Written by Tom Bielik and Nickolai Todorov
On the night of Saturday, October 18, 1941, more than a thousand of the Berliner Jews were forced to silently walk the seven kilometers from the Levetzovstrasse synagogue to the Grunewald train station, from where they were taken by a train to Litzmanstadt, 400 kilometers in the east. From there, they were transported to concentration camps in eastern Europe. This was the first transport of Berliner Jews. Altogether, from 1941 to 1945, about 52,000 out of the 73,000 Jews still living in Berlin at the time were transported to concentration and extermination camps, most of them would never come back.
In this article, we provide a suggestion for people in Berlin to independently walk the trail which the Jews were forced to take that night 80 years ago. The suggested trail includes several landmarks related to the Jewish life in Berlin and events that took place around that time, which are detailed below. The walk takes about two hours, depending on the individual pace. The suggested route can be found in this Google map link. We invite you to walk the trail in remembrance of the victims, at your own time and pace, and to reflect on how these atrocities are relevant to our lives today, where racist and anti-Semitic events still occur in Germany and around the world.
Levetzowstrasse Synagogue memorial site
The construction of the Levetzowstrasse Synagogue began in 1914 and it was not completed until 1919. It was intended to become the focal point for the growing Jewish population of the district of Moabit and the adjacent area of Hansaviertel. The interior space could once seat up to 2,100 people, distinguishing it as one of Berlin’s largest synagogues at the time. The structure was only slightly damaged during the November Kristallnacht Pogrom of 1938. This is the reason why in 1941, the Gestapo had converted it into a detention center for the Berliner Jews chosen to be transported in the various concentration camps scattered across eastern Europe. An estimated 20,000 Berliners got to spend their final nights inside the structure before they were murdered in the death camps. Two of the victims among the many, were the synagogue’s main Rabbi, Julius Lewkowitz and his wife, who died in Auschwitz in 1943. The building was severely damaged by the allied bombings at the end of the war, and in 1955 the ruins were further demolished by the city of West Berlin. Since 1960, there has been an active memorial present, commemorating the victims of the place.
The Synagogue on Pestalozzi street was commissioned at the turn of the 20th century by a local businesswoman named Betty Sophie Jacobsohn. The architect’s name is Ernst Dorn and he enabled the inner courtyard structure to seat up to 1,400 people. The Nazis inflicted severe damage to the building during Kristallnacht, on the 9th of November 1938. However, due to its close proximity to the neighboring residential buildings, the synagogue was not set on fire and thus survived the war. The Jewish community repaired the structure in 1947 and it is currently famous for being one of the very few pre-war synagogues that is still in use today. The congregation proudly continues to serve the traditions of liberal Judaism in Berlin and its religious services include the use of both an organ and a mixed choir.
The impressive Schaubühne architectural site was designed by the famous German Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), who was mostly known for his Art Deco and streamline modern style. He designed several buildings in Germany, England, Israel and the USA, among them the Einstein tower in Potsdam and the Weizmann residence in Israel. In light of the growing antisemitism and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Mendelsohn escaped to England in 1933. In 1941 he moved to the USA, where he was involved in several projects, among them is the design of the ‘German Village’ during WWII for the US Army. This was a real-size replica of typical German city streets, that was used to test the effect of firebombing of German cities during the war. One of Mendelsohn’s most impressive designs was the Schaubühne cinema at Lehniner platz in 1928, part of the WOGA complex on the central Kurfürstendamm boulevard in Berlin. This site also included a shopping center, housing buildings and a hotel. The structure itself has an impressive shape that interacts with the connected housing buildings and shopping center. After being severely damaged during second world war, the Schaubühne was restored and reopened in 1969 as a theater and concert hall.
Walther Rathenau memorial site
Walther Rathenau was a Jewish industrialist and politician, born in September 1867. He was involved in the German war economy during the first world war, after which serving as the foreign minister in the Weimar republic. On June 1922, Rathenau was assassinated while driving his car from his home in Grunewald to his office. After coming to power in 1933, Nazis banned all commemoration of Rathenau. The memorial site, which was built in 1946, is located near the place where the assassination took place.
Platform 17 memorial site at Grunewald station
From this station, located in the suburbs of the city, most Berliner Jews had been deported to the concentration and death camp in eastern Europe. Initially, the trains from Grunewald were heading towards Łódź, Warsaw, Minsk, Kaunas and Riga, but after 1942 they took a direct route towards Auschwitz and the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. A total of 32 trains deported about 17,000 Berliner Jews from the notorious Platform 17 alone, which is now a memorial site commissioned by the Deutsche Bahn, who acknowledge their role in the atrocities of the Holocaust. That same company, which was named the Deutsche Reichsbahn at the time, used to charge people tickets for the cattle cars. Adults had to pay 4 pfennigs for every kilometer, and children 2. In addition to the memorial at platform 17, there is a sculpture situated at the main entry of the station done by the Polish artist named Karol Broniatowski, commemorating the victims of the Nazi deportations.
It had been 80 years since the beginning of the forced transportation of the Berliner Jewish. This was just a small part of the larger atrocity that was happening to Jews and other minorities throughout Europe by the Nazi regime and their collaborators at the time. Much remains to be learned about how those horrible events came to take place, and how we can make sure such atrocities will never happen again, especially in light of the increasing amount of racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic incidents happening in Germany and around the world. We encourage you to walk the path of the transported Berliner Jews as an opportunity to reflect on how these events are still relevant to our lives today, and call for tolerance, justice and freedom for all people, regardless of their religion, race or gender.
This article was written by Tom Bielik, a science education researcher at Freie Universität Berlin and Nickolai Todorov (email@example.com), a certified tour guide in Berlin.