In Prenzlauer Berg


by Justin E. H. Smith

Among the grimmer thoughts one has to contend with on any visit to Berlin is this: that one could very well be staying not only in the logistical nerve center of the Final Solution, but in the very building, and perhaps in the very same room, in which a Holocaust victim once lived. This possibility rose to 50%, in fact, when I was in Berlin a few days ago, and stayed in a six-unit building which housed, according to the commemorative plaques paved into the sidewalk outside, three separate Jewish couples who did not see the end of the war.

These plaques ensure that no visit to Berlin will ever be too fun. They are also the most decent, and most properly scaled, Holocaust memorials I’ve seen, anywhere, just the opposite of the misfired maze near the Brandenburger Tor (which induces, paradoxically, a sense of fun one knows one isn’t supposed to be having), and a universe away from the grandiose theoretical statement of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum. The plaques pull you away from the abstraction of large numbers and into the scene of what must have happened right there, in that building, the scene of individual lives unravelling.

When I hear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying at the UN that there is nothing wrong with ‘questioning’ the reality of things, as for example the role of Al Qaeda on September 11, or the role of genocidal intentions in the extermination of European Jews by the Nazis, it’s hard not to think: would you like also to question the reality of, say, Max and Julie Grünwald, who lived at Prenzlauer Allee 15, and who, it was reported, committed suicide while in a Gestapo prison on April 8, 1933? It has of course been pointed out that Holocaust denial is, rhetorically, a form of shrouded Holocaust affirmation, and what the Iranian president really means to say is not that so-and-so was never killed, or was never even born to begin with, but that if they were, so what? Ahmadinejad is probably motivated by a sense of the disparity between the commemorative resources devoted to this one particular historical instance of human suffering on the one hand, and, on the other, the massive scale of largely uncommemorated, unacknowledged, and ongoing death and murder and cruelty in the part of the world for which he takes himself to be speaking (perhaps the Muslim world, perhaps more broadly the ‘global South’). This is in itself not an ungrounded sense to have, and if one can acknowledge it and articulate it without lapsing into disgusting conspiracy theories, one is doing no wrong. But no amount of historical truth will get the basic fallaciousness of the following sort of reasoning through Ahmadinejad’s paleolithic skull: that, simply because bad thing b is happening over here, bad thing a must not have happened, or in any event is not worth bringing up.

Anywhow, what struck me about the Grünwalds’ story –unlike that of the others at Prenzlauer Allee 15, who were murdered at Auschwitz in 1944– is that their decision to take their own lives a whole decade before they would have ended up in an extermination camp is openly acknowledged in the commemoration, but this is done by means of a very special, and uniquely German, term: Freitod. A ‘Free death’ is an honorable suicide, in every respect the semantic opposite of Selbstmord (literally: ‘self-murder’; there’s also the Latinate Suizid, but that’s not really German). This term is certainly resonant of the Stoic reminder that, as Epictetus put it, ‘the door is always open’, though apparently as a bit of vocabulary it can be traced back only to the early 20th century, and was inspired by the section of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra entitled ‘Vom freien Tode’ (‘On Free Death’). In the period in which the Grünwalds had recourse to it, Freitod was also, no doubt, being used by Nietsche’s vulgar sister and others like her to characterize the sort of death one might meet for the sake of one’s nation or race or whatever. But for the Grünwalds it was presumably just an open door, the only open door, and had no meaning at all other than as a resolution to a dead-end predicament. 

There is little trace of the DDR in Prenzlauer Berg at this point. Cupcakes and pet supplies are now being sold in shops where, when I first arrived in 1990, one could still see communist signs advertising Obst und Gemüse or Kleidung for sale. These were empty promises, to be sure, but the signs remained for many years after the fall of the wall as beautiful relics of a lost world. Now, even though it is as if East Berlin never existed, Weimar and Nazi Berlin still hang in the air. One still sees the faded paint in the advertisements on the sides of buildings for Conditoreien, that initial pre-spelling-reform ‘C’ somehow echoing all the fragility and transient joyousness of the 1920s. And one sees the plaques, with names like ‘Maurice’ and ‘Jenny’ that also, like the archaic spelling, convey a message from a lost Berlin, one that was at home in the rest of the world in a way the Nazis could not stand, and in a way that, I think, the city has been trying to recover ever since.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website