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Germans Finding Fault With Holocaust Memorial Designs

March 13, 1998|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — After delays, reversals and years of painful debate, Germany appears ready to unveil the design for the country's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Since 1991, when the lower house of parliament voted to move the government here from Bonn, many Germans have agreed that there ought to be some monument in the capital: a place for visitors to mourn and remember the 6 million Jews killed during the Nazi era.

But for this city, it has been all but impossible to settle on a single acceptable design that encompasses the range of public feeling about the Holocaust.

How to embody, in concrete, marble or steel, something so spectacularly unthinkable as industrialized mass murder? How to commemorate, in the center of a great European capital, something so monstrous? How to honor the Jewish dead without angering the other minority groups persecuted by the Nazis--the Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists or disabled people, who have no special monument of their own?

An early competition yielded as its winner a tilted concrete slab the size of three football fields, inscribed with several million names of the known victims. But ordinary Berliners rebelled, complaining that the scale of the design echoed the very monumentality that Hitler's architects once practiced in this city. Chancellor Helmut Kohl put an end to that project.

A second competition ensued. The list of entries has now been whittled down to four finalists, and the winning design is to be named early next week. The final four entries, as well as 15 that didn't make the cut, are on display in a central Berlin exhibition hall.

But the outcry continues. And many Berliners are now challenging the very concept of a monument.

"No! No memorial!" reads a typical entry in the visitors register at the exhibition.

In February, a group of German intellectuals--including the novelist Guenter Grass, once a proponent of a Holocaust memorial--summed up the general opposition in a letter to Kohl.

An "abstract installation of oppressively gigantic proportions" cannot possibly serve as a "place of quiet mourning and remembrance, of warning or enlightenment," the group wrote. "Abandoning the project on the grounds of common sense would honor all those involved."

A look around the exhibition hall shows why Berliners are so upset: The designs tend, on the whole, to be large, abstract and visually grim. There are giant, unadorned concrete boxes; windowless rooms; open ceilings that would let the rain pour in; shafts and spirals leading down into the ground; ashes encased in glass and used as building material.

In the visitors book, entry after entry speaks out against the outlay of public funds for big-ticket works of conceptual art, particularly in an age of high unemployment and lean budgets.

There is, however, much approval of one design, which would scrap the memorial and instead lay down speed bumps on a stretch of the autobahn to force drivers to brake their Mercedes-Benzes long enough to contemplate the human capacity for evil.

With the money saved, the designers proposed endowing a foundation for the protection of persecuted minorities.

But the concept of a monument still has the official momentum. Kohl is said to favor a work by the New York architect Peter Eisenman and sculptor Richard Serra, who want to plant 4,000 grave-like concrete blocks in a sunken courtyard.

Visitors would walk in and out among the blocks and get, "for a moment, the sense of what it feels like to fight a losing battle," Eisenman says.

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