Jewish World Review July 11, 2005/ 4 Taamuz,
Remembrance and remorse in Berlin
How that war is remembered continues to be a subject of hot
debate, dramatized most extravagantly in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews
of Europe, which occupies five acres of prime real estate near the Reichstag
and the Brandenburg Gate, not far from the unmarked site of Hitler's bunker.
Seventeen years' work was required to build the memorial five years
longer than the Third Reich lasted and tempers still come quickly to boil
in any discussion of it.
Martin Walser, a German author, sees the monument as an exercise
in masochism, referring to the "never ending presentation of our shame."
Horst Hoheisel, an artist, suggests that a better test of the public will
for national sacrifice would have been to tear down the 200-year-old
Brandenburg Gate, the city's iconic landmark, and grind its stone and bronze
into dust and scatter it to the winds.
Several groups targeted for persecution by the Third Reich were
angry not to be included in the memorial. These include homosexuals,
pacifists, gypsies (Sinti and Roma), J ehovah's Witnesses, the mentally and
physically disabled, victims of medical experiments, and political
prisoners, including more than three million Soviet prisoners of war who did
not survive imprisonment in German camps. Some Berliners even wanted to
memorialize German soldiers as victims of Hitler and his Nazi evil. Victim
politics in Germany, like victim politics elsewhere, becomes a competition
to see who has the deepest scars.
But whatever anyone thinks of this memorial, with its 2,711
concrete commemorative slabs of uneven size set on an uneven surface, it's
an extraordinary declaration by the German government that the Third Reich
requires remembrance and reflection in the midst of throbbing urban life of
offices, apartment houses, shops, hotels and embassies. The memorial sends a
powerful warning of what can happen when the state becomes a killing
machine. Unlike specific sites of the Holocaust, such as the death camp at
Auschwitz, the Grunewald train station where Jews were pushed into
deportation trains, or plaques marking places where Jews once lived, this
memorial grew spontaneously out of a grass-roots effort by ordinary Germans,
supported by the Bundestag, to mourn six million Jews and to document
systematic crimes of the German state.
The context for the memorial, says Peter Eisenman, the American
architect who designed it, "is the enormity of the banal," drawing on Hannah
Arendt's description of the Holocaust as an exercise of the "banality of
evil." The stones force a visitor to realize that many of those murdered
remain anonymous, lost from the records of ordinary life, as mysterious as
the flickering shadows that play across the stones at different times of the
day. In an underground information center in one corner of the memorial,
words and photographs document with chilling understatement the experiences
of innocent men, women and children. The stories of warm family life are
illuminated against the cold calculations of government policy, crying out
The debate over the Memorial to the Murdered Jews continues to
raise questions for the Germans over their national identity, what and how
they absorb the past into their culture. While the memory concentrates on
the victims, the Topography of Terror, the site of the Gestapo headquarters
only a short walk from the memorial, focuses on the perpetrators. The
outdoor exhibit shows specifically how the killing machine was operated by
ordinary men who saw themselves as cogs in a wheel of an efficient
bureaucracy designed to terrorize and murder effectively. Heinrich Himmler
and Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's henchmen, and their assistants sat at desks
at "Gestapo Central" working over plans for the Final Solution as if they
were designing summer camps for children.
Museums, monuments and memorials have different purposes and
speak in different voices to subsequent generations. To Germany's credit, it
has not taken an easy route to remembrance and remorse. Everyday life
confronts unspeakable evil. Children run through a forest of stones, playing
hide-and-seek in a labyrinth of abstract memory. Ghostly villains haunt the
conscience of the new millennium. We live and learn. We
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