The Most Powerful Holocaust Memorial I've Seen
While German history has been a big part of my life and I’ve traveled to that country several times, I’d never been to its capital city. So when my colleague Sam Mulberry and I spent a week last month criss-crossing Germany, I made sure to end our tour with two days in Berlin. Our goal was to scout locations for a 2023 tour on the theme of “Christianity and German Culture” (details to come later this summer). But in Berlin, I was most interested in seeing a site dedicated to the adherents of another faith.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe turned out to be the most powerful Holocaust memorial I’ve ever seen.
Now, not everyone’s as big a fan as I am. “Without that title,” grumbled New Yorker critic Richard Brody in 2012, “it would be impossible to know what the structure is meant to commemorate.” Seven years after the memorial finally opened, Brody couldn’t understand why there was nothing attached to Peter Eisenman’s 2,710 concrete stelae “that signifies any of the words of the title, except, perhaps, ‘memorial’—insofar as some of them, depending on their height, may resemble either headstones or sarcophagi. So it’s something to do with death. And as for the title itself—which murdered Jews? When? Where?”
There is an interpretive center on site that can answer all of Brody’s questions. And the designer offered his own explanation at the memorial website. But if Eisenman’s right that “the extent and scale of the Holocaust inevitably make any attempt to represent it by traditional means a hopeless undertaking,” then the most radical evil in history demands a radical rethinking of how we prompt remembering.1
Eisenman’s decision to omit any conventional cues left Brody frustrated, since the “metaphorical possibilities are varied—too much so.” Does it evoke a cemetery? Yes. Was Sam also right to think of a city — a mirror image of Berlin itself? Sure. What of Eisenman’s own view that the memorial “represents the instability inherent in a system with a seemingly rational structure and the potential for its gradual dissolution… all closed systems must fail with a closed order”? Uh, if he says so.
All I can really tell you is what I felt. First, the “eerie claustrophobia” that Brody himself experienced.
While all 2,710 pillars are the same coffin-like width and length, their height varies from almost even with the ground to towering thirteen feet over it. I didn’t recognize that at first, because they look roughly even at a distance. But I soon realized that the ground is not as flat as every other commemorative site I’ve visited. After a few steps, the ground slopes down, briefly inclines enough to evoke some sense of fleeting hope, then drops again, as fast as the stelae rise around you. Before too long I felt crushed, or entombed.
And the stelae are placed too close to allow visitors the relief of having a companion at their side. You are meant to be alone.
Desperate for reminders of life, I keened to the startled laughter of children playing hide and seek amid the stones. Then my ears picked up murmurs of conversation, and I came out the north side of the memorial to find couples picknicking on top of the shorter, outer stelae.
And that reminded me to think of the memorial not just as a dead city, but part of a living community. Indeed, its very location within Berlin carries symbolism that Brody may have missed.
It’s not just that a stone graveyard lying almost literally in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate permanently punctures old claims to German greatness. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe rests in what used to be the “death strip” separating the inner and outer sections of the Berlin Wall.
Maybe it was a reach for me to imagine the stelae as repurposed fragments of Die Mauer. But I can’t help but think of reunified Berlin’s principal Holocaust memorial by pointed contrast to the way that the Communist government that walled in its own citizens commemorated the Shoah.
Two days earlier, Sam and I had stopped at Buchenwald. While we eventually walked the preserved grounds and toured the powerful museum, we inadvertently started our visit by getting off at the first Buchenwald bus stop. It takes you to the National Buchenwald Memorial, erected in 1958, when this was East German territory. At the culmination of that complex, a cluster of revolutionary survivors hoists a red flag in front of a bell tower heralding the advent of a new world.
As with any work of Socialist Realism, the intent could not be more clear. As the current Buchenwald website explains, the visitor to that memorial “was to emerge convinced of the historical necessity of the triumph of Communism and conscious of the fact that this form of government had not yet taken hold everywhere and he must therefore remain alert and militant.”
Even 30+ years after the downfall of the German Democratic Republic, that memorial still feels oppressive, as one dictatorship dictates how you’re supposed to interpret another. It’s commemoration as control.2
Post-1945 and post-1989, it’s no surprise that German commemoration of German iniquity will instead err on the side of allowing the individual to make her own meaning.3 After all, wrote Peter Eisenman, “all closed systems must fail with a closed order.”
Finally, just in case the physical card I mailed doesn’t get to Virginia on time, let me take advantage of this newsletter to make sure my mother knows I’m wishing her a very happy birthday!
Not surprisingly, Mom was one of the first people to subscribe to this version of The Pietist Schoolman, just as she was one of the blog’s earliest readers. I always know I’ve hit the mark when Mom tells me that she enjoyed and saved something I’ve written.
Hope it’s a great day, Mom.
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That doesn’t have to mean massive abstraction. Another unconventional, creative, and controversial means of Holocaust commemoration are the Stolpersteine. Over 90,000 of these small “stumbling stones” have been installed in cities and towns around Europe, each naming a victim or survivor at the spot of their last residence. But Bavaria’s highest court recently upheld Munich’s ban on the Stolpersteine, a response to Jewish leaders who complained that remembrance based on “stumbling over a piece of metal in the ground is anything but dignified.”
Our second day in Berlin, I took Sam further east, to a small park in Rosenstraße. Near that spot in early 1943, about two hundred “Aryan” women spent a week successfully protesting the imprisonment of their Jewish husbands and sons. In commemoration of that rarest of German examples of public protest against the Holocaust, sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger began work on a “Block of Women” in the late 1980s. But it wasn’t until 1995, five years after the collapse of the GDR, that her memorial was placed in the park, where visitors are now reminded how “the strength of civil disobedience, the vigour of love overcomes the violence of dictatorship.”