The Berlin Holocaust Memorial

The official Holocaust memorial in Berlin takes up an entire city block.  It consists of 2,711 large gray steles, arrayed in a grid so that there is walking space among them.  The steles vary in height, and they rise and fall together, giving the memorial the look of a perfect square of sea.  The ground beneath the steles slopes towards the middle of the memorial, and at this deepest point the steles rise higher than anywhere else; they are much taller than any person.  They are meant to be overwhelming.  But that was not the effect the tallest steles, and the memorial as a whole, had on me.  Rather, I found it abstracted to the point of meaninglessness.  Whether the steles are meant to represent graves or a large city—a city of the dead, of the murdered, a necropolis—or something else altogether, is unclear.  The memorial is a case of the art of architecture—form, symbolism, beauty—taking precedence over the event and the people being memorialized.  The fact that a Jew could visit the memorial in 2010 and leave unmoved points to the memorial’s inadequacy.

There are different kinds of memorials.  Memorials to fallen soldiers in a victorious cause tend to be simple and direct, exactly what one would expect.  There is a memorial near St. James’s Park in London to those who fought and died in the First World War that consists of bronze statues of soldiers, backed by a stele upon which are engraved explanations and benedictions.  The Soviet Army memorial in what was East Berlin consists of a plaza, flanked by stone sarcophagi covered with relief carvings that depict the heroism of Soviet civilians and soldiers.  The sarcophagi are also garlanded with quotations from Stalin emphasizing that the victory over Hitler was the victory of Communism over Nazism.  At the head of the plaza, sitting on a small, man-made hill, is a stone chamber.  The chamber is maybe fifty steps up, and is itself not very high, but on top of it stands an immense, magnificent statue of a Soviet soldier, cradling a babe in one arm and clutching a sword in the other, and crushing a swastika under his boot.  This bronze giant wears a flowing bronze cape, which makes him seem all the more imposing and implacable.  The plaza he commands was built as a site for Communist rallies in addition to being a permanent memorial to the dead.  The memorial—the plaza, the sarcophagi, the statue of the soldier—more than adequately communicates the power and grandiosity of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet War Memorial in former East Berlin

Memorials to national defeat or to national atrocity are in theory more complicated, vexed endeavors, but there are existing memorials that prove otherwise.  A memorial done right, no matter what its subject, is perhaps a simple thing: its impact on a visitor should be immediate, visceral, and inevitable.  The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is as simple as one could imagine—an angle of marble cut into the earth, upon which is engraved the name of every American soldier killed in the war.  It is always a crowded place, probably in part because the Vietnam War is more recent, and occupies a more significant place in the American psyche, than other wars, but the power of the memorial itself might be its main attraction.  After all, we go to memorials to remember, lament, and be sad.  Seeing the names of the dead men at the same time as seeing their numbers—almost 60,000—is jarring.  Stalin’s (possibly apocryphal) maxim about individual versus mass death—”The death of one man is a tragedy.  The death of millions is a statistic”—comes to mind.  The Vietnam memorial collapses the space between the individual tragedy and the collective tragedy, and the full horror of war comes into focus.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin houses a memorial to the Holocaust dead that is smaller yet more effective than the official memorial.  You enter a long, concrete room two or three stories high, but your eyes are immediately drawn to the floor, which is not really a floor but a vast number of round, oblong faces, each uniquely distorted by agony, terror, and insanity.  You walk on the faces to the far end of the room and back.  They’re made of a dark metal and you can sense their weight.  When you step on them, they clank noisily.  There are maybe 10,000 of these metal faces and you cannot see the ground beneath them; each one rests on top of many more.  The effect of the memorial is unavoidable.

The official Berlin memorial does not offend its neighbors: ice cream and souvenir shops, as well as what appear to be commercial buildings.  The Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, itself now partly a memorial, are close by.  Both are more prominent.  The Holocaust memorial is low and unassuming.  It may appear comely to passing drivers and pedestrians, a nice break from the usual office buildings.  At the very least, it does not jolt them out of their daily routine.  Young children play hide and seek among the steles, and visitors to the memorial disobey the unenforced rules regarding climbing on top of them.  The outer steles are low enough to sit on, and many people do so.  You cannot blame either the children or the adults; the memorial does not command your attention, and its effect is not visceral.  You have to know what you’re looking at and you have to ponder its meaning, otherwise it’s just an interesting piece of modern urban sculpture, a stone jungle gym.  And you have to bring as well some knowledge of the Holocaust; there is a museum below the memorial, which may be an acknowledgment by the memorial’s creators that the memorial cannot even stand for itself.  But beware if you come armed with too much knowledge or baggage: the memorial, so majestic and unspecific, can feel more like a memorial to the contrition of the German nation than to the Jews it murdered.

Something similar to the Vietnam memorial or the Libeskind/Kadishman memorial, built to fill the same city block, would be a more appropriate Holocaust memorial.  Imagine six million names (if they are retrievable) engraved upon a massive one block by one block stele, five or ten or however many stories high.  Or imagine a one block by one block death pit, filled with hundreds of thousands of Kadishman’s howling faces.  Walking from one end to the other would be treacherous.  But memorials like this are probably impossible.  Giving such prominence to national failures and crimes is not done; the Vietnam memorial does not occupy a prime position on the Mall, but sits off to the side of the line linking the Lincoln memorial, the National World War Two memorial, the Washington memorial, and the Capitol building.  This arrangement communicates that the Vietnam War is to be remembered as an aberration in the triumphant narrative of America.

Maybe asking Berliners to walk past and live near a horrifying and outsize Holocaust memorial was unthinkable.  (It’s difficult to imagine a city voluntarily installing anything that could conceivably be called a “death pit” in its center.)  Maybe such a memorial was viewed as detrimental to the civic future of Berlin and Germany.  Nations build memorials to support the very idea of nationhood—the idea that all Germans, or all Americans, are brothers—and an adequate Holocaust memorial would do the opposite; it would be disturbing, and anti-German.  A nation must move on, I guess.  It must remember the past, but not too lucidly.  So we are left with a pretty memorial that relies on symbolism and the interpretive abilities of its visitors, a memorial that offends the past but not the present.

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