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Representation of the Holocaust through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

By Gretchen Kistenmacher '17

LAS-410: The Future of the Past

Gretchen’s paper on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin impressed me because of its clear, organized writing, thorough and objective approach to the topic and effective appeal to and integration of scholarly sources. A unique feature of Gretchen’s paper was the incorporation of personal photographs from her visit to the Memorial. I like the idea that her lived experience informs her writing without being the focus of the piece.

-Kathy Korcheck


The horrific and inconceivable events of the Holocaust are engraved in Germany’s past. The mass murder of more than 6 million Jews tarnished every aspect of what it meant to be German and put the country on a long road to recovery. The Holocaust left behind a void and a culture of guilt. In an attempt to fill this absence and generate a positive national identity, Germany commissioned a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe located in Berlin, Germany. The German Parliament intended: “To honor the murdered victims, keep alive the memory of… inconceivable events in German history and admonish all future generations never again to violate human rights, to defend the democratic constitutional state at all times, to secure equality before the law for all people and to resist all forms of dictatorships and regimes based on violence” (Chin). In this paper, I will analyze how well the memorial achieved these intentions and the controversies surrounding the memorial in order to demonstrate how the memorial has allowed Germany to overcome guilt and to generate a positive national identity for modern Germany.

First and foremost, it is important to identify the difference between a memorial and monument and to define the fundamental function of a memorial. Both a memorial and a monument are designed to recognize and preserve memories. However, a monument celebrates life while a memorial commemorates death or loss (Doss 7). In recent years, there has been an expansion in memorials. This is a result of “a highly successful public art industry and increased expectations of rights and representation of diversity” (Doss 9). Lisa Mahlum argues that “physical structures engage visitors in the present, connect them with the historical truths of the past, and instill a memory of the Holocaust in the future” (281). The aim of a memorial is to strike a balance between the horrors of the past, engage visitors in the context of the present, and inspire memory for the future.

Commemoration through a permanent structure allows the past and present to co-exist in a social relationship. However, creating an accurate representation of the past in the present is much easier said than done. The problem is that any past can be distorted by the context of the present. The act of “claiming a particular history as a method of persuasion modifies the art of memory” (Grenzer 96). Memorials possess enormous influence and power over collective memory.

Designing the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was no easy task. It took 17 years of debate before the memorial was finally opened in May of 2005 (Chin). Designer Peter Eisenman constructed an abstract memorial which avoided all symbolism with the intention of allowing the visitors to create their own interpretation from the absence of the structure. According to Eisenman, “enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that an attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate” (qtd. in Mahlum 282). The lack of representation and symbolism of this memorial makes it much different than most memorials, which tend to give the viewer a strong sense of identification. The absence of “symbolism reduces it to pure presence” (Marzynski). This memorial is not about what is seen but instead what is felt by the viewer.

Evoking a ‘feeling’ at the site was achieved by the grand scale of the memorial. It consists of 2711 concrete slabs, or stelae, arranged in a grid pattern over 4.7 acres (Brody). The concrete slabs are rectangular in shape with sharp lines. Marian Marzynski, a Holocaust survivor, suggests that the slabs resemble architecture of the Hitler regime. The slabs plunge out of the ground vertically. A wavelike appearance is achieved by the uneven ground and varied heights of the slab blocks. Around the perimeter of the concrete field, the slabs are very low to the ground, but as one walks down the narrow alleys between the slabs, towards the center of the memorial, the slabs reach a height higher than one’s head.

Commemorating the six million Jewish victims collectively in this way allows for a highly personal experience and interpretation of memorialization. Nothing is suggested to the viewer. Eisenman’s original design was just that detailed above; however, many felt that German Holocaust education was needed at the site. Marzynski argues, “art cannot express the content of the Holocaust, education is needed.” As a result, the design was altered to includean underground information center located below the concrete slab field. In order to preserve the aesthetic of Eisenman’s design, the entrance is simply a staircase going down with minimal signage, not immediately visible to a passer-by. The exit is located in the middle of the concrete field, hidden from sight due to the height of the blocks. The structure above ground was integrated into the information center in two ways: the ceiling is structured with a grid of the rectangular concrete blocks and the form of the concrete blocks is imitated in the information panels (Mugge). The exhibit is not a museum. It does not contain any artifacts from the Holocaust. Instead, the center details the fate of the victims and sites of destruction through non-fiction stories of Jewish victims accompanied with pictures of families and concentration camp scenes (Young). Through the information provided, Germany takes ownership of its role in producing the final solution while also providing history and context of the Holocaust. The information center “takes the abstract nature of the field of concrete above it and breaks it down to the level of the individual victim,” acting as a link between the abstract architecture and personal narratives of Jewish victims (Chin).

The reality of the Holocaust is also present in the significance of the memorial’s location, at the political and social heart of Germany. The memorial is placed near the geographical center of Berlin, the capital of Germany (Magge 718). At this location, it is a part of everyday life. It embodies a social relationship with society in a way that Germans cannot ignore its presence. Many feel that the memorial enriches the aesthetic of the city (Chin). Furthermore, the memorial stands as a sign of the productivity of Berlin: “A modern city is reflected in representing the past as a demonstration of its progress” (Grenzer 98). The mere physical presence of the memorial is an indication that Germany has chosen to deal with its past and acknowledge its role as perpetrator. In addition, the field of stelae is located at the political center of Berlin. Current German government, the Reichstag and Bundesrat, are just meters away, and the memorial is on the very site that was Hitler’s ministry gardens (Chin). The death of the Jews is being memorialized on the very site where their death was planned. This allows for a deeply reflective memory experience for visitors. Lisa Mahlum explains this phenomenon very well: “It is the perfect juxtaposition of perpetration and victimization with culpability and responsibility” (300). This location displays the willingness of Germans to publicly accept responsibility for the Holocaust.

There are many interpretations of the abstract Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There is no right or wrong explanation of the memorial because this was the goal of the design: to nurture individual experience. Some believe the stelae resemble headstones forming a graveyard for victims unburied or thrown into unmarked graves (Brody). The absence of writing expresses the silence of the victims (Grenzer 102). Another interpretation is that the memorial mimics the experience of a Jew. The perimeter of the memorial is very open, with blocks low to the ground. It acts somewhat like a park, with people sitting and taking in the city around them. This represents the carefree life Jews lived before the Holocaust (Brody). As one walks into the interior of the memorial, the blocks get higher and higher. The view of other visitors and the surrounding cityscape is cut off. Feelings of claustrophobia, desolation, and confusion set in (Brody). Each concrete block is set at a different angle, which generates feelings of disorientation. The contrast between the perimeter and the interior of the memorial imitates the journey of a Jew “going from the world they knew to a lost and lonely environment” (Young).

Visitors are confronted face to face with the memory and feelings of the Holocaust. Visitors are an integral part of the memorial because they ultimately define how the memorial is experienced. It can be entered from all four sides in multiple spots, offering different viewpoints. Visitors who stay only on the perimeter of the memorial will have a different experience than those who enter the interior. The path through the memorial is not defined by a beginning or end; “the memorial is not frozen in time or static in space…it resists closure” (Young). In the same way, the Holocaust itself resists closure, never to be ignored or forgotten. The information center adds context to the space above it; however, the path inside the center is defined and fixed. The effect of no beginning and no end is somewhat lost, which takes away from Eisenman’s design of the memorial.

Germany’s goal with this memorial was to honor the victims of the Holocaust, keep alive the memory to educate future generations, and warn future generations to never violate human rights (Mahlum 281). Does the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe achieve this goal? Some believe the memorial was successful in realizing this goal while others believe it falls short. Those that feel the memorial did not reach its full potential believe that the abstract design and the lack of signs pointing direction leave people confused. Visitors are merely fascinated by the aesthetic impression of the memorial and leave having only achieved a superficial understanding of what the memorial stands for (Brody). In addition, it is argued that the memorial came too late. It was opened 60 years after WWII ended (Brody). Since the end of WWII, Germany has worked to overcome the negativity and create positive nationalism for modern Germans. However, some citizens believe focusing on the Holocaust represents negative nationalism which threatens to reverse the efforts towards a unified Germany (Grenzer 97).

On the contrary, German politicians believe the memorial was a success just based on the sheer number of visitors it has attracted. Attendance to the memorial each year has been much higher than was originally anticipated (Mugge 717). The discussion spurred by the memorial building process and the continued dialogue of its presence has generated more individual memory work than there would have been otherwise. Its existence brings the lessons of the Holocaust into public mind and consciousness, acting as a permanent promise to stop human rights violations. The notion of representing the past in the present was achieved. Grenzer classifies “the memorial as a demonstration of the past [which] prepares the ground in the present for a future that will be mastered” (102). The existence of the memorial indicates the success of Germany accepting responsibility for the past and commemorating the largest targeted group of the Holocaust. Mahlum argues that the memorial does not represent negative nationalism but rather encourages the reunification of Germany by solidifying a collective memory for a nation of perpetrators (304). Additionally, Chin argues that it did not come too late because the memorial is intended for young Germans, the third generation. The earlier generations had their own personal memories and connections to the events. It is for future generations that this site is imperative.

So far the success of the memorial has been defined in terms of Germany, but how does the Jewish community view the memorial? The site is named Memorial ‘to’ the Murdered Jews of Europe. This insinuates that it was constructed for the Jewish community, but the Jewish community argues that it provides greater benefit to Germans (Marzynski). Furthermore, the title – ‘Murdered Jews’ – fails to indicate who did the murdering. Germany has taken a passive voice by focusing on the recipients of the apology and ignoring those doing the apologizing. Marian Marzynski, a Holocaust survivor, speaks for the Jewish community, saying, “We did not ask for it. We do not need it.” The proposal and design of the memorial was conceived by non-Jewish Germans; therefore, it does not reflect the true sentiments of the Jewish population (Chin). This suggests that the memorial was not meant to commemorate the Jews, but rather meant to flatter the Germans. Mahlum summarizes it best by stating, “Remembrance of the Holocaust becomes a negotiation between the historical records of the past and the political agenda of the present” (305). It has been suggested that Germany strategically used the memorial politically on a national and international level to wash their hands clean (Chin). It provided Germany with a convenient opportunity to re-establish itself as an ethical country. This is an example of the past being shaped by the affairs of the future.

The decision to dedicate the memorial to only the Jewish victims of the Holocaust initiated controversy. Some argue that this is discrimination against non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust: homosexuals, Gypsies, Slavic people and the mentally disabled (Chin). Partial history of the Holocaust is ignored by only focusing on the Jewish victims. On the other hand, the murdering of European Jewry was the central matter within Nazi policy and ideology. This put the Jewish community as the top priority for Germany to commemorate. Germany chose to be specific due to the large volume of Jewish victims compared to other groups targeted during the Holocaust. However, setting a hierarchy of victimization indicates a national position on who suffered the most. Mahlum reasons that the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe “contributes to the ignorance regarding the full history of the Holocaust…creating division just like before” (305). Failure to recognize the whole past and honor all the victims of the Holocaust could lead to a portion of history being forgotten.

The construction of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe has allowed Germany to take collective responsibility for the event. The guilt that Germany has carried for so long has been transformed into a public apology and display of accountability. Every society “sets up images of the past…it is not enough for a certain past to be selected” (Mahlum 307). Germany’s ability to accept its past and acknowledge its wrongdoings as a country is in some ways unique. For example, America has no memorials constructed to recognize our crimes (Marznski). One could argue that America is still hindered by our past because we have failed to fully confess our acts of perpetration, whereas Germany has been able to overcome a great deal of relatively recent history as a result of how well they deal with the past. Germany has provided a template for dealing with the past that other countries could follow.

The memorial now stands as an everlasting symbol of German national identity. The Holocaust is now a permanent memory of Germany’s history and landscape. Since the memorial was funded by the state, it is also a sign of political representation (Mugge 713). This was Germany’s first national effort to recognize the systematic murder of European Jews. A political and social conviction has been made to never let this happen again. The memorial indicates that Germany is on a path toward a more positive sense of national identity.

The memorial provides memory and hope for the future of German society. The concrete blocks could quite literally be called the “foundation stones” for a new society (Marzyski). For the past 60 years, Germany has dealt with the Holocaust through guilt; however, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe presents the opportunity for liberation from that guilt. Confronting the past has allowed it to move on into the future. By making the memory of the Holocaust permanent, Germany runs the risk of the memory becoming frozen or buried as new generations become further removed from the horrors of the Holocaust. Future generations are now obligated to keep the memory alive: “The responsibility for preserving the past becomes increasingly bestowed upon 10 the hands of the present” (Mahlum 306). Nevertheless, the presence of the memorial has broken Germany from the shackles of the past and allowed freedom to pursue the future of a modern Germany.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was overall successful in accomplishing the German parliament’s goal to honor Jewish victims, educate, and admonish future generations. Memorialization of the Holocaust provides a memory tool for future generations to understand the significance of the Holocaust. Through a field of stelae, the past has been immortalized in the present.

Works Cited

Brody, Richard. “The Inadequacy of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” The New Yorker, 12 July 2012. Accessed 02 Oct. 2016.

Chin, Sharon, Fabian Franke, and Sheri Halpern. “A Self-Serving Admission of Guilt: An Examination of the Intentions and Effects of Germany’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Humanity in Action. Humanity in Action Inc., n.d. Accessed 02 Oct. 2016.

Doss, Erika. Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America. UChicago Press, 2010.

Grenzer, Elke. “The Topographies of Memory In Berlin: The Neue Wache And The Memorial For The Murdered Jews Of Europe.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research, vol. 11, no. 1, 2002, pp. 93-110.

Mahlum, Lisa. “The Similarities and Difference: A Comparative Analysis of the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin,” Intersections, vol. 10, no. 1, 2009, pp. 279-308.

Marzynski, Marian. “A Jew among the Germans: Germany’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Frontline, May 31, 2005.

Mugge, Maike. “Politics, Space and Material: The ‘Memorial To The Murdered Jews Of Europe’ In Berlin As A Sign Of Symbolic Representation.” European Review of History, vol. 15, no. 6, 2008, pp. 707-725.

Young, James E. At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture. Yale UP, 2000.