Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2005


Mach Arom ´89: Rebuilding hope for Thai tsunami victims

Kathryn Bard ´68: Somewhere in Egypt

Who cares about Haiti?

Venturing into Iran: Beyond the warning

Gloria Hollister Anable ’24: Into the deep

Gaida Ozols Fuller ´74: Six months in Uganda

Sarah Trapido ´08: Going 13,000 miles on veggie oil

Yoko Shimada ´99: Fighting the war on AIDS in East Africa

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Impressions of Berlin: Memory and the Holocaust

Impressions of Berlin: Memory and the Holocaust
Matt Magida ´07 and his cousin, Jennifer Bodansky in Berlin.

Last spring, Matt Magida ’07 wrote a paper titled “Memory and the Holocaust” for his class History 272 “Berlin.” Focusing on the city where his great-grandfather had been imprisoned and from which his family had later fled, Magida interspersed his own experience with historical perspectives on the Holocaust and its survivors. The following excerpts from that paper describe his return to his ancestors’ homeland.

by Matthew Magida ´07

Returning to a city one loosely refers to as “home” is not easy.
I remember the first time I seriously dreamed of visiting Berlin, even worse, Germany. “Why would you want to go?” My mother would snap with anger, as my grandfather sat in the kitchen with his back to the George Washington Bridge, distraught at such a comment. I cannot recall my exact age, but my family’s unwillingness to permit my desire to seek out this “home” prompted years of generational tension between child, parent and grandfather. My mom never sought to uncover her German question as the daughter of an exiled Berliner. Aside from her father’s inability to come to grips with the past, during her youth New York was the city. Berlin stopped at my great-grandmother’s 166th Street apartment. For my generation, it was as hidden as the stuffing in the goose-down comforter my brothers and I slept on as children at my grandparents’ Fort Lee, N.J. apartment. It never saw the light of day, because it was hidden in a closet except when my family would visit overnight.

It is the morning of my scheduled departure to Berlin, the goose comforter is now faded from 10 years of warm sun penetrating its red cover print; it graces my bed at home. I’m off for a quick visit to my grandfather at his apartment before meeting up with my professors and 17 classmates at Newark Liberty Airport. Grandpa has returned from the hospital and is recovering from a skin infection, cellulitis. His face is swollen and red, but he is due to make a full recovery with antibiotics. After lunch, my brothers run off to the television, and my grandfather takes out something neither my mother nor I have ever seen before — photographs of Berlin and his family. Face-to-face with my grandfather as a child, I am captivated by the beauty of the black-and- white images. Narrating the story of the Baumblatt dynasty, my grandfather slowly adds a dimension of depth to my German question; I begin to correlate past lifestyle to present mannerisms. Shortly before I race out the door to the airport, his face lights up with news that I will be attending a Hertha soccer game. Finally, a sign of joy from the city he never mentions.

Going East with my America at my back, we touch down at Tegel Airport. First by bus, then by U-Bahn; 20 tired Americans make it to Kruezburg. Processing my past, 20 minutes wrapped around 66 years of silence is overwhelming. The hostel is just beyond the Jewish Museum. Maybe my past will be found there too, not just at number 12 Hortensienstraße.

The legacy of an exiled German, I have returned to the homeland. Yet I know so little of its history except from a biased high school textbook, abridged stories told by Mary Fulbrook and Brian Ladd and the notorious “Hitler Channel.” We are at the “Topography of Terror,” a sore pit in the German stomach, surrounded by walls of tyranny. Ladd does not do it justice, nor does the History Channel. Looks on German schoolchildren seem like rotten milk to the stomach. Splash, there goes the milk, rolling down a girl’s ageless white porcelain face. Instead of wiping tears away, the girls rub them into their skin, absorbing them as memories. The cold air blows against my now aged and pale dry skin. “Nineteen years old,” reminding myself of my age as I walk, looking at a reflection of resistance fighters. Twenty-year-old university students, united under the umbrella resistance movement known as the White Rose, their fates were sealed on this very ground along with thousands of war criminals. Their legacy remains, permanently etched both along and under a land mass ironically parallel to the Berlin Wall. Why are the names of resistance fighters recorded in stone, but Jewish victims of the similar fate not? Did these resistance fighters, many about my age, die so that I could reflect and never forget my family’s story?

The empty S-Bahn brings a group of American and German youth to what appears to be the edge of time and space, Lichterfelde. From an architectural standpoint, it looks as though time has stood still since 1939. As a group we disembark at Botanischer Garten. It is perfection personified. Everything seems in order. Cobblestones line the streets and shops surround the town square. Immediately, I feel at home. I open the worn-out envelope that contains photographs of the building I am searching for. We make our way into the town square and find Hortensienstraße.

13…12A…12, “Stop!” I stare at the structure, eyes like saucers and mouth agape. The wooden fence is no longer standing; a modern metal one has taken its place, amid great controversy my cousin and I would later find out. I nervously ring the bell and the door clicks open. My grandfather’s voice echoes in my head, “Third floor on the right.” Wooden stairs creek as I continue up the second floor. A confused woman with an infant in her arms greets us. My cousin translates our story, the woman smiles with joy. I explore the apartment, not convinced until we walk out on the balcony and look out on the street below me. It is true; I am finally home!

The last 24 hours have been painful. Leaving the group early from Sachsenhausen, I walk the streets of Berlin alone on an empty Sunday afternoon. How could my great-grandfather survive Sachsenhausen for six weeks, while I couldn’t handle my emotions for more than six minutes? On the trolley car to his grave, I finally begin to understand my grandfather. Plot number 99926; first death by Nazi and second death by ivy’s strangulation. This is my Topography of Terror, the Jewish Cemetery. My great-grandfather’s name, (along with thousands of other men and women who met similar fates), was carved in its own headstone. The sight of the covered grave is overwhelming as I fall to the ground in tears while moving dirt and clearing ivy. Understanding his trauma firsthand by traveling back to Berlin, the puzzle to my German past is finally solved as I look face-to-face with the man who died for my freedom.

My journey to Berlin has been monumental because it was the first time I ever felt home in a place outside the bubbles of suburban Philadelphia and Connecticut College. I am looking forward to my return to Berlin, my family’s city. Berlin is the city where I not only rediscovered who I was, but also uncovered my grandfather’s dream to go back one last time. I hope he comes with me.

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