At first it seemed inappropriate, even incorrect, that we hurriedly fit in a visit to the holocaust memorial in Berlin on our way to lunch. Not just any lunch, but one in an elegant restaurant set in a large, windowed room atop the Reichstag, the recently restored home of the German Parliament. While the contrast between our casual tourists’ indulgence and the suffering of those memorialized was obvious, my own discomfort had primarily to do with rushing through an experience which deserved to be given more time. I wanted to look around; and possibly to linger.
The memorial, called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is the only one in Germany that commemorates solely the Jewish dead. It was designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman and opened in 2005. Not surprisingly, every detail of its conception and construction unleashed discord, and dozens of controversies had somehow to be addressed ahead of the bulldozers. Some were moral and artistic: How, for instance, does the city of the perpetrators dare (how dare anyone?) even try to create a monument that claims to speak to something as massive, dumbfounding, and agonizing as these murders? (Unstated but key: murders which, as a Berliner, your parents and grandparents may have sanctioned, or even committed.) Then again, why commemorate only the Jews when so many others were also murdered?
Other concerns were more practical: How does a country that systematically eliminated its Jewish population find enough people who are Jewish and German, knowledgeable, and familiar with the city to oversee an appropriate design for the memorial? Conversely, with so many “dirty hands,” whom do you employ to construct the concrete blocks and prepare the site since the companies competent enough to do the work are deeply compromised? (Most famously, Degussa, the corporation that eventually manufactured the anti-graffiti coating for the concrete, owns, as a subsidiary, Degesch, the company that produced the Zyklon B gas used to exterminate people in concentration camps.)
Essentially the process of creating the memorial made manifest the plight of contemporary Berlin: the conundrum of living with its Nazi history. What must you remember? How must you remember it? What is permissible to forget as time passes? They are grim questions, and perhaps ultimately unanswerable. Suffice to say, where the discussion of the memorial was concerned, every bit of the past woke up and elbowed through the door, dressed up, jittery, loud, and wound tight, which seems not only inevitable, but necessary. How could the process not wrestle with all the reawakened pain? Still, you have to wonder who would have “won” had these furious disagreements resulted in nothing ever getting built, which at moments along the way looked like a likely outcome. Eventually, the work did go forward.
The finished monument is a collection of 2,711 concrete slabs, sharp-edged rectangles—each one seven feet ten inches long and three feet one inch wide—of varying heights, set close together on the ground in more or less straight lines. The ground between the crisscrossing rows is covered by paving stones that resemble cobblestone. According to me, you could spend a good hour walking along the narrow pathways, exploring your responses and watching other people do the same. Or, I initially imagined, you could, and really ought to, return at dawn when it likely would be empty and your thoughts could wander fully over this 4.7-acre response to genocide.
But the site and our hurry defied my urge for a proper visit. I have realized since that one strand of the genius of the place is exactly in the contradiction between what might be and what is—the way that distance initially distracts you so that you end up feeling more than you intend. To put it another way, the solemn history suggests awe, but the buses and sidewalks bring people—school children, university students, older folks—with their loud voices, suppressed giggles, shushing, playful shrieks, and irreverent games of hide-and-seek or tag. Visitors of all ages snap photos and film video of each other darting in and out behind the columns. Traffic buzzes about nearby. Horns honk. Berlin has survived its own killing spree, and then the Allied bombing, the Cold War, the wall, and now presents itself as a vibrant, go-to place. At moments during our visit, I felt disturbed by the politically correct aura juxtaposed upon the city’s recent history, as if I were walking in a garden planted over not yet completely decomposed sewage. Or, I suppose, corpses. Other times, I felt in the presence of a slow, steady evolution; a battlefield still raw in places but reforesting, its unexploded ordnance having been mostly unearthed and carted away.
A sign at the Memorial site says that you are NOT to climb on the slabs. (The prohibition has a practical dimension. Eisenman, though a much-lauded architect, is infamous for using questionable materials for his projects. The cement blocks in the holocaust memorial, which look like granite meant to last millennia, are in fact hollow and already cracking in the cold Berlin winters—and extremely difficult to repair.) Yet the low height of some, and the spacing convenient to leg length, invites you to hop from one to another. As I watched, one young man did just that, and I envied him a bit. The visit quickly reminds you that while the promise of rectitude, permanence, and order suggested in the squared-off rows and, of course, in the Nazi creed is a response to a very deep human longing, it is always accompanied by the contrary longing to flaunt our own brief, unlikely moment aboveground by making what ruckus we can—grabbing stuff, dancing on graves, breaking the silence of even the most serious places with lip farts and tittering. I am here now. Fuck you. Fuck you for killing. Fuck you for getting killed. We curse, and squirm, and temporize, and lie, and, like straining discus throwers, continually seek to heave away the unbearable and the impending.
Yet, however rude and superficially distracting this visitor’s counterpoint, this quotidian descant, it creates a tension that hands Eisenman’s monument its success. The memorial is a stage set, we its players. We deliver the story—partly just by showing up, appearing in cameo; partly by bringing to bear our suggestibility, our imperfect educations. The title, “Murdered Jews of Europe,” names the drama that must be performed, and sitting alone, I would have missed the point. Had other people not been present, rushing among the slabs, planning their lunches, fooling with cell phones and each other, racing off in search of the WC, I would have missed the theatrical function of the acreage, how the concrete blocks surrounded by diverse visitors, temporarily, fluidly, become evocative props: stelae and coffins, escape alleys, basements, false walls, wrong turns, barriers, and death camp chutes. No stagehands rearrange them. Yet tableaux formed by other tourists, together with the twists of our own minds, continually flex and shift the scene. Almost in spite of ourselves we recollect and reenact fragments of that “other” era of Europe.
I walk down the narrow ways. Tall columns crowd me, by turns blocking out or allowing in the light, by turns opening up or preventing my view. People cross my path. They appear and then they disappear, instantly, completely, out of sight, which in its own way speaks about the murdered. So, too, the stone pathways evoke the cobblestones of that earlier era, of streets in the decades when Jews aplenty still lived in Berlin. It becomes easy, perhaps inevitable, to think of the cities, the villages, the ghettos, to recollect old prewar photographs of bearded men, and bright-eyed, intelligent women with children in arms.
As I walk through the acreage, I am surprised by how feelings seep into me. In the midst of several taller slabs I lose my sense of direction and notice other senses becoming more acute. As when there is real danger, my ears strain to hear people coming toward me. I want to know their whereabouts before they know mine. Without meaning to, I fall into a game that suggests the cat-and-mouse terror of humans trying to evade their killers. Each time strangers “find” me, my nerves fire, and deliver up tiny, desolate jolts of luck run out. I start wondering who is friend, who foe. Within this space, green clichés become ripe fears. I grasp how tame and safe my feelings are beside those of people who were prey. Nevertheless, in a way I did not intend, I summon the murdered and hold them in my mind, which is, of course, what the memorial has asked me to do. I assumed it would ask, but not how deftly it would coax my answer.
Perhaps too quickly, perhaps not, it is time to go. I look again into the sea of slabs. Far down a row, and a little grayer and unclear, strangers flicker, then molt, appear as spectral beings. They walk along, unmurdered, undead, a staged processional. As visitors, we unintentionally, fleetingly, offer to each other this moment, this fantasy undoing; a glimpse of life were we not as we are. Now here; now gone.