A Jew Among the Germans
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"germany's holocaust memorial problem -- and mine" by James E. Young
James E. Young was the only foreigner and the only Jew to serve on Germany's commission to select a design for its national Holocaust memorial. An expert on the articulation of Holocaust memory in art and memorials, Young is a professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In this excerpt from his book, At Memory's Edge, he chronicles the events and debates surrounding the second design competition for the memorial and the many questions the new memorial raised, including -- how would it fit in with the many Holocaust museums, commemorative spaces and permanent exhibitions on the Holocaust that were already in Berlin and surrounding areas?

Excerpted from At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture by James E. Young. Copyright © 2000 Yale University. Reproduced here by permission of, and all rights reserved by, Yale University Press.

… After yet another year of stormy debate over whether a new competition should be called, whether a new site should be found, or whether the winners should be invited to refine their proposals further still, the memorial's organizers again took the high road. They called for a series of public colloquia on the memorial to be held in January, March, and April 1997, which they hoped would break the memorial deadlock and ensure that the memorial be built before the Holocaust receded further into the history of a former century. Toward this end, they invited a number of distinguished artists, historians, critics, and curators to address the most difficult issues and to suggest how the present designs might best be modified. I was among those invited to speak at the last colloquium, in April 1997, and was asked to explore the memorial iconography of other nations' Holocaust memorials in order to put the Germans' process into international perspective.

The first two colloquia, in January and March 1997, roused considerable public interest, but as the exchanges between organizers of the memorial and invited speakers grew more acrimonious, a gloomy sense of despair settled over the proceedings. The organizers, led by Lea Rosh, insisted that the "five aims" of the project remain inviolable: (1) this would be a memorial only to Europe's murdered Jews; (2) ground would be broken for it on 27 January 1999, Germany's newly designated "Holocaust Remembrance Day" marked to coincide with the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945; (3) its location would be the five-acre site of the Ministerial Gardens, between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz; (4) the nine finalists' teams from the 1995 competition would be invited to revise their designs and concepts after incorporating suggestions and criticism from the present colloquia; and (5) the winning design would be chosen from the revised designs of the original nine finalists.

Not only did the designs continue to come under withering attack by the invited experts but the aims of the project itself were now called strongly into question. Among other speakers at the first colloquium, historian Jurgen Kocka suggested that although there was an obvious need for a memorial to Europe's murdered Jews, the need for a memorial to encompass the memory of the Nazis' other victims was just as clear. Other speakers, such as Michael Stärmer, then questioned the site itself, whether its gargantuan dimensions somehow invited precisely the kind of monumentality that had already been rejected. Other critics focused more narrowly on the first colloquium's theme: "Why There Should Be a Holocaust Memorial in Berlin," concluding that with the authentic sites of destruction and memory scattered throughout Berlin, there shouldn't be a central memorial at all.

These vociferous challenges to the memorial were met by a seemingly stony indifference by the speaker of the Berlin Senate, Peter Radunski, who had been appointed to convene the proceedings. Because these criticisms had no place on the agenda, he said, they need not be addressed here. Lea Rosh's response was less measured. She opened the third colloquium with a bitter attack on what she called the "leftist intellectual establishment" responsible for undermining both the process and by extension memory of Europe's murdered Jews. The aim here was how to go forward, she said, not to debate the memorial's raison d'être, which was already established. Her angry words, in turn, simply antagonized the critics and hardened the positions of the memorial's opponents, who included many of Germany's elite historians, writers, and cultural critics, including Reinhart Koselleck, Julius Schoeps, Solomon Korn, Stefanie Endlich, Christian Meier, and eventually Günter Grass and Peter Schneider.

By the time I spoke at the third colloquium in mid-April, both the organizers and a large public audience at the Stadtratshaus in Berlin had grown visibly and audibly agitated by the spectacle of their tortured memorial deliberations. Over and over again, the other speakers -- senators, art historians, and artists -- bemoaned the abject failure of their competition. All of which was compounded by their acute embarrassment over the incivility of it all, the petty bickering, the name-calling, the quagmire of politics into which the process seemed to be sinking. Bad enough we murdered the Jews of Europe, one senator whispered to me, worse that we can't agree on how to commemorate them.

When my turn to speak came, I discarded my carefully prepared lecture, which had already been translated and printed in the morning papers that day anyway. I began instead by trying to reassure the audience: decorum is never a part of the memorial-building process, not even for a Holocaust memorial. "You may have failed to produce a monument," I said, "but if you count the sheer number of design hours that 528 teams of artists and architects have already devoted to the memorial, it's clear that your process has already generated more individual memory-work than a finished monument will inspire in its first ten years." I proceeded to tell the stories of other, equally fraught memorial processes in Israel and the United States, the furious debate in Israel's Knesset surrounding the day of remembrance there, the memorial paralysis in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., that had eventually resulted in several competing memorials, all of them contested. I could almost hear the collective sigh of relief.

In fact, here I admitted that until that moment, I had been one of the skeptics. Rather than looking for a centralized monument, I was perfectly satisfied with the national memorial debate itself. Better, I had thought, to take all these millions of Deutsch marks and use them to preserve the great variety of Holocaust memorials already dotting the German landscape. Because no single site can speak for all the victims, much less for both victims and perpetrators, the state should be reminding its citizens to visit the many and diverse memorial and pedagogical sites that already exist: from the excellent learning center at the Wannsee Conference House to the enlightened exhibitions at the Topography of Terror at the former Gestapo headquarters, both in Berlin; from the brooding and ever-evolving memorial landscape at Buchenwald to the meticulously groomed grounds and fine museum at Dachau; from the hundreds of memorial tablets throughout Germany marking the sites of deportation to the dozens of now-empty sites of former synagogues -- and all the spaces for contemplation in between.

Here I also admitted that with this position, I had made many friends in Germany and was making a fine career out of skepticism. Most colleagues shared my fear that Chancellor Kohl's government wanted a "Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe" as a great burial slab for the twentieth century, a hermetically sealed vault for the ghosts of Germany's past. Instead of inciting memory of murdered Jews, we suspected, it would be a place where Germans would come dutifully to unshoulder their memorial burden, so that they could move freely and unencumbered into the twenty-first century. A finished monument would, in effect, finish memory itself.

On one hand, I said, we must acknowledge the public need and political necessity for a German national Holocaust memorial; at the same time, we must recognize the difficulty of answering this need in a single space. If the aim of a national Holocaust memorial in Berlin is to draw a bottom line under this era so that a reunified Germany can move unencumbered into the future, then let us make this clear. But if the aim is to remember for perpetuity that this great nation once murdered nearly six million human beings solely for having been Jews, then this monument must also embody the intractable questions at the heart of German Holocaust memory rather than claiming to answer them. Otherwise, I feared that whatever form the monument takes near the Potsdamer Platz would not mark the memory of Europe's murdered Jews so much as bury it altogether.

These were persuasive arguments against the monument, and I am still ambivalent about the role a central Holocaust monument will play in Berlin. But at the same time, I said, I have also had to recognize that this was a position of luxury that perhaps only an academic bystander could afford, someone whose primary interest was in perpetuating the process. As instructive as the memorial debate had been, however, it had neither warned nor chastened a new generation of xenophobic neo-Nazis -- part of whose identity depends on forgetting the crimes of their forebears. And although the memorial debate has generated plenty of shame in Germans, it is largely the shame they feel for an unseemly argument -- not for the mass murder once committed in their name. In good academic fashion, we had become preoccupied with the fascinating issues at the heart of the memorial process and increasingly indifferent to what was supposed to be remembered: the mass murder of Jews and the void it left behind.

The self-righteous and self-congratulatory tenor of our position had also begun to make me uneasy. Our unimpeachably skeptical approach to the certainty of monuments was now beginning to sound just a little too certain of itself. My German comrades in skepticism called themselves "the secessionists," a slightly self-flattering gesture to the turn-of-the-century movement of artists, many of whom would be Jewish victims of the Nazis. What had begun as an intellectually rigorous and ethically pure interrogation of the Berlin memorial was taking on the shape of a circular, centripetally driven, self-enclosed argument. It began to look like so much hand-wringing and fence-sitting, even an entertaining kind of spectator sport. "But can such an imperfect process possibly result in a good memorial?" parliamentarian Peter Conradi asked me at one point. I replied with an American aphorism that was altogether unfamiliar to his German ears: "Yes," I said, "for perfect is always the enemy of good." To this day, I'm not sure he understood my point.

And here, I realized, my personal stake in the memorial had begun to change. The day after I returned from that third colloquium in April, Speaker of the Berlin Senate Peter Radunski, called to ask if I would join a Findungskommission of five members appointed to find a suitable memorial design. Who were the other four, I asked. He replied with the names of the directors of the German Historical Museum in Berlin (Christoph Stölzl) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bonn (Dieter Ronte), as well as one of Germany's preeminent twentieth-century art historians (Werner Hoffmann) and one of Berlin's most widely respected and experienced arbiters of postwar architecture (Josef Paul Kleihues) -- all authorities he believed to be above reproach. We would be given free rein to extend the process as we saw fit, to invite further artists, and to make an authoritative recommendation to the chancellor and the memorial's organizers. I was to be the only true expert on Holocaust memorials, he said. And, as I then realized, I would be the only foreigner and Jew.

Before answering, I had to ask myself a series of simple but cutting questions: Did I want Germany to return its capital to Berlin without publicly and visibly acknowledging what had happened the last time Germany was governed from Berlin? With its gargantuan, even megalomaniacal restoration plans and the flood of big-industry money pouring into the new capital in quantities beyond Albert Speer's wildest dreams, could there really be no space left for public memory of the victims of Berlin's last regime? How, indeed, could I set foot in a new German capital built on the presumption of inadvertent historical amnesia that new buildings always breed? As Adorno had corrected his well-intentioned but facile (and now hackneyed) "Nach Auschwitz…" dictum, maybe it was also time for me to come down from my perch of holy dialectics and take a position.

But as one of the newly appointed arbiters of German Holocaust memory, I would also find myself in a strange and uncomfortable predicament. The skeptics' whispered asides echoed my own apprehensions: a mere decoration, this American Jew, a sop to authority and so-called expertise. I asked myself: Was I invited as an academic authority on memorials or as a token American and foreigner? Is it my expertise they want, or are they looking for a Jewish blessing on whatever design is finally chosen? If I can be credited for helping arbitrate official German memory, can I also be held liable for another bad design? In fact, just where is the line between my role as arbiter of German memory and my part in a fraught political process far beyond my own grasp?

And yet, I wondered, how is Germany to make momentous decisions like this without the Jewish sensibility so mercilessly expunged from its national consciousness? When Germany murdered half of its Jewish population and sent the rest into exile, and then set about exterminating another 5.5 million European Jews, it deliberately -- and I'm afraid permanently -- cut the Jewish lobe of its culture from its brain, so to speak. As a result, Germany suffers from a self-inflicted Jewish aphasia. Good, sensible Jewish leaders like Ignatz Bubis counsel wisdom and discretion. But even that is not a cure for this aphasia. A well-meaning German like Lea Rosh takes a Jewish name and initiates a monument. Neither is this a cure. No, the missing Jewish part of German culture remained a palpable and gaping wound in the German psyche -- and it must appear as such in Berlin's otherwise reunified cityscape.

The problem was that in voiding itself of Jews, Germany had forever voided itself of the capacity for a normal, healthy response to Jews and their ideas. Instead, it was all a tortured bending over backwards, biting one's tongue, wondering what "they" really thought of Germans. It is a terrible, yet unavoidable consequence of the Holocaust itself, this Jewish aphasia, a legacy of mass murder. Thus, I began to grasp just this need for a foreigner and a Jew on the Findungskommission. Without a Jewish eye to save it from egregiously misguided judgments (like the winner of the first competition), anything was possible. This might be as practical a matter as it was political.

So when asked to serve on this Findungskommission for Berlin's "Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe," I agreed, but only on the condition that we write a precise conceptual plan for the memorial. Perhaps the greatest weakness in the first competition had been its hopelessly vague conceptual description of the memorial, leaving artists to founder in an impossible sea of formal, conceptual, and political ambiguities. In contrast, we would be clear, for example, that this memorial will not displace the nation's other memorial sites, and that a memorial to Europe's murdered Jews would not speak for the Nazis' other victims but may, in fact, necessitate further memorials to them. Nor should this memorial hide the impossible questions driving Germany's memorial debate. It should instead reflect the terms of the debate, the insufficiency of memorials, the contemporary generation's skeptical view of official memory and its self-aggrandizing ways. After all, I had been arguing for years that a new generation of artists and architects in Germany -- including Christian Boltanski, Norbert Radermacher, Horst Hoheisel, Micha Ulmann, Stih and Schnock, Jochen Gerz, and Daniel Libeskind -- had turned their skepticism of the monumental into a radical counter monumentality. In challenging and flouting everyone of the monument's conventions, their memorials have reflected an essentially German ambivalence toward self-indictment, where the void was made palpable yet remained unredeemed. If the government insisted on a memorial in Berlin for "Europe's murdered Jews," then couldn't it, too, embody this same countermonumental critique?

Rather than prescribing a form, therefore, we described a concept of memorialization that took into account: a clear definition of the Holocaust and its significance; Nazi Germany's role as perpetrator; current reunified Germany's role as rememberer; the contemporary generation's relationship to Holocaust memory; and the aesthetic debate swirling around the memorial itself. Instead of providing answers, we asked questions: What are the national reasons for remembrance? Are they redemptory, part of a mourning process, pedagogical, self-aggrandizing, or inspiration against contemporary xenophobia? To what national and social ends will this memorial be built? Just how compensatory a gesture will it be? How antiredemptory can it be? Will it be a place for Jews to mourn lost Jews, a place for Germans to mourn lost Jews, or a place for Jews to remember what Germans once did to them? These questions must be made part of the memorial process, I suggested, so let them be asked by the artists in their designs, even if they cannot finally be answered.

Here I also reminded organizers that this would not be an aesthetic debate over how to depict horror. The Holocaust, after all, was not merely the annihilation of nearly 6 million Jews, among them 1.5 million children, but also the extirpation of a thousand-year-old civilization from the heart of Europe. Any conception of the Holocaust that reduces it to the horror of destruction alone ignores the stupendous loss and void left behind. The tragedy of the Holocaust is not merely that people died so terribly but that so much was irreplaceably lost. An appropriate memorial design will acknowledge the void left behind and not concentrate on the memory of terror and destruction alone. What was lost needs to be remembered here as much as how it was lost.

In addition, I suggested that organizers must be prepared to accept the fact that this memorial was being designed in 1997, more than fifty years after the end of World War II. It will necessarily reflect the contemporary sensibility of artists, which includes much skepticism over the very appropriateness of memorials, their traditional function as redemptory sites of mourning, national instruction, and self-aggrandizement. To this end, I asked organizers to encourage a certain humility among designers, a respect for the difficulty of such a memorial. It is not surprising that a memorial such as Jackob-Marks's was initially chosen: it represented very well a generation that felt oppressed by Holocaust memory, which would in turn oppress succeeding generations with such memory. But something subtler, more modest, and succinct might suggest a balance between being oppressed by memory and being inspired by it, a tension between being permanently marked by memory and being disabled by it. As other nations have remembered the Holocaust according to their founding myths and ideals, their experiences as liberators, victims, or fighters, Germany will also remember according to its own complex and self-abnegating motives, whether we like them or not. Let Germany's official memorial reflect its suitably tortured relationship to the genocide of Europe's Jews, I said.

Before proceeding, we had to address two further concerns shared both by us, as members of the Findungskommission, and the memorial's opponents: Should it be a contemplative site only, or pedagogically inclined as well? By extension, would, this memorial serve as a center of gravity for the dozens of memorials and pedagogical centers located at the actual sites of destruction, or would it somehow displace them and even usurp their memorial authority? Because we did not see Holocaust memory in Germany as a zero-sum project, we concluded that there was indeed room in Berlin's new landscape for both commemorative spaces and pedagogically oriented memorial institutions. In fact, Berlin and its environs were already rich with excellent museums and permanent exhibitions on the Holocaust -- from the Wannsee Villa to the Topography of Terror, from the new Jewish Museum on Lindenstrasse and the proposed Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism to the critical and insightful exhibitions at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. …


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posted may 31, 2005

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