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Lessons from Berlin

Lessons from Berlin
German children on a student tour of the Memorial
German children on a student tour of the Memorial

Covering an area of 19,000 sqm (4.7 acres) and comprised of 2,711 stelae concrete blocks ranging in height from 0.2 meters to 4.8 meters (8 inches to 15 feet 9 inches) is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.The memorial is located in Berlin within sight of the German capital’s famous Brandenburg Gate following a decision by the German Parliament to honor the memory of the victims of the Jewish Holocaust. Wholly funded by the Federal Republic of Germany, the memorial took almost six years to construct and cost more than €25 million ($32 million).

The day I decide to take a walking tour of the memorial, the temperature is just below freezing. This has not stopped tourist buses from banking up on all four sides of the block. People are everywhere; Berliners, visitors, and school students are making their way through the maze of stelae. As I stroll through the memorial, every turn is unpredictable–I encounter a new face, a new person, as if symbolizing the millions of faceless victims of the Holocaust for whom the monument was built.

Beneath the stelae is a Holocaust museum. The Starting Hall is home to a permanent exhibition that chronicles the rise of the Nazi movement and the subsequent destruction of the European Jewry. Its final display reads, “The total number of Jews murdered in the area under German control is between 5.4 million and 6 million.” The next room showcases first-hand accounts of the experiences of Holocaust victims. Another room describes Jewish family life in pre-World War II Germany. The Room of Names holds a database of every known victim of the Jewish Holocaust, their short biographies, and how they met their death. The final room is the Yad Vashem Room. A room dedicated to the Jewish Holocaust monument in Israel.

I wait for 20 minutes in the cold for my turn to enter the museum. The queue is long because of the sheer number of visitors and the security checkpoint through which we have to pass. Inside, visitors stand shoulder to shoulder, and at times three or four deep, to read the displays. They take photographs, watch videos, search the computer terminals that keep a directory of all the Holocaust monuments in Europe, and browse the database for victims, possibly even ones known to them.

Huddled in groups, German students listen to the guides as they tell the horrors of the Holocaust. Some parents explain to their children in German what happened to the Jews of Europe. The memorial and museum are a place for education and reflection; a place where the descendants of the perpetrators of the Jewish Holocaust learn about the events for which their ancestors were responsible; a place in the heart of Berlin, where Germans, young and old, vow to never allow such horrible events to happen again.

As I walk through the memorial first and then the museum, my mind wonders: What if Turkey were to build an Armenian Genocide monument? It would be within sight of Taksim Square and would contain a museum. Within the museum, there would be a room dedicated to the Dzidzernagapert in Yerevan, to honor the way Armenians remember the genocide. Another room would display the Armenian Genocide monuments built by diasporan communities around the world. A life-size map of the Armenian Genocide would show the destruction route of Armenians along their ancestral homelands. Information on Armenian life in Western Armenia prior to the genocide would be a prominent feature of the museum. The resolutions passed in legislative bodies around the world repeatedly calling for Turkey to recognize the genocide, and the Turkish Parliament’s own resolution acknowledging and apologizing for this horrible crime would be openly displayed on the walls. Tours would be organized for Turkish students to take ownership of the history of the Armenian Genocide. Turkish parents would take their children to the memorial to familiarize themselves and learn from this episode in Armenian history…

The site of the information desk at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe brings me back to reality. I notice that the memorial is not only a site for Berliners to reflect on history; among the information booklets that are available in 20 languages, I spot the words “Katledilen Avrupali Yahudiler Aniti Ve Bilgi Merkezi,” presumably for Turks to learn about the destruction of the European Jewry.

There are 300,000 Turks in Berlin and a much larger number—up to 4 million—scattered throughout Germany. Many maintain close ties with Turkey and are well placed to learn from the German experience. They have the opportunity to be the agent for change in Turkey and to encourage the Ottoman successor to face its own history.

Unfortunately, however, the Turks of Germany have so far not demonstrated a readiness to play this role; nor has the Turkish government been willing to learn from the German experience. Far from demonstrating genuine remorse, Turkey more and more aggressively denies the Armenian Genocide. Turkish leaders continue to threaten nations that acknowledge the historical reality of the Armenian Genocide. A revised version of history is taught to students in Turkish schools. Intellectuals who speak about the Armenian Genocide are persecuted. Armenians are considered liars, the Armenian lobby is denounced, and the Republic of Armenia is considered an enemy.

While a monument to the victims of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey would be only one component of a just resolution of the Armenian Genocide, it would serve as a vital reminder of this tragic event to future Turkish generations. Until such a monument is built in Turkey, all Turkish citizens need to do to learn about and remember the Armenian Genocide is visit the open air museums of blackened city quarters and old ruined churches in the east of their Republic where Armenians once lived and thrived.

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