Berlin’s Trail of Tears

For all the amount of effort Berlin has put into memorializing its history -marking where the wall once ran, planting informational signs at significant Third Reich sites and now, rebuilding its Prussian castle, there are still pieces that have almost been lost to time. One of these places is in the far corner of Moabit where in the last years of the war, over 30,000 Berlin Jews were deported to concentration camps from the former Putlitzstrasse freight train station. Many of them had been marched there by foot from a synagogue two kilometers away, passing through the neighborhood streets as they went. A citizen group is currently fighting for official recognition of the route.

Part of what seems to have caused this hole in local Nazi history is the location of the site. The Putlitzstrasse station and its train yards, once part of the Reichsbahn, became part of the railway network operated by the GDR after the war –even though they sat the western part of the city. There was no point in placing a public memorial there –the place was only accessible to East German employees with special clearances and passing trains. In 1987, West Berliners placed a memorial on a bridge overlooking the yards, which was as close to the site as they could get.

After 1989 during the reunification building-boom, most of the remaining tracks that had been used for the deportations were destroyed in order to create the new, large central train station, Hauptbahnhof. Then in 2009, an original cobblestone path that had lead to those tracks was severed from the train yards completely by the new Ellen Epstein Street (named after a Jewish pianist who had been deported from the Putlitzstrasse station to her death in Riga). Today, a historic marker stands at the head of the path, which is easy to miss sandwiched between a big box store and the parking lot of a supermarket. Embedded in the cobblestones about three-fourths of the way down are the only track pieces left, Number 69.

In early January, some friends and I decided to walk to the Putlitzstrasse station site from the former synagogue on Levetzowstrasse, taking the same route that those being deported had been forced to walk. Where the synagogue once stood, a large memorial marks its role as a holding cell for Berlin Jews. A towering steel plate standing as high as the synagogue had been lists the number of people in each group being deported and their final destination. An inscription cast into the pavement describes how some people jumped from the upper floor of the synagogue to escape their fate.

As soon as we crossed the street, there were no more memorials. A few storefronts had signs in their windows supporting the effort to officially mark the route. The campaign holds the evocative name “They Were Neighbors.” As we walked, we didn’t talk much about what we were doing and even enjoyed looking at the neighborhood on a quiet winter Sunday. But I did keep thinking of how much the Berliners would have been able to see from their windows, and what must they have thought of these groups of people carrying their belongings and walking towards the train yards. Did they know who they were and where they were going? Did they know what was going on? How could they not?

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