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'Permanent Memory' of Holocaust Opens in Berlin

Stark concrete slabs form haunting tribute to the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.

May 11, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — Berlin's stark and foreboding memorial to the Holocaust opened Tuesday, ending a 17-year drama in which this nation struggled with atoning for past horrors while nudging new generations of Germans beyond the stain of history.

Between the Brandenburg Gate and Adolf Hitler's wartime bunker, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a haunting new aesthetic in the Berlin landscape. Its 2,711 concrete slabs, or steles, undulate over a huge field like a rippling tide of floating gravestones that are at once a public appeal for redemption and a stunning vision of abstract architecture that forces remembrance.

"Today we are inaugurating a memorial that remembers the worst, most horrible crime of Nazi Germany, the attempt to extinguish a whole people," Wolfgang Thierse, president of the lower house of the German Parliament, said at a dedication ceremony attended by political leaders and Holocaust survivors. He added that the memorial was an artistic attempt to "somehow explain the incomprehensible."

The memorial's architect, Peter Eisenman of New York, said the site, which is the size of two soccer fields, was designed to "establish a permanent memory" so future generations would study and debate the atrocities of the Third Reich. Eisenman spoke as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and 1,200 other guests sat under a tent, peering out over dozens of narrow rows of rain-slicked steles.

The ceremony's most poignant moment came when Sabina van der Linden told how she became her family's sole survivor of the Holocaust.

German troops swept into her town of Borislaw, Poland, when she was 11. Soldiers separated her and her mother. Her father and brother, both of whom would later be shot in a labor camp, arranged for her to hide with different families until the Soviet army pushed the Nazis back in 1944.

"I am the voice of the lucky few," said Van der Linden of Australia. "I am a witness.... I have learned that hatred begets hatred. I have learned that we must not be silent."

She said she does "not believe in collective guilt," adding that today's German youth cannot be blamed for the sins of their elders. "But," she said, "you can hold them responsible for what they do with the memories of their ancestors' crimes."

Since first proposed by journalist Lea Rosh in 1988, the memorial has symbolized Germany's complicated quest to remember 6 million Jewish victims while not allowing the Nazi legacy to overshadow the new nation that arose after World War II. After the Berlin Wall fell, construction of the memorial became more sensitive when then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl sought in 1993 to persuade a reunified country to build the monument on ground that was once a no man's land near Parliament.

"With this memorial we wanted to give the murdered their names back," Rosh said at Tuesday's ceremony. "The murdered have no grave, but this memorial shall stand for it." Rosh added that she decided to lobby for a memorial after finding a Jewish victim's tooth when filming a TV story on the Holocaust.

Through the years, numerous battles erupted over the memorial's design and scope.

Eisenman envisioned the steles -- ranging from shin-high to 15 feet tall -- rising over the field to articulate how Jews felt trapped by a Nazi regime that permeated a continent. There is no significance to the number of slabs he chose. His plans did not include an information center to provide context and history. But the German government insisted that the memorial educate, so Eisenman added four underground rooms to house documents, testimonies and histories of victims.

A group of writers, including Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass, suggested that an "abstract installation of oppressively gigantic proportions" could not serve as a "place of quiet mourning and remembrance, or warning or enlightenment." Others complained that the memorial would burden Germany with another of what one writer described as monuments to "our shame."

Further problems ensued when Gypsies, homosexuals and other victims of Nazi camps complained that the memorial ignored their suffering. Parliament refused to change its intent that the site would honor only Jews, but in recent years plans have been approved for memorials for the other groups.

Even the memorial's actual construction was marred by an echo from the past. The laying of the steles was delayed in 2003 when news spread that the firm Degussa was supplying an anti-graffiti coating for the slabs. Sixty years earlier, Degussa had provided the Zyklon B chemical used in gas chambers. The company remained as a subcontractor after a committee decided that Degussa had consistently apologized over the years for its complicity with the Nazis.

Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said Tuesday that the memorial focused on the victims and failed to highlight "questions of guilt and responsibility" among the perpetrators. He added that it would be "scandalous" if the memorial overshadowed Europe's extermination camps and other sites where the Nazi machine killed Jews.

The "authentic places" of memory for Jews, said Spiegel, are the "former concentration and death camps, the mass graves, the places of execution, shooting and torture, the platforms from which people were carted away in cattle wagons.... Nowhere else are we closer to the dead, and there is no other place for finding a direct and comprehensive understanding to the atrocities" of the Nazis.

Eisenman said: "It is clear we won't have solved all the problems. Architecture is not a panacea for evil. Nor will we have satisfied all those present today, but this cannot have been our intention."

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