These Jewish streets

Take a stroll around the Bayerisches Viertel in Schöneberg. Among its well-manicured facades, the street signs tell a different story. Using images and text, they form an informative and moving story of what happened from 1933 to 1945.

Image for These Jewish streets
Photo by Viktor Richardsson

Away from the crazy kinesis of central Berlin, away from the gay Schöneberg of Nollendorfplatz and the immigrant Schöneberg around Potsdamer Straße, Bayerischer Platz in the “Bavarian quarter“ exudes bourgeois tranquility: mothers with prams, well-renovated 19th-century apartment buildings with manicured front gardens and an all-around clean sense of safety.

But as you stroll the streets surrounding the square, you begin to notice the little signs that punctuate the district, reading “Jews may not buy newspapers and magazines anymore” or “Jews are excluded from choirs”, taking you back to the 1930s when Jews were systematically excluded from German society.

A central point for Jewish intellectual life in pre-Nazi Berlin, the Bavarian Quarter, also called “Jewish Switzerland”, was home to 16,000 Jews before the deportations to concentration camps began – residents included Albert Einstein, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt.

Today, its streets are lined with a public memorial titled “Places of remembrance in the Bavarian Quarter: Exclusion and disenfranchisement, expulsion, deportation and murder of Berlin Jews in the years 1933 to 1945”. The memorial comprises 80 carefully composed, artistic street signs. On one side, the signs feature excerpts from Hitler’s anti-Semitic legislation, phrases from letters written by deported Jews, or other texts describing the situation for Jews at the time. On the other, a stylised image. For example, the text “Jewish children may no longer attend public schools, 15.11.1938” is accompanied by the image of a slate tablet.

On another sign, an excerpt from an anonymous letter states: “The time has come, tomorrow I have to go… naturally, very hard. I will write to you.” This is labelled simply “Before deportation 16.1.1942.” On the other side is an image of an envelope.

The signs’ simplified text and use of present tense intensifies their chilling message. “We wanted to make it more immediate, more present for people,” says Renata Stih, one of the artists behind the project. She and Frieder Schnock, who have devoted their careers to public art, created the installation in 1992 after they won a competition by the district council that was one of the first major efforts to give permanent recognition to the Holocaust.

Initially, the memorial competition was planned for Bayerischer Platz alone, but Stih stressed the importance of a multi-location memorial by vying that they “want people to live with it… to experience it and for it to be there for future generations.”