Last month I had the privilege of going to Berlin. It was my first time there. Although I was still walking with my cane (aka The Wooden Leg Named Smith), I took advantage of an opportunity for a (five-hour!) walking tour to learn about Berlin’s history.
Here is one story I learned.
We were in the cafe courtyard of an art museum — and there we saw two modestly-sized fenced areas. Planted within those two enclosures were bunches of birch-tree saplings. Here was an art installation…of birch saplings.
During World War II, around 1940, the Nazi leadership realized that they wanted to build a second concentration camp — a second Auschwitz…”Auschwitz II”. The place they chose for the building was a field — a meadow filled with birch trees. The name “Auschwitz II” did not stick — but the German name for “Birch Tree” is “Birken” — and a field of birch trees generally translates as “Birkenau”.
So the death camp built in the field of birch trees was thus named “Birkenau”. A beautiful, peaceful, amazing place — built to gas and burn human beings.
It was to Birkenau that the ten thousand Jews of Berlin were sent.
When the camp closed the ashes from the crematorium were spread in the fields. For decades the land lay in waste, neglected.
Nature began to renew, as nature tends to do. Eventually birch saplings began to grow in the place where many had died. Once a birkenau, again and always, a birkenau.
A Polish artist, Lukasz Surowiec, received permission to take some of these same birch saplings from the birkenau — and replant them in various places around Berlin — including this museum cafe courtyard…as an installation.
As a memorial.
To the Jews of Berlin who lost their lives in the birkenau…at Birkenau.
Bringing them back to Berlin.
Bringing them home.