A Jew Among the Germans
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"remembrance is the cause of a few activists" An interview with Julius Schoeps, head of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam, Germany, by Jan-Hendrik Wulf for Die Tageszeitung
Julius Schoeps, head of the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam, visited the memorial and was not impressed. In this interview, he tells Die Tageszeitung, Germany's daily newspaper, that the era of public memorials has passed: "They stand in the landscape, and people don't even know what they recall." "I find it regrettable," he argues "that they decided on a design that can stand for everything and for nothing." As a teacher, he would rather take his students to visit the concentration camps. "It would be better if we would consider what can be done to protect young people from making the same mistakes as their grandparents," he says. [Note: This has been translated from the original German.]

May 6, 2005

Mr. Schoeps, with the construction of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, have we passed up the chance to unite Jewish and non-Jewish remembrance of the Shoah?

Only conditionally does one have anything to do with the other. The Jews think of their own dead, while the non-Jews think of the victims. Those are two different levels. Why is a common remembrance necessary? Should the Jews stretch out a hand in conciliation? You can't bring the dead back to life. In today's Germany, it troubles me that we ardently remember the dead Jews, but don't bother ourselves about the living Jews. Just think of the integration problems of the Russian-Jewish immigrants.

But isn't the remembrance of the Shoah a societal necessity?

Could be. It seems like a produced necessity to me. A majority of the population is hardly interested in it. Remembrance is the cause of a few activists and intellectuals. I often have the impression that it's as though we want to be done with a phantom sorrow.

Phantom sorrow? What exactly do you mean by that?

It's the suffering from a past that you know you can no longer change. It has bothered me from the beginning that with this memorial/monument, the attempt is being made to reproduce something that has been lost. But in the foreseeable future, Germany won't be done with what happened between 1933 and 1945. You see that in the fact that every two or three years in Germany, a debate breaks out over the question of how the past should be dealt with.

Can the memorial help in coping with the past?

The memorial will hardly make everyone fall into each other's arms and collective well-being break out. It would be better if we would consider what can be done to protect young people from making the same mistakes as their grandparents. It is still not clear to me what the aim of this memorial is. Is it the definitive final stroke under the past? Is it the place where state visitors will be taken in the future? I would have wished for a memorial for all the victims of National Socialism.

Maybe the Communists, gays, Sinti and Roma [European gypsies] just aren't as interesting.

It probably relates to people's insecurity about how the history of National Socialism should be dealt with. The memorial will surely become a tourist attraction. But is that desired? As a teacher I would find it more useful to take young people to the authentic sites, that is, to where the crimes were committed. That would be relatively simple to bring about. All around Berlin there are camps, such as Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück, and others. Admittedly, they are in somewhat of an awful state.

But isn't the memorial a civilizing advance?

I am no friend of this kind of monument. It's my view that we should endeavor to look out for new aesthetic forms and content forms to convey important messages into the future. Memorials that are hewn in stone or cast in steel have their time. Think of the Monument of the Battle of Nations in Leipzig and other monuments. They stand in the landscape, and the people don't even know what they recall. I'm afraid it will come to that with the Holocaust Memorial.

Have you visited it yet?

Yes. I had the feeling of being in a kind of a cemetery. The cemetery motif surely played a role in Peter Eisenman's thought. The trip to the site didn't particularly move me. The arbitrariness of the messages especially troubled me. Whom does one commemorate at this place? The Jews? Or perhaps the fallen Wehrmacht soldiers? The whole thing is not so entirely clear.

Maybe these days that's not possible any more, obliging people to a unified remembrance?

People need symbolic remembrance and maybe places of memory. But we have to consider it more precisely before we start a project like this memorial. That didn't happen. Already in the call for submissions they didn't know what they actually wanted. I find it regrettable that they decided on a design that can stand for everything and for nothing. There were undoubtedly better proposals. I remember the bus station project; it was conceived so that people would be driven to a site such as Sachsenhausen. That would have been the decision for the authentic site. But they didn't want that. The memorial is a constructed place, a non-place.

 

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posted may 31, 2005

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