In a private apartment near an old synagogue in Berlin’s gentrified Prenzlauer Berg suburb, about two dozen Israelis and Germans gathered Wednesday to remember the biggest genocide the modern world has ever seen.
But this memorial, held at the beginning of Holocaust Remembrance Day, was unlike the many others that have taken place since the Nazi extermination of European Jews was finally halted with the end of World War II. The event was designed to be more personal, more intimate and more expressive than a typical commemoration.
Memories at Home, which organized the event, was founded by Nadav Embon, 30, and Adi Altschuler, 28, an Israeli couple from a small city near Tel Aviv. After unfulfilling experiences at public ceremonies in Israel, the pair decided to create their own evening filled with anecdotes from Holocaust survivors, artistic pieces and debates about how the Holocaust still affects the lives of Jews.
The idea was to turn the memorial experience into an active experience rather than a passive one.
Fifty people showed up for the first Memories at Home event in Israel in 2010, but the idea has now spread across the world. This year, video-linked, home-based ceremonies is taking place at about 50 locations outside Israel, including New York, Amsterdam, Tokyo and Barcelona, as well as Berlin. Some 2,000 households in Israel are expected to participate.
“I have never been to visit Germany but my image of the country is very bad.”
The main speaker at the central commemoration in Israel on Wednesday night, which was beamed around the world via Skype, was Ines Nissim, a Holocaust survivor from Greece, who spoke about her time in a Greek ghetto.
In 1941, Germany and its fascist ally Italy occupied Greece and forced the Jewish community in the city of Thessaloniki into a ghetto near the city’s railway. Gradually, they started deporting them to concentration camps but Ms. Nissim managed to avoid the death transports by fleeing into the Greek mountains. She moved to Israel in 1950.
Asked how she feels about the commemoration taking place in Berlin, she said: “I have never been to visit Germany but my image of the country is very bad. However, I do remember soldiers of the German Wehrmacht being rather friendly to us when Greece was under German rule.”
Wednesday’s Berlin event was the first time a Memories at Home commemoration had been held in the city.
“The event taking place in Germany is more important than it happening anywhere else in the world,” Mr. Embon said.
For many of the Israelis who attended the event in the German capital it was unusual not to be at home for Holocaust Remembrance Day, where sirens and a minute of silence mark the murder of their ancestors more than 70 years ago. Being in Berlin, the city where the Nazi’s plan to exterminate the Jewish race was agreed, had particular poignancy.
“I miss a critical stance in our generation today. There are still very few people who stand up in the light of national or global injustices.”
“In Israel it is impossible to forget this day as you are constantly confronted with it on the radio, Facebook and so on. In Germany it is different and I am glad that I found this place,” said Rachel, a middle-aged woman who has recently moved to Berlin.
It was Rivka Halbershtadt, a Jewish woman from Israel, who decided to host the event in Berlin. She felt the subject was fading from her own memory as well as from a whole generation of Germans and Israelis.
But she admitted to often having found discussions of the Holocaust uncomfortable, let alone hosting an event about the tragedy.
“Only after living here for nine years have I developed the necessary distance to start dealing with the subject,” said Ms. Halbershtadt.
She hosted the event at her spacious apartment with Maurice, a 29-year-old German primary school teacher. He said that the gradual fading from memories of the atrocities committed in World War II was not as incomprehensible as many may think.
“I miss a critical stance in our generation today. There are still very few people who stand up in the light of national or global injustices. Recent developments such as Pegida [a right-wing German anti-immigration movement] show an underlying anti-Semitic current even today,” he said.
It is this central question that dominated the discussion in Berlin.
Young Israelis were interested in how young Germans learnt about the Holocaust when they were growing up. Did their grandparents talk about it? Was their any admission of guilt?
For many Israelis, it was the first time that they had ever discussed the topic with Germans.
Across Germany in the next few weeks, the Holocaust will be remembered by senior politicians, with Chancellor Angela Merkel attending an event at the former Dachau concentration camp on May 3 and President Joachim Gauck visiting the former Bergen-Belsen death camp on 26 April to pay tribute to the victims. On Thursday, numerous gatherings will be taking place across Berlin including at the Jewish Town Hall.
It is only recently that Israelis have grown fond of Berlin, fleeing economic hardship and war at home to start a less stressful life in the German capital. But the city has a long Jewish history: The first Jews arrived from Vienna in 1671 after escaping the persecution of Austrian emperor Leopold I.
Today, there are between 15,000 and 20,000 Israelis living in the city, according to an estimate from the Israeli Embassy in Berlin.
The growing number of Israeli expats reflects the growing friendliness between the two countries.
“Today, Germany is our greatest ally. They back our technology, many Israelis choose to live here and we work incredibly well together,” said Amir, an Israeli professor who is visiting Berlin and attended the event.