of the Jews, teaches that "to save one life is as if you have saved the world." This is a message for all seasons wherever and whoever we may be. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah.