A forest of pillars, recalling the Holocaust: the controversial Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin
In the 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the nation, Germany has struggled to come to terms with its Nazi past. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the restored capital, where a vast rebuilding effort has transformed the once-ravaged city center.
Probably Berlin’s signature monument is the Brandenburg Gate, a 20-meters-tall and 12-collumned triumphal arch topped by a life-sized bronze quadriga. The gate was built in the late 18th century, and opens onto the Unter den Linden. During the Cold War, the Wall snaked right behind it.
However, if you’ll skirt the edge of the Tiergarten, you’ll caught sight of a strange expanse to your right, filled with coffin-like, gray concrete blocks.
Completed on December 15, 2004 and designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, is a Memorial. The installation is a living experiment in montage, a Kuleshov effect of the juxtaposition of image and text. The text in question is its title: in German, Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas—a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Without that title, it would be impossible to know what the structure is meant to commemorate. There’s nothing about these concrete slabs that signifies any of the words of the title. In any case, the memorial was built in remembrance of the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust.
A vast grid of 2,711 concrete pillars whose jostling forms seem to be sinking into the earth, it is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality and, above all, showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion.
By pairing aesthetic minimalism and a massive scope, the memorial generates an incredibly powerful sensation for its visitors.
Each and every one of the “stelae” is identical in their horizontal dimensions and eerily reminiscent of coffins, though they vary from 20 centimeters to over 4,5 meters in height. As a whole, they create a labyrinth where visitors are easily lost, contributing to a pervasive feeling of bewilderment while walking amidst the memorial’s network of open-air corridors.
The memorial’s power lies in its willingness to face the moral ambiguities arising in the Holocaust’s shadow. Its focus is on the almost imperceptible line that separates good and evil, life and death, guilt and innocence.
Also the location could not be more apt: during the war, this was the administrative place of Hitler’s killing machine. His chancellery building was a few hundred yards away just to the south, and his bunker lies beneath a nearby parking lot.
Even though from outside the field they all appear roughly the same height, the ground depresses in the middle, meaning at some point you’re not just at the memorial, you’re inside it.
The ground between the pillars slopes down as you move deeper in: if at first, you retain glimpses of the city, as you descend further, the views begin to disappear and the gray pillars become more menacing and oppressive with an effect intentionally disorienting.
It is only as you re-emerge from the memorial, rejoining the everyday world, that the message becomes clear. Eisenman, the architect, has explained that his greatest fear was to sentimentalize the Holocaust. “I don’t want people to weep and then walk away with a clear conscience,” he said.
Nestled at one edge is a information center underground of 800 square meters, so as not to disturb the effect of the plain of stelae. It begins with a timeline that lays out the history of the so-called Final Solution, from when the National Socialists took power in 1933 through the murder of 500,000 Soviet Jews in 1941. Numbers that mark the transition to genocide, as the exhibition text says.
The rest of the exhibition is divided into four rooms dedicated to personal aspects of the tragedy: the individual families, and the letters thrown from the trains that transported them to the death camps. There are also short biographies of the victims and well as film footage of the tragedies. Architecturally, the information center’s strongest feature is its coffered concrete ceilings, similar to the pattern of the pillars and pathways above, so that at moments you feel as if you have entered the graves.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was built after a decade of all the inevitable setbacks, restarts, and controversy that you think would happen for such a sensitive topic in such a sensitive city.
Since its debut, both praise and criticism have been directed at the memorial. Critics at once found fault in its commemoration of a single demographic victimized by the Nazis rather than the multitude of those affected, including large numbers of Europe’s Roma and homosexual populations. On the other hand, others found the vagueness of the monument’s title disturbing, in that it avoids any assignation of blame for who took these human lives.
Meanwhile, architectural scholars praise its stylistic execution: as Nicolai Ouroussoff stated, Berlin’s monument avoids sentimentality in the face of an internationally affecting event, instead, “showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion.” All scholarly debate aside, it’s quite improbably to find a visitor who emerges unmoved by the visual impact of the installation.