Wannsee House: History and Memory

BY KATE NEWMAN

BERLIN—On the bus ride through western Berlin this morning, the city’s leafy boulevards and balconied apartments turned into Grunewald’s gracious, almost palatial homes. “You can think of this area as something like the Westchester of Germany,” commented Thorsten Wagner, European director of FASPE. We soon arrived at a large house in Wannsee, which had long been a favorite vacation spot of the German elite.

The estate’s idyllic surroundings on Lake Wansee stand in sharp contrast to the event for which it’s best known today. On January 20, 1942, leaders in the SS, Gestapo, and German government met there to discuss how to implement “the final solution to the Jewish question.” At that time, most of the Jews to die in the Holocaust were still alive. By May of 1943, 80 percent had perished.

Photo taken from the garden at the Wannsee House, where the Wannsee Conference took place in January 1942.  Photo by Stav Ziv.

Photo taken from the garden at the Wannsee House, where the Wannsee Conference took place in January 1942. Photo by Stav Ziv.

As we toured the house, Wolf Kaiser, director of the educational program at Wannsee, told us that historian Joseph Wulf, a survivor of Auschwitz, had proposed a memorial in 1965, but the German government refused. Kaiser said an unspoken reason was that many Germans didn’t want to face that recent history. Wulf committed suicide in 1974. In his last letter to his son, he expressed frustration: “You can publish things about the Germans until you’re blue in the face…but the mass murderers wander about free, have their little houses and grow flowers.”

The site finally became a memorial 50 years after the Wannsee Conference, on January 20, 1992.

Resistance to such efforts was not limited to Wannsee alone. Earlier in the day, we had visited the memorial at Track 17, a major deportation site for German Jews from 1941 to 1945. The trains traveled primarily to the ghettos in Warsaw and Łódź, later going directly to the camps at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. Years later, when a commemorative plaque was placed at the station, it disappeared overnight. A group of Protestant women soon campaigned for a memorial, Wagner explained.

“They said, ‘We cannot stand the suffocating silence,’” Wagner continued. “‘We know what happened here.’” The women managed to establish a small remembrance site just outside the station.

In 1998, Deutsche Bahn created a larger memorial at the track itself—along the platform edge, steel plates reveal the date, destination, and number of Jewish passengers in each transport. Trees have grown between the rails—a symbol, Wagner explained, that trains are never to depart from the platform again. FASPE fellows and professors wandered onto the tracks, slowly making their way to the end of the platform, where visitors had placed stones, candles, and roses.

Memorial to German Jews deported by the Nazis at Track 17 at the Berlin-Grunewald train station. Photo by Stav Ziv.

Memorial to German Jews deported by the Nazis at Track 17 at the Berlin-Grunewald train station. Photo by Stav Ziv.

The creation of such memorials came about in part from international influence, noted Wagner, but more from the generational shift that occurred in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s.

A room at the end of the exhibit in Wannsee includes quotes from Germans struggling to reconcile a shameful past with a tolerant present.

“I don’t know, sometimes I don’t want to think about what my father could have been part of,” says Gunter Demnig, an artist known for his work honoring Holocaust victims. Demnig’s father was a Wehrmacht soldier. Words from Ulrike Krüger, whose father was Director of the SS “Ancestral Heritage Society,” express a different sentiment: “Yes, my father’s guilt is part of my life. I live and therefore I bear responsibility. I can only stand it by being prepared to keep confronting this past and by taking these horrific events seriously.”

Memorial to German Jews deported by the Nazis at the Berlin-Grunewald train station. Photo by Stav Ziv.

Memorial to German Jews deported by the Nazis at the Berlin-Grunewald train station. Photo by Stav Ziv.

As the group travels from Berlin to Auschwitz in the days ahead, fellows will further consider the complex intersections between history and memory.

 

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