Last evening we talked with old friends over dinner about Berlin. In 2008 Margo and I traveled to Berlin.
It was my first visit, other than for business, and Margo’s second, she having been there in 1970 when The Wall still stood.
The single most impactful thing we did was to visit the Holocaust Memorial which is not to be confused with the Holocaust Museum.
Actually these are not the proper titles for the two places.The Memorial (which is the subject of this post) is actually “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” (Denkmal fur die ermordeten Juden Europas);
the Museum is the “Jewish Museum Berlin” (Judisches Museum Berlin). The museum was designed by Daniel Libeskind who also designed the new World Trade Center in Manhattan, the War Museum in Dresden (see my post of March 4, 2015 on Dresden), the Denver Art Museum, and the San Francisco Jewish Museum among many pieces.
These are two completely different experiences. The museum is a typical Holocaust museum in a stunning architectural piece.
The Memorial is an interactive experience of the most insightful, troubling, and emotional kind.
The “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” is a large field (5 acres) which spreads out before you populated with thousands of enormous monoliths. The upper, sky-facing surface of the array creates an undulating wave like vision.This was conceived and designed by the architect Peter Eisenman with collaboration of Richard Serra, the noted steel plate artist. It is next to the US Embassy and a block south of the Brandenberg Gate.
Margo and I spent an hour wondering through the grid of 2,700 slabs.
They are polish, smooth concrete. All are the exact same length and width when viewed from the top i.e. looking down on their tops surface or top surface plane. Their height varies and, for the most part, the variation is gradual among contiguous sets of monoliths.
This gives it the wave appearance. The wave is also impacted by the face that the ground surface also undulates so you have a very fluid sense as you walk among them. The aisles are straight but the height rise and fall is disorientating and many of your sight lines are blocked by rising ground. You are in a channel. This gives you a sense of confusion as if you are in a maze. Each slab using the identical rectilinear size, only the height varies.
The top surface plane is about 7’ by 3’ = coffin size. The height above ground varies from 7” to almost 16′. When you are walking through a path of 16′ tall slabs you feel claustrophobic and it is easy to forget what direction you started walking from or where you are headed.
After we had spent and hour wandering we both needed to talk about the feelings, images, and thoughts the scene evoked.
The monoliths are easily understood to be about death – tombstones or stelae, even though there are no carved words or designs on them. Certainly coffins – many are lying on the ground about two to three feet in depth off the waving, curving surface of grey cobbles. Some sink to one foot or inches; some are flat on the surface
The metaphors are almost inexhaustible –
a maze signifying the complexity of trying to navigate the Nazi system and the concentration camp madness to live;
a maze signifying the getting lost of friends and family – “where have they gone”? “where are they”? are they dead? or alive?
a maze where you can wander until death.
Different sizes represent the variety of pain and suffering – most enormous, some smaller – never ending as you never exit
Large stones say “I am alive”, I have survived!
small stones as one shrinks in suffering.
shrinking into nothing, into the earth
No stones occasionally – here and there a tree or shrub takes the place of a stone…rebirth?
Each stone plain, without adornment – in the end there is only life – we are born naked and alone as we so die.
Endless channel stretching out it seems forever. Will this never end?
The channel floor rolls along in wave like surface, and recall the ups and downs of daily life, in turn recalling Frankel’s conclusion that to survive one must embrace the waves, even of the camps.
The rank upon rank of identical and quasi identical stele says “We are one people, of one faith, of one culture”
But there are no two stones alike actually, they lean and vary in depth – signifying they were individuals
Small size for the children large size for the leaders
In the center where the stories are 15 feet tall you are stifled and caught…no signs of life outside the endless blocks
Underneath all this weight is a room where the names of all the known Jewish Holocaust victims are continuously read out.
This experience in itself is worth a trip. Our friends agreed the Memorial was the most impactful experience of their visit to Berlin .