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Memory’s jagged tide

Times Staff Writer

The smooth gray steles of varying heights ripple over the field as if the earth shuddered and froze in uneven permanence. They seem to darken, then to multiply, and amid their shadows and undulating rows, the visitor feels abandoned and lost.

Inside this strange, somber forest of 2,711 steles, which stretches over two football fields, vision narrows and sound fades. Despite beckoning squares of light at the end of each long path, the way out seems an illusion. Menacing in their precision, the slabs in Berlin’s new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe seem to force introspection on one of history’s cruelest acts of inhumanity.

Interrupted over the years by politics, design battles, anti-Semitic charges and vigorous debates about memory and atonement, the memorial is scheduled to open with a ceremony on May 10. American architect Peter Eisenman’s sprawling creation adds another curious aesthetic to the panorama unfolding between the futuristic glass and angled steel of Potsdamer Platz and the neoclassical Brandenburg Gate.

“The memorial is of avant-garde design,” said Heinrich Wefing, the cultural critic and former architectural writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, who has closely studied the rebuilding of Berlin since the end of the Cold War. “It opens at all points. There’s no one way in, no one way out. Once you’re inside the steles, you’re really on your own. There’s no center, no point of gravity, no inscription,” he said. “Everyone going into it will feel this is a special place. It frees your mind and gives you a chance to reflect on what happened because it changes your perspective on space and time.”

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At the rim of the Tiergarten park on the Ebertstrasse, the memorial appears as a jagged tide of floating blocks on ground that once housed Prussian ministries and the villa of Hitler’s deputy Joseph Goebbels. As a visitor enters the field of steles -- made of concrete and ranging from shin-high to 15 feet -- the ground dips and slants on a wave-like grid that drops below street level. Steles that moments earlier appeared to be small begin to tower. Space winnows; walls seem to tighten. There are no guideposts.

Permeation of steles

Eisenman has described his intent this way: “The enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate.... Our memorial attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia.”

The permeation of steles across the landscape is meant in part to symbolize the spread of the Third Reich across Europe. “This sense of being lost is what people felt like, not only in Germany but in the concentration camps,” the architect said by telephone from his New York office. “There was this sense of suffocation.”

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Near a section of steles at the field’s edge, stairs lead to an underground information center that Eisenman added to his original plan after criticism that the memorial had the responsibility to educate. The center will include four rooms and two foyers to house computers, testimonies of individual Jews, maps depicting an annihilation that moved eastward over the continent, and the recorded readings of the names of hundreds of victims.

“The question is what will be in the minds of the people when they leave,” said Gesine Weinmiller, a Berlin architect whose design of a large garden containing a shattered Star of David made her a finalist in the memorial competition. “I think Eisenman’s has force. But it comes down to cultural differences.”

She noted that as a German, her approach would have been to encapsulate horror and imbue a sense of hope, a way to move on. As an American Jew, she said, Eisenman’s design is more imposing and frightening.

The memorial, located 328 feet from Hitler’s bunker, is an irony of history and architecture. The Nazis’ grand vision was to rise from this sandy soil in gleaming and foreboding designs by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer. The intent was to re-create ancient Rome and Athens in the Fascist style. The centerpiece was to be a 3-mile-long boulevard anchored on one end by a structure with a dome 16 times larger than St. Peter’s Basilica and on the other with a massive edifice inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The plans withered in Germany’s defeat, and during the Cold War the ground of the memorial was shadowed by the Berlin Wall in a no man’s land between East and West.

Since the nation’s capital moved from Bonn to Berlin in 1999, the architecture of government buildings, which sit a few hundred yards from the memorial, symbolizes a new beginning for a re-unified people. The buildings represent a patina of glass and open space. The neoclassical Reichstag has been topped with a clear dome designed by British architect Norman Foster. The subtext is profound, if simple: The government is transparent, the destruction plotted in secret decades ago will never again be tolerated.

“The Holocaust memorial is the counterweight to the light-filled structure of the Reichstag. We need that,” said Wefing. “When the government moved to Berlin, the Reichstag became the first symbol of this new transparent and futuristic republic. But the republic was not always as transparent and futuristic as the Reichstag’s dome. That’s why we need this new thing, a piece of architecture devoted to what happened.”

Eisenman has long been associated with “deconstructivist” form and is known as much for theoretical work as for buildings. He was part of a team of New York architectural heavyweights who submitted an unsuccessful proposal for the World Trade Center site.

The past meets the present

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Germany in many ways is a museum of atrocity, even as it marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II this year. Concentration camps, such as Dachau, attract thousands of visitors a year. The Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is a testament to a nearly erased culture.

German television and schools give endless lessons on the history and crimes of the Third Reich. And some intellectuals, such as Michael Walzer, argue that Germany has atoned for the Holocaust and needs no new monuments to its shame.

A group of writers and publishers, including Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass, urged then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1998 against building a Berlin memorial. An “abstract installation of oppressively gigantic proportions” cannot possibly serve as a “place of quiet mourning and remembrance, or warning or enlightenment,” the group wrote. “Abandoning the project on the grounds of common sense would honor all those involved.”

It is not a cliche in Germany to suggest the ghosts of the past still haunt. Construction of the memorial was delayed in 2003 when it was publicized that Degussa AG was supplying anti-graffiti coating for the steles. Nearly 60 years earlier, a Degussa subsidiary manufactured the Zyklon B used to exterminate Jews in concentration camps. Degussa had confronted its wartime crimes and made restitution to survivors. Yet the question remained: Should a company complicit in killing Jews be associated with celebrating their memory?

The Foundation for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which oversaw construction of Eisenman’s project, allowed Degussa to remain a subcontractor. One foundation member said, “We have learned again that the past reaches into the present.”

It reached further than many anticipated. During the debate over Degussa, Jewish groups accused Eisenman of insensitivity when he joked to the foundation that Degussa manufactured the fillings in his teeth. Eisenman was quoted as saying: “My dentist told me where they came from and asked me if I wanted him to take them out.”

The Degussa controversy led to the more troubling prospect of vandalism. The 19,000-square-foot site, with 140 openings and exits, will not be tightly guarded. Visitors will be permitted to wander through at all hours. Many are concerned that Germany’s small ranks of right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis may turn the memorial into a graffiti target or a rallying point.

“If they’re going to demonstrate, they should be allowed. It’s up to the German government to protect it,” said Eisenman. “I think it’s going to be a target. But I don’t think you can cordon [it off] and say: ‘This is a precious object. You can’t touch it.’ ”

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