An Interesting Anniversary

October 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

The Berlin Jewish Museum is 10 years old.

There was a big fancy party yesterday. I wasn’t invited. I’m not a big shot (yet?), but that’s okay. Most times you don’t find the real stories in the big celebration parties, though the food is usually good and there’s free wine and champagne.

Oh well.

The Jewish Museum is a very interesting building. Here’s an aerial view.

It was designed by Daniel Liebeskind. It kinda looks like a distorted swastztika. Here’s what the entrance looks like:

The museum has been really successful. Since it opened in 2001 there have been 7.3 million visitors from more than 40 countries. About 100,000 people have taken advantage of the museum’s educational offerings. It’s a very nice museum and worth a visit.

But the museum’s director, W. Michael Blumenthal, is almost more interesting to me than the museum itself. History fans will recognize the name. He was Treasury secretary for much of the Carter Administration. The W stands for Werner. Mr. Blumenthal is Jewish and was born in Oranienburg, just outside of Berlin. Here’s what he looked like back then:

His family moved to Berlin when he was very little and they owned a women’s clothing store until Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, when Jewish store owners had their businesses destroyed. Jewish men were rounded up and taken to camps and Mr. Blumenthal’s father was no exception. They weren’t extermination camps — yet.

His dad was taken to the police station at Olivaer Platz, across the street from the family’s store, then transported to Alexanderplatz and then shipped to the Buchenwald camp. The family didn’t know at first where he was. Mr. Blumenthal’s mother told him to stay at home. He was 12. But he went out anyway and saw the synagogue on the Fasanstrasse burning — and the firemen standing there ready to protect the neighboring houses, should they catch on fire from the burning synagogue, but allowing the synagogue to burn.

His father was eventually released from Buchenwald and the family hastily left for Shanghai. It was April, 1939 and there really was no other place to go. They joined thousands of German and Austrian Jews there and stayed until 1947, when the family emigrated to the States. Mr. Blumenthal soon became an American citizen.

Much of this information I got from an interview published this past weekend in the Berliner Zeitung. For German readers here’s the link:

http://www.berliner-zeitung.de/magazin/interview-das-kommt-von-meinem-kinderfraeulein,10809156,11010460.html

I enjoyed reading the interview, but there were some parts that bothered me. The reporter asked Mr. Blumenthal

(Here’s what he looks like now– he’s 85) if he would sing the German national anthem at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Museum.

“Me? Sing along? Nah. I’m not German. I’ll smile and be happy. You have a reason to be proud of your country.”

Why would she think that he would sing the German national anthem? Strange.

Although Mr. Blumenthal is the museum’s director, he does not live in Berlin. He comes here five times a year for two weeks at a time. The reporter asked him if he ever thought about spending his remaining years in Berlin, “like other people who had to flee from the Nazis are doing.”

This was news to me — and something I definitely would like to check out. Most war refugees I have come in contact with either avoid Germany like the plague, or are certainly willing to visit, but that’s about it. In fact the German government organizes and pays for former refugees to come back to Germany to visit their childhood homes. I accompanied one of these trips years ago and remember that the local mayor greeted them with: “Welcome Home.” The visitors were a bit shocked by this. They considered America, Canada, South America or Israel to be their home — not Germany.

Mr. Blumenthal too. He told the reporter that he is American. That America has been very good to him and that he’s served three presidents, that his kids and grandkids are American and that his “home is there, not here.”

I must admit — this type of questioning or the “Welcome Home” comment really annoys me. I find it self-serving on the German part. To me it’s like the Germans saying — it’s okay. You can come back now. We’re not Nazis anymore.”

That’s true. Though Germany is of course not Nazi-free, these folks aren’t any stronger here than they are in the U.S. or other places. But of course that wasn’t always the case.

Mr. Blumenthal was asked who, from his childhood, does he think about the most when he is in Berlin.

“My school friends from the Kalisky-Schule.”  The school was actually known as the Privat Judische Waldschule Kaliski. He was sent there after it was forbidden for Jewish children to attend school with their “Aryan” neighbors. There’s an interesting article in the New York Times about the school’s reunion in 1992. Here’s the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/10/nyregion/no-ordinary-reunion-berlin-stories-from-special-alumni.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

Mr. Blumenthal remembers his school friends who made it out and those who were killed by the Nazis. Among the latter is Helmut Strauch. Helmut was Mr. Blumenthal’s best friend. He describes Helmut as a “German boy of Jewish religion, but he wasn’t even religious. I think about that a lot. If my father hadn’t been in Buchenwald and we hadn’t left the country immediately after he was freed — three months before the outbreak of the war — we would have been killed here in the same way.”

Mr. Blumenthal went on to an illustrious career in politics and business.

What would Helmut Strauch have become?

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§ 2 Responses to An Interesting Anniversary

  • reno21 says:

    Heritage and nationality are all a little confusing. My father was always German before he was Jewish, and maybe even before he was British, and in fact he and my mother talked about returning to Germany after the war. They didn’t. They stayed in England, and they became British (but never English). But he did go back to Berlin many times, and he and I even visited the house in Werder where the family lived after 1938. After he left the family was forced back to Berlin, and they were deported from there. I still have the letters — I do plan to give them to the Jewish museum one day.

    Anyway, long ramble, enjoying your musings.

  • Thanks Janet. Ramblings are always welcome. As you know many German Jews only figured out they were Jewish or really learned about anything Jewish due to Hitler. I’m assuming you didn’t learn German at home, but maybe you did? Glad you like the blog.

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