A Sunday Dive Into Antiquity

I went with a visiting friend to the Neues Museum, which features (absconded) archaeological finds from the ancient Near East, Mediterranean and Europe, collected by some of the giants of 19th-century European archaeology.

Above is a depiction on limestone of the Pharaoh Akhnaten and his wife Nefertiti, with three daughters, from the Amarna period, ca. 1340 BCE.  According to some scholars, Akhnaton, who founded a monotheistic cult of the sun god Aten, may have either influenced Moses or been him himself.  Akhnaton, originally named Amenhotep IV, built a new residence in Middle Egypt after marrying the commoner Nefertiti.  He reigned for 17 years, after which his town was abandoned and Egypt went back to polytheism.

The style of drawing figures is apparently typical of the Amarna period, but I am struck by how aged the royal family is made to look (even the kids!).  Have they been withered by their god, the sun?  Are they being depicted as odd Egyptians?

Here is a portrait of Akhnaton that shows him as a rather more powerful, elegant, even youthful man.  The detail and artistic skill of this rendering seems like it could have come from the hand of a 20th-century modernist.

Another proto-modernist image, this one from a Cretan bowl, if I remember correctly.  I love the markings and suggestive minimalism.

Back in today’s Berlin…


Destroying Temples is Easier Than Building or Rebuilding Them

It occurred to me the other day that one could — that I should — go through Berlin following the Stolpersteine — the square brass “stumbling stones” brilliantly conceived and installed by artist Gunter Demnig — getting to know the neighborhood.  There lived the Hirschfelds, deported in ’39, murdered in Bergen-Belsen in ’42.  And there lived Henrietta, who was 17 when the Nazis deported her, only to murder her in ’43 in Auschwitz.  Her brother Rudolph was 23 and must have lived at home at the time.  He was also murdered in Auschwitz, but a year earlier.  And so on and on.  As if I had known them all, as if this had been my community as well.  I don’t need to have seen them to know everything.  An imagined community of ghosts.

I just read today that researchers at a Bangkok organization called Fortify Rights have concluded in a new report that officials in Myanmar systematically planned the attempted recent genocide against the Muslim Rohingya minority.  Steps leading to the assault included the arming of non-Rohingya citizens, imposition of a curfew and suspension of humanitarian aid.  Gee whiz.  What a surprise?!  This attempted genocide wasn’t just a spontaneous expression of popular fear and worry about neighbors?!

Back home, a courageous few dare attempt to pursue alternative visions:

See also this video of the event.  Some 25 people showed up, evidently.  How does this number compare with the number of those Germans who feel comfortable attacking Jews anonymously online — and the number of people who don’t care about or support such “freedom of speech”?  You’ll have to read this other story from yesterday.

I don’t have the stomach to get into the new “nation-state” law passed just today in Israel by the Israeli Knesset…

Have an easy fast on Tisha B’Av (this Saturday, but we fast on Sunday).  It will be easier to bear than the many causes we have for fasting, mourning and weeping over the ongoing destruction of the temple of decency, mutual consideration and the rights of others.  In your hunger (only temporary, remember), please think about what you will do to resist hate, indifference and evil, whether hailing from “the people” or from the authorities.


Buildings, Painted Cityscapes and Happenings

The buildings in Berlin continue to draw my attention.  This one stands on Bleibtreu Straße — I love the name: Stay True Street — a particularly posh location.  The architectural style cries out medieval revival and Christian nostalgia and with the fortress-like entrance harbors a disinterest in and distaste for modern urban reality.  The building was put up just as Berlin was becoming an agglomeration of the independent small towns it was then swallowing up.

Up above… I don’t know if the two haloed figures above were actual people.

Here is another building down the street.

And here is a more recent attempt to offer city-dwellers (in Moabit) a bit of fantastical nature, color and cheer.  Such efforts to reshape the urban landscape have the power to create their own reality, however tentatively.  Thankfully.

But we can’t forget the Jews…  Check out the provocative posters for this year’s Berlin-Brandenburg Jewish Film Festival.  A cheap play on a hot-button phrase (fake news)?  An attack on real fake Jews?  And who would these be?  I’m curious to find out what those who coined this slogan were thinking.

And then there are always the seemingly most real Jews, the murdered ones. The posters (also photographed in Moabit) quote Primo Levi: “It has happened, and therefore it can happen again.”  It appears that someone tried to scrape off these warnings.  A sign of disapproval?

Someone recently noted that the current rise of the right is what happens when we forget the admonition, “Never forget.”  If you want a sobering recent analysis of collective dementia, then and (indirectly) now, read Harvard historian Cass Sunstein’s review of a handful of new and old books that treat everyday Germans in the Nazi era, “It Can Happen Here.”


Heroes are Difficult yet Easy to Find. Please Look.

Hello, hello.  It’s been quite a while since I’ve last written.  Sorry.  I have been a little busy.

I’m looking to move apartments and just made an appointment to see a place in a neighborhood called Moabit.  All I know is that it is a heavily immigrant section of town.  Searching around online, I came across the explanation that historically Moabit “is known mainly for the prison that was built in the 1840s and over time, housed some famous historical prisoners, political activists and Nazi war criminals before it was demolished in 1955.”

Furthermore, “One of the prison’s famous inmates, Albrecht Haushofer, was one of Adolf Hitler’s original followers.  [He was a geographer, diplomat and author.]  However, at the outbreak of the war he became convinced the only way to end [it] was to remove Hitler.  After the July 20 plot to kill Hitler failed, Haushofer was eventually imprisoned, where he penned a number of haunting sonnets.  SS guards murdered Haushofer on the evening of the 22nd of April [actually the 23rd], as the Soviet army was taking the city.  His brother discovered his body with the following sonnet in his pocket…


…schuldig bin ich
Anders als Ihr denkt.
Ich musste früher meine Pflicht erkennen;
Ich musste schärfer Unheil Unheil nennen;
Mein Urteil habe ich zu lang gelenkt…
Ich habe gewarnt,
Aber nicht genug, und klar;
Und heute weiß ich, was ich schuldig war.


I am guilty
But not in the way you think.
I should have earlier recognized my duty;
I should have more sharply called evil evil;
I reined in my judgment too long…
I did warn,
But not enough, and not clearly enough;
And today I know what I was guilty of.

Albrecht Haushofer”

Amazing.  A tragedy of courage that came too late.  I am so glad to have learned all this.  Just as I realized one day last week while riding a bus past the cultural center near my house, named The White Rose, that it refers to the group of university students who also famously resisted the Nazis — also at the cost of their lives.  Alas, the timing couldn’t be better.  All Republicans in the United States, the voters who favor right-wing candidates and parties in Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy, England and elsewhere should be sent a copy of this poem with Haushofer’s story.  It should be posted on billboards around cities, recited at public events…While Hollywood screens are filled with fake superheros, it is the real, (extra)ordinary ones we so desperately need today.

Image result for albrecht haushofer

Correcting Desire

After the last post some friends wrote in to correct my attempted explanation of a bit of German.  To call someone well-connected you say gut vernetzt, while benetzen actually means “to moisten,” so that gut benetzt means “well lubricated.”  Ooops.  Must have been a Freudian slip…


Desiring Connections

Here are two postcards from a project I’ve mentioned before, Rent a Jew:“You never forget your first”

According to its website, Rent a Jew “provides speakers to educational institutions or groups, for school classes, adult education courses, religious communities, student groups or cultural associations.  In reaching out to non-Jews, we aim to provide the opportunity to socialize with the Jewish community and break down prejudices in the process.  The focus of our encounters is to introduce real people and promote dialogue about the current Jewish life.”

The provocative nature of their name and postcards is thus intentional.  The postcards play with various stereotypes.  The first card depicts the Jew as a turtle — self-protective with its shell, even looks like a wrinkled old Jewish man — and the non-Jewish German as a dog — aggressive and territorial, hearkening also to Nazi-era themes.  The sexual innuendo of the second card alludes to the fact that some Germans find Jews and/or Israelis particularly attractive or desirable, an interest that has historical roots, similar in ways to the attraction many white Americans might feel for blacks.  Given the terrifying resurgence of anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior in much of Europe, perhaps such an outrageous approach to dialogue isn’t the worst thing, though I have no idea whether these encounters succeed in their goal.

Speaking of sex, I took a long shabbat walk today, trying to find a bookstore that a friend in New York told me a friend of his had just opened here.  (Don’t worry, I will make the connection clear in a second.)  I was not interested in shopping.  Rather, the bookstore owner is supposedly well-connected with local activists.  (I just learned that in German one can now say this as, for instance, Er ist gut benetzt / He is well-connected.  Benetzt, from Netzwerk / network.  Gotta love it.)  Since I am on the lookout for local activists for collaboration with my Jewish Activism Summer School (www.jassberlin.org) and the store is about a 40-minute walk from my apartment, I figured I would walk over and introduce myself.  I ended up not being able to find the place.  Perhaps it has closed already (I have to ask my friend).  But trying to locate it, I walked up the street the other direction, even though I was pretty sure it wasn’t that way.  Instead, I stumbled across a block of Kurfürstenstraße where sex workers (prostitutes, that is) hang out waiting to be “hired” — in broad daylight.  The three or four whom I saw seemed to be in their 20s or 30s, sadly young, dressed rather inconspicuously compared to what I remember of a certain section of midtown Manhattan in the old days.  On the corner of the block stood a large LSD store.  LSD stands for Love, Sex, Dreams, and must be a chain, since I’ve seen another store in another neighborhood.  These stores are part of German liberal tolerance and adult self-determination; after all sex is just a part of normal life, right?  The clustering of the LSD store with the sex workers outside — no official link, of course — made good business sense.  Real and virtual (videos, etc.) sex constitute related forms of commerce.

Speaking of self-determination, someone told me recently that a law in Germany gives people the right to ruin their own lives.  One is not allowed to intervene forcibly if someone chooses to be non-productive or to waste away through drugs, for example.  I cannot vouch for this law, but am very curious to know more about it.

Sorry for the digression.  Two of the women approached me, separately.  One asked, Hast du lust?, which could be translated loosely as “Are you interested?” or “Want sex?”  Lust means desire in German, both general and sexual, and obviously is related to, if not a source of the English word “lust.”  The multilingual pun made me almost laugh out loud and I refrained from trying to explain the reason for my amusement to the woman.  For a second I also thought to tell her that what I was really seeking was a particular bookstore…

In any case, all this created for me a shabbat afternoon more burdened with sadness than I desired.


Unexpected Finds Near Home

Today I noticed that someone had placed flowers on the Stolperstein in honor of Rabbi Leo Baeck near my apartment.

Looking closely at the little memorial, I realized that today was the day in 1943 on which he was deported to Teresienstadt.  But who left the flowers?  Clearly it is someone who knows the date of Baeck’s deportation.  Could it be a relative?  Someone non-Jewish who lives right around here?  It must remain a mystery for now.

Thinking about Baeck reminded me that our shared neighborhood, Schöneberg, hosted many Jews.  They flocked here as Berlin grew into a real city.  In 1800, the village of Schöneberg claimed around 500 residents.  By 1871, over 4,500 people called the place home.  I am glad I stumbled across his beflowered commemoration stone today, so that I could acknowledge and meditate on his tragic uprooting from what he thought was his home, even if he survived the camp.

I had crossed paths with Rabbi Baeck (as it were) while walking around.  Since it was Sunday morning, I thought I’d check out the local flea market.  There I came across this amazing find:

I’d come across this cover image online a while back.  But I was thrilled to see an actual copy!  An annual yearbook put out by one of the Jewish department stores of Berlin, Nathan Israel.  This volume, edited by an engineer, is devoted to modern means of enjoying or conquering the earth (transportation, mountain sports, etc.).  A great example of the modern Jewish affection for progress, which the cover illustration of this commercial self-tribute reads as a sacralized human endeavor.

And, I can’t help myself, two photos of amazing apartment building facades from the same years:

The photos aren’t the greatest.  My camera needs to be repaired and I took these with my phone.  Please blow up the pictures, though, and look carefully at the details.  This was a time when architects and builders attended lovingly to such things.