Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is unlike anything else in the city. Unique in its intention and in its composition. Both strangely familiar in its design, yet completely alien.
An austere commemorative installation in the centre of the German capital for the millions of Jews who fell victim to one of the most murderous regimes of the 20th century. An event solidified in human history and summarised in one term – the Holocaust – or Shoah, as it is known in Hebrew. A genocide most remarkable for reaching a callous industrial meridian – planned, and eventually executed, with a bureacratic efficiency never before witnessed in human history.
This strange and provocative interruption to the city landscape, a field of 2,711 concrete stelae, was introduced in 2005 – and designed by architect, Peter Eisenmann (also responsible for the 9/11 memorial in New York City). Like the genocide whose victims it stands to pay tribute to, this place of remembrace bears all the hallmarks of an industrial process – grey, uniform, and regulated in its order.
Situated only a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate – and the country’s main government quarter with the current federal parliament, the memorial is also walking distance from the former Nazi government quarter and the site of Adolf Hitler’s Führerbunker. The location of the Nazi SS-Gestapo headquarters, where the Holocaust would be planned from, is also located similarly nearby. Leaving this place of remembrance sandwiched in-between the darkest chapter in Germany’s past and its introspective and repentant present.
To approach it from the streets that surround it is to be confronted with an unadorned mass of monumental grey – a panoramic presentation of the abstract. As what is most evident, on closer inspection of the memorial, is what is clearly missing. Nowhere is there a justification of its design, it is completely lacking in any visible indication that it serves as a memorial – or even a memorial specifically for the Jewish victims of National Socialism. There are no names on the concrete blocks.
All that is present to explain the existence of this plot of land is a small plaque – visible on all corners of the memorial – listing its title and indicating what is also prohibited. No smoking, no eating amongst the blocks, and no climbing on top of them – or jumping from stele to stele.
That the concrete blocks of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe are coated in an anti-graffiti paint designed to stop the memorial from being defaced?
As there is no clear entrance point or fencing to cordon off the memorial, it remains accessible from all angles. And also open at night. The blocks vary in height, and subtly also in angle, across the landscape and when examined from different viewpoints provide a different perspective. Perhaps also allowing the visitor to then reach different conclusions from different angles as to the meaning of the memorial.
Most significant though is the way that the pathways between the blocks allow visitors to descend into the memorial – only to be enveloped by the grey sentries of the blocks that suddenly surround and overwhelm the bodies weaving through them. The contrast between the blocks and the humans who descend into this drab forest could not be more obvious – the warmth of bodies in contrast to the cold concrete most evident in the winter months when the memorial is often also covered in snow or swept through with an icy wind.
The journey into the centre of the memorial – its deepest point – is a story, a narrative, waiting to be discovered. With the interactions between the individuals exploring this memorial and undulating terrain as significant as to its meaning and purpose as the cold concrete that stands alone. Whatever approach is taken, the memorial must be experienced and interacted with, then contemplated when the visitor returns to the periphery. Perhaps even returning to the exact same location they left to enter the memorial but experiencing it in a different way at the end of a journey that has seen them descend into the heart of the memorial.
Although at first glance the memorial appears to be dead – simply a collection of clearly defined objects – it is in fact a living breathing phenomenon. That interacts with nature and humanity – and has to deal with the interaction of nature and humanity.
Perhaps its greatest strength is its lack of uniformity – and critique of the National Socialist Weltanschauung that would lead to the Holocaust. While from a distance the blocks may appear identical, moving closer it is obvious that some have been weathered in different ways to other. That some have cracked or have visible holes due to the wind, rain, and snow.
That even when trying to make something as simple as concrete homogeneous that it is impossible. And even more impossible to force humanity into a box, so that any premeditated attempt to do so can only inevitably lead to that box being the shape of a field of coffins.