Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Taking care of history

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My wife and I learned a whole lot about Germany lately. We learned these things by visiting the excellent museums of Berlin, Leipzig and Zwickau. Now we have to visit the museums of Winnipeg once again and see if this city tells its stories as well as the cities of Germany do.

German cities, admittedly, have hair-raising stories to tell. We visited the concrete bunker at Berlin's Anhalter railway station. The station no longer exists. Nor does the fuehrer bunker that stood on the other side of the station. But in the poured-concrete compartments of the bunker you can form an idea of what life was like in the time of British and U.S. air raids, when the people of the district took shelter in the crowded staircases.

It's now an extremely tacky privately operated museum that ties itself in knots trying to be entertaining, but still, you get the point.

No one ever got around to demolishing the bunker at Anhalter Station. The displays say it served as public housing right after the war, then as a food warehouse during the years of the German Democratic Republic.

The Berliners are determined not to let the years of the GDR be forgotten. They have preserved as a public park a block-long stretch of the space that was once beside the wall, the clear field of fire between the apartment buildings of East Berlin and the wall itself.

They have preserved also the headquarters of the Stasi, the secret police department that watched, essentially, everyone in East Germany to detect those who were thinking of escaping to the West. The visit is astonishing because you walk blocks and blocks through a district of eight- or 10-storey buildings looking for the address of the museum and then you find out that the whole district -- all those buildings -- was the secret police headquarters where 8,000 people worked and kept files on everyone who came to their notice. Imprisoning a whole people is hard work. A sobering warning, perhaps of what our intelligence services would do, given a free hand.

We also had the privilege of meeting, later in Leipzig, the violinist who was concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra during the GDR years. In those years, he told us, everyone knew that some of the musicians were reporting to the secret police about the others, usually because they had been caught breaking the law and were offered a choice between severe punishment and collaboration with the police. But the musicians did not know which of their colleagues were the police agents. Only after the fall of the wall and the opening of the archives did they learn that some of the agents were their friends -- or people they thought were their friends. The ex-agents had to leave the orchestra.

In the New Synagogue of Berlin, the magnificent one built in the 1860s, we visited the adjacent museum that tells the story of the building and, in part, the story of the community that supported it until it was heavily damaged in the pogrom of November 1938, further damaged by Allied bombing, left in ruins through the GDR years and lately restored. We saw the sacramental objects that were tossed into the concrete when the synagogue was converted to an air-raid shelter and were rediscovered in the restoration work.

In the Jewish Museum, we learned the stories of many Jewish families of Berlin -- some who escaped and some who perished, their achievements and their follies, people who might be our neighbours. Their family photographs and household articles help tell their stories.

They have an amazing artifact in the municipal museum in Leipzig. In a display about euthanizing handicapped persons under the Nazis, they have a wire-mesh box like a large crib. The English-language displays describe the policy of killing the residents of the home for handicapped people. They don't directly refer to the crib, but it is pretty obviously the container in which a handicapped person would be kept and it testifies to heartbreaking cruelty. This Leipzig museum is talking with brutal frankness about what Leipzig people were doing to each other not so long ago.

Leipzig is the city of J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and, for a few years, Robert Schumann. The former home of each of these great composers is now a museum in which you may form a vivid idea of how they lived, where they stood or sat to compose their music, where they met with their friends. In St. Thomas Church, where Bach was organist and choirmaster, you can join hundreds of Leipzigers in hearing the current members of the choir he directed perform the cantatas and mass settings he wrote.

Leipzig, like Berlin and like Zwickau, has a rich heritage of astonishing music and astonishing cruelty -- and they know what to do with it. They frankly confront the cruelty with artifacts and narrative. They sing the cantatas and celebrate the composers.

I know not what machinations have gone on behind the scenes to decide that this story will be told and not that one, but I know that the curators have done vast research, collected significant artifacts and introduced me to specific individuals, each with a name and a story, who might be my neighbours. Because those curators have done their work so well, those people now are my neighbours and I have to care for them. Now let me see if Winnipeg's museums do as well.

Terence Moore is the former comment editor of the Winnipeg Free Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 A15

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