A Jew Among the Germans
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"the holocaust memorial: against all expectations"...by Heinrich Wefing, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
One of Germany's preeminent architectural critics, Heinrich Wefing has closely studied the rebuilding of Berlin after World War II. In this review for Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he chronicles the many years of controversy that had to be overcome to complete the Berlin memorial and credits Eisenman with creating "a new type of memorial": a beautiful abstraction that "does not dictate what its observer should think or experience," but is nonetheless thoughtful and moving. [Note: This is an excerpt of the published article and has been translated from the original German.]

May 4, 2005

Is a Holocaust memorial allowed to be attractive?

The sinking of this giant sculpture in the sand of Berlin is a decidedly contemplative gesture, purposely removing everything unsettling from the memorial, in spite of its dimensions. Those who had expected a "nightmare the size of a football field," as Martin Walser prophesized in his St. Paul's Church speech in 1998, a "monumentalization of shame" -- those people must find themselves surprised. The monument nestles itself nicely into the irregular quadrangle formed by the surrounding streets. On the edges, the concrete blocks rise almost casually from the sidewalks, barely ankle-high, as if something were rising to the surface here that could also be hiding somewhere else underground.

It is this pleasingness, this demure gracefulness, that is perhaps the most vexing thing on the first visit. Is a Holocaust memorial allowed to be attractive? Is it allowed, when the light plays on the sharp-edged blocks, when the sun hatches the slate gray of the concrete, when rain and dust leave fine streaks upon them, then is it allowed -- one is almost afraid to say it -- is it allowed to be beautiful?

No indication who is to be remembered

Yet the question of the dedication of the memorial arises even more powerfully. In its radical refusal of the inherited iconography of remembrance, Berlin's field of stones also forgoes any statement about its own reason for existence. The installation gives no indication who is to be remembered. There are no inscriptions. One seeks in vain for the names of the murdered, for Stars of David or other Jewish symbols.

It is not entirely wrong, then, that a tourist from distant lands could just as well read Eisenman's giant sculpture as a memorial for the German soldiers of Stalingrad, or as a memorial site for the genocide in Rwanda, as has been claimed. Likewise, the widely varying purposes attributed to the memorial by its initiators also speak distinctly of its manifold interpretability. One moment it's to be a cemetery for the nameless, whose graves are in the air above the gas chambers, the next it's interpreted as a conspicuous warning -- "Never again!" Eisenman explained that the passage through the memorial creates a "feeling of being torn apart" that resembles the feeling in Auschwitz, "where many children were torn from their parents."

No pointing finger

Luckily, the field of rectangles is more intelligent than the interpretive suggestions of its architect. It might be a lot of things, but one thing it is certainly not: a Holocaust simulator. To claim that here one can experience the feelings of the victims (and then afterwards go have a cup of coffee) -- that would not only be obscene, it would also be denying the actual qualities of the memorial. One of its merits is that it does not dictate what its observer should think or experience.

No one of the 2,711 rectangles is a raised, pointing finger of concrete. If you prefer to see the stone garden as a work of abstract art, as a meaning-free land art installation, you are not hindered from thinking that way. If you don't want to meditate in the field of stelae, if you don't want to experience anything at all, you're free to devote yourself to the emptiness in your skull, as difficult as it seems to imagine that one could go through the area entirely unmoved. For whoever takes even a few steps in finds himself -- almost without transition -- alone. Submerged in a space of reflection in the middle of the city, the noise of the surrounding streets muffled. Lost from the sight of your companions, able to make contact only by calling out, you are entirely thrown back on yourself, on your own thoughts.

The "Information Center" interrupts

For those who balk at such an experience or who mistrust their own imaginations, there is the "Information Center" (Ort der Information). Foisted on the memorial through endless scrapping, the center is a didactic compromise between the advocates of the memorial and those who had instead supported a German Holocaust museum. The underground exhibit hall on lies on the southeastern edge of Eisenman's construction.

Aesthetically, the Information Center runs against every intention of the open memorial. The aboveground pavilion of the subterranean documentation area mars the steady measure of the order of rectangles. The entrances literally cut through the filigree net of paths. But above all, the exhibit area gives the memorial that which by its very conception it should not have: a defined attraction. Instead of straying directionlessly through the field, the visitors are channeled in one direction, toward the bathrooms and the coat check and the displays.

Inside, the reproaches fall silent

Admittedly, all objections against this pedagogical extra fall silent when one has descended the stairs to the Information Center and entered the first four rooms. There is nothing else like this in Berlin, nothing like what is imparted about the Holocaust in this small space, through carefully chosen examples in a sparing, yet suggestive display.

In the very first room there is a letter on a white plate of glass sunken in the earth. In July 1942, the twelve-year-old Judith Wischnjatskaja, from Byten in eastern Poland, wrote to her father in America: "Dear Father! I take my leave of you before death. We would so much like to live, but they won't let us, we will perish. I am so afraid of this death, for the small children are thrown alive into the grave. Goodbye forever. I kiss you. Your J."

We don't know exactly when the girl was murdered. It is clear only that a Soviet officer found her letter and sent it to Moscow, whence it reached Jerusalem through winding paths, and finally Berlin. Whoever reads the letter, whoever looks at the wedding pictures, the postcards and family photos of the murdered in the following rooms, and next to them the pictures of the piles of corpses -- that person no longer asks about the dedication of the memorial or about its rationale. Whoever has read little Judith's letter, that person understands that the memorial is a millstone that the republic has demonstratively bound to its leg, in order that it does not raise itself from the ground of the past.


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posted may 31, 2005

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