Small World

Jewish World Review / Sept. 25, 1998 / 5 Tishrei, 5759
A woman passes posters
of Germany's two candidates
for chancellorship, Kohl,
in back, Schroder, in front.

A vote for memory?

As Germans go to the polls on Sunday for their elections, a planned National Holocaust Museum is emerging as a symbolic -- and divisive -- issue

By Toby Axelrod

BERLIN --- An empty field near the border of the pre- and post-Communist capital of Germany is dividing the country again.

A German Holocaust memorial, the first one with a national scope, is to rise on a 17-acre building site near the towering Brandenburg Gate that formerly separated East and West Berlin.

The subject of a national debate, as well as an issue in the election for chancellor coming up Sunday, its future now is in doubt.

The planned memorial — once supported by Germany’s politicians, intellectuals and general public — again is forcing the German people to come to grips with the horrors of their 20th century past. While the idea of a memorial to the Holocaust has wide support, the size and cost of this one has drawn wide opposition.

Incumbent Chancellor Helmut Kohl, trailing in most polls, is in favor of the memorial, although he postponed final approval until after the election, pending the subsequent approval of the Berlin city council and a citizens’ initiative.

Kohl’s likely successor, Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democrat Party, is against the memorial, as are leading German left-wing intellects and, according to a recent survey, most Berliners.

Schroeder’s likely choice as culture minister, former book publisher Michael Naumann, opposes the memorial on the grounds that it would set the wrong tone for a “self-assured” land. Naumann said the memorial was reminiscent of the work of chief Nazi architect Albert Speer, an explosive analogy that drew rebukes but also applause from the numerous critics.

New questions were raised about the project this summer, when American artist Richard Serra, partner in the design favored by Kohl, withdrew for what he called personal and professional reasons. Serra’s former teammate, New York architect Peter Eisenman, indicated he would carry on alone.

Serra’s resignation was the latest dramatic installment in the memorial series, a 10-year-old brainchild of Hamburg television personality Lea Rosh and Stuttgart history professor Eberhard Jaeckel. It is slated to cost more than $10 million and open in 2000.

The Serra-Eisenman design consists of 4,000 stone pillars on a stark plaza of more than 180,000 square feet. The overall effect is said to be that of a graveyard-like labyrinth which can be entered from any of its four sides.

After years of public debate and two design competitions, a group of German writers earlier this year published an open letter to Kohl saying no artwork could symbolize the Holocaust, and that the money should be spent on research and protecting memorials at several former concentration camps and death camps around the country. And Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, a member of Kohl’s Christian Democrats who has long maintained close relations with the Jewish community, led an increasingly populist campaign against it. He called the memorial grandiose and said the center of Berlin had no historical connections to the Holocaust.

The grassroots debate continues.

Some critics ask why the memorial should be dedicated to Jewish victims only. (A separate memorial has been planned for the Gypsy victims, and advocates for homosexual victims are fighting for one, too.) Others want to know why Berlin’s scattered memorials — marking deportation sites, for example — aren’t enough. Still others ask when they can stop talking about the Holocaust, once and for all.

More than 56 years after the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was mapped out at a villa in Berlin’s Wannsee suburb, the Holocaust is not about to go away as a topic of discussion here.

“The years of debate are itself like a monument,” says Jens Jessen, culture editor at the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. “It is not only a debate about the memorial but about how Germans work with Holocaust history. It is one of the most intelligent discussions we have ever had.”

Oft invoked is the word Schlussstrich, or bottom line, after which the Holocaust need not be discussed. “There is a saturation point being reached in the public,” says Die Ziet’s Berlin correspondent, Klaus Hartung. “But I am convinced there will never be a Schlussstrich.”

Hartung observes evolution of the discussion in his own family. “My daughter knows what Auschwitz was, but she does not see herself as a member of a nation of criminals.”

German Jews have chimed in, almost all in favor of a memorial. But there is general agreement that it should be planned by and for all Germans, and not by and for German Jews (there are about 70,000 here now, nearly doubled in the last several years through emigration from the former Soviet Union).

“We as Jewish people don’t need a memorial to remember,” says Norma Drimmer, vice president of the 10,700-member Berlin Jewish Community. “When I say a memorial should be built, I say this as a member of this generation of Germans, as a citizen of this city,” says Drimmer, whose family lost more than 300 members in the Holocaust.

“Mayor Diepgen is the man who caused this shambles,” says Michel Friedman, board member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “Diepgen doesn’t want Berlin to be a city of repentance. So he delayed it, chopped it down and pulled it into the campaign. It’s a scandal. We can live with a decision not to build. But we can’t live with a hypocritical decision not to decide.”

Bruce Ramer, president of the American Jewish Committee, last week urged erection of the memorial, calling it “an absolute necessity.”

“Embracing the memory of the Holocaust is for Jews a sacred matter,” Ramer said. “It should be no less important for Germans. In the half-century that has passed since those dark years, Germany has shouldered its responsibilities in unprecedented ways. The building and establishing of an appropriate Holocaust memorial seems a fitting symbol of that responsibility.”

The debate reveals the many-layered relationship Germans today have with this chapter of their history. In a nation where millions of citizens have little firsthand experience with democracy; where joblessness often is blamed on so-called foreigners; where a radical right-wing party recently reaped a stunning 12.9 per cent in a state election; and where neo-Nazi crimes (from bomb-making to physical attacks) have surged in the last year, Berlin’s Holocaust memorial is another sensitive topic.

Its planned site, bigger than a football field, is surrounded by a high wooden fence posted with signs that warn, “Verboten,” [entrance] forbidden.

On one recent afternoon, double-decker buses pass between the columns of the Brandenburg Gate, casually crossing where East German soldiers once stood watch with orders to shoot.

A 46-year-old engineer passing by the site pronounces plans for the memorial too big. But, he says, “It is sensible to have a special memorial for the Jewish people because they suffered the most, and right here in Berlin, too.”

“There are still Nazis in Germany,” says Alexander Jordan, 26, of Hamburg. “It is important to remember what happened. It can happen again because there are too many jobless.”

“It should be not only for the Jews but for all the victims, the Poles, the Sinti and Roma,” says a 26-year-old man, using the formal terms for the major Gypsy groups.

Lars Mueller, a 28-year-old student, says he prefers a rejected proposal for the memorial — a bus station offering educational trips to Auschwitz. Says his friend, 37-year-old Joerg von Stein, “The discussion about the whole thing [is] absolutely unbearable. They have been discussing for 10 years, and nothing has happened.”

Fears that a memorial would attract vandalism are not unfounded. Three times since last December, vandals have defaced a stone that marks a deportation site on Grosse Hambuger Strasse, most recently with swastikas and the word Schweinkopf, pighead.

A temporary volunteer-watch program was established there, together with a police guard. It’s a good listening post for opinions on the controversial memorial, says Friedhelm-Leonhard Lennartz, who served as a volunteer.

“Every night we hear passers-by say things like, ‘That sh—-y memorial, it costs too much, and look at what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians.”

“It is my opinion that people with such opinions are mostly drunk,” Lennartz says. “But there’s a German saying, ‘In wine is the truth.’ ”

Toby Axelrod is a Berlin-based journalist.


©1998, Toby Axelrod