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The Berlin Holocaust Memorial: Dehumanizing, haunting, and larger-than-life

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe  by architect Peter Eisenman was built in 2003-04 in the urban center of Berlin. The abstract, grayscale memorial occupies the space of one city block with rectangular prisms (“stelae”) rising out of the uneven ground. Stelae are situated into a row-column grid, though slightly uneven. The stelae are mostly the same height, but as the viewer walks to the middle of the field, the ground sinks to reveal deeper “heights” of the concrete blocks. The memorial is controversial, yet not an outrage or a scandal; it presents the subject matter in a way that reasonable people can reasonably disagree. And disagree they have. However, despite the at-times divided public reaction, the memorial makes a memorable and effective impression on the viewer through its desolate presentation and uneven construction.

Eisenman’s design was selected in 1997 as the replacement for a previously selected memorial which received backlash from the city’s Jewish community. After years of stalling from politicians maneuvering to avoid losing public support, and eventually the Bundestag itself taking on voting authoring for the project, construction began in 2003. It was not long until the press reported that anti-graffiti-coating company was also the company that produced Zyklon-B, the hydrogen gas that was used to kill millions of Jews in the Holocaust — to understandable outrage. The decision was made to proceed with the construction anyways — also to outrage — and the memorial opened on May 10th, 2005, near the 60th anniversary of the end of the war.

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It is worth sampling even a few of the reactions, as catalogued by PBS Frontline. Michal Bodemann criticized the memorial for existing at all, saying that a constant focus on Germany’s racist past is used as a shield against Germany’s racist present. Julius Schoeps writes, “I find it regrettable that they decided on a design that can stand for everything and for nothing.” Ilka Piepgras comments that an effective memorial to an atrocity like the Holocaust should overwhelm and overpower one’s emotions, though even that cannot be enough to match the true tragedy of the events. She claims that the Berlin memorial fails to do this, and asks, “Shouldn’t it be disturbing rather than inviting a picnic on its stones?”

Conversely, Heinrich Wefing praises Eisenman’s work, calling it “a new type of memorial”: a beautiful abstraction that “does not dictate what its observer should think or experience.” An American critic of architecture, Nicolai Ouroussoff, claims that the memorial “conveys the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion.” Many more have opined on the success or failure of the memorial, in proportions that do not seem to overwhelm each other.

The memorial, in my brief experience, successfully and lastingly impressed upon me both the dehumanization at work in the Holocaust, and its grave extent. Though often cited in criticism of Eisenman’s design, I found the lack of names, or placards, or designations, or really any other words at all, to be disturbingly plain. The barren stone bespoke a time in the not too distant past when humans themselves were reduced to barren, lifeless bodies — alive, but only in a strictly biological sense. In the same way that the stelae are “memorials” only in the strictest sense (after all, they would not memorialize anything in particular without the whole field being given a title), the Jews had become “humans” only in the strictest sense. In every other way, they were reduced by the Nazis to the status of mere animals. I found this aspect of the memorial compelling and haunting, even nearly three months later.

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The uneven, disorienting construction also left a substantive, lingering impression. As I walked deeper into the belly of the memorial, the ground itself shifted and sank. Rather than have the blocks grow higher and higher (though that was partially happening), Eisenman had the floor sink from beneath the viewer. Viewer may be the wrong term, for in an all-encompassing, larger-than-life experience like this, I became a more than a viewer: a participant, all of me caught up in the remembrance of the murdered Jews in Europe. As the floor sank, so too did the depth of the dehumanized concrete reveal its true depth; as the Holocaust progressed, so too did the depth of dehumanization become more and more pronounced and intentional.

To create a memorial that is not just viewable, but inhabitable, is to create something on the border. Not the border of “void and monument, between vague symbolism and a denial of interpretation,” as Tom Dyckhoff wrote in the London Times. No, more than a void, the other pole of the tension is tangible experience, something that could do much to help regular people remember the tragedy of the Holocaust.  

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