We visited the Holocaust memorial (or The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, to give it it’s proper name), which is close to the Brandenburg Gate, during the first afternoon of our time in Berlin. It was designed by the architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold and was inaugurated in May 2005.
The memorial consists of 2,711 concrete slabs or "stelae" of varying heights arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field on 19 thousand square metre (4.7-acre) site. Visitors can get amongst the stelae, walking through them. The deeper you get into the field, the higher the stelae become and walking through the narrow passageways with the uneven floor produced a claustrophobic, unsettling effect.
Wikipedia tells us that
According to Eisenman’s project text, the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.
The underground information centre, which is free to enter (after you’ve gone through a security check), has an exhibition that
documents the persecution and extermination of European Jewry as well as the historic sites of the crimes. (Memorial website)
computer terminals that allow access to archive material, and the obligatory bookshop.
There are five rooms in the exhibition, which explore a different aspect of the Nazi’s policy to exterminate the Jews in Europe. It doesn’t just focus on hard facts and figures with numbers of people murdered that are hard to comprehend, but also explores the human element. It was this latter aspect that I found the most moving. In the Room of Dimensions quotations from memoirs of some of the victims were displayed on panels on the floor.
The Room of Dimensions (picture source Memorial website)
The Room of Families explored the stories of a selection of Jewish families from across Europe, providing details of their family history before the war and, as far as possible, tracing what happened to them. In most cases it was not a happy outcome.
In the Room of Names, names of individual victims are read out, both in German and English.
An attempt is made here to dissolve the incomprehensible abstract number of six million murdered Jews and to release the victims from their anonymity. At the same time, the name, year of birth and death of each person is projected on the four walls.
With over six million Jewish people murdered by the Nazis, it will take a long time to work through the list.
One statistic that I did find interesting was the small number of Jews that were killed in Denmark. This was because the Danish resistance movement organised the evacuation of about 7,800 Danish Jews by sea to nearby neutral Sweden. The story is described in more detail in this webpost about the Danish Jewish Museum by Eirene of A Place Called Space
Visiting the exhibition was a moving experience. It really is difficult to comprehend how the cold blooded murder of so many people could have happened. But it did and, sadly, genocide didn’t end in 1945. There are far too many examples of where groups of people have been persecuted due to their race, religion, sexual orientation etc., albeit not on the incomprehensible scale of what the Nazis attempted.
The memorial has not had universal approval. Criticisms include only commemorating the Jewish victims of the Holocaust – there are separate memorials to homosexuals and European Sinti and Roma (“Gypsies”) nearby – and for some people the design of the monument is too abstract (see BBC report here).
Personally, I found the memorial and the exhibition moving, and the abstract nature of the memorial worked for me. It felt like walking through a graveyard and gave a sense of being trapped and entombed. I came away thinking about man’s inhumanity to man and how that continues today. But I am sympathetic to the message and the visit really only reinforced my view. I wonder whether it would have any impact on those prejudiced individuals with racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic attitudes etc.