Sunday, November 3, 2013

Berlin - Surprises Abound

Photo via flickr- ERmes Vatali
There’s a tiny, little known museum in Berlin, Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt. During World War II and before, it had been a brush factory. Its owner, Otto Weidt, became increasingly interested in creating a safe work environment for visually impaired, blind and deaf workers. It was a workshop in which they were given the opportunity to be productive and remain economically independent. The reason for his interest: Otto Weidt gradually was losing his own eye sight. Visiting this unusual, out of the way spot was one of the highlights of the week for all the surprises it held.

     After the climb up a narrow, creaky flight of wooden steps, I opened the door to the museum’s small entry. It had been pouring rain through out the morning and our group was drenched. The desk clerk greeted us pleasantly in German, asking us to leave  our wet coats and umbrellas in the entry to prevent water damage to the exhibits. The soft spoken man was the security guard / maintenance staff / sales clerk / resident historian and basically filled every position imaginable at this museum.

     He had an amazing smile, pleasant disposition, but had spoken to us in German. “He’s amazing!” I whispered to our tour leader. “I’d so love to take his photo. Do you think he’d mind?”

     “Mind? Are you kidding?" our group leader replied. "He’d absolutely love it, just ask him. His English is perfect and actually he competes in the International Beard and Mustache Competition. You know, he once won third place and is super proud of this!”

     This museum is a must-visit tribute to a German citizen, a non-Jewish hero. While reading about the museum, I learned that its administered by the German Resistance Memorial Centre Foundation - an organization developed as a result of a student project.   Otto Weidt’s story is told through the use of archival photos and in transcripts from interviews conducted with some of those he had saved. The mustache man enriched an already enriching experience. 

     During World War II, the visually impaired brush and broom manufacturer, Otto Weidt,  employed quite a number of Jews in the small factory still located at Rosenthaler 39. As the Nazi party rose to power, Weidt worked tirelessly to protect his blind and deaf employees from deportation to concentration camps. He bribed the Gestapo, falsified documents, and ultimately hid a family behind a backless cupboard in his shop’s workroom.

     Hesitantly, I approached his desk. Apologetically I spoke up. “Sir, excuse me but would you mind if I took a photo of you? My friends in the USA would find your mustache amazing. I know I sure do!”

     “It would be my honor." He said in perfect, accent free English. "This is a good place for me to work. Here, in a brush factory, right? And even more funny, I’m Jewish! Fortunately, I’m not yet blind. I must say though that some people are certain I’m deaf!”

     The encounter was a bigger surprise than I was prepared for that day. And thanks to the man with the award-winning mustache, I learned much more about Mr. Weidt’s brushes, the empoyees he saved and about “mustache man” himself. His own parents had fled Berlin, went to Israel (then Palestine) and remained there. The Israeli- born competitive mustache grower returned to live in Berlin after completing college.  


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