Berlin’s Adequate “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”

Originally published on July 18, 2012 on Open Salon.

Richard Brody recently wrote in The New Yorker online that Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is “inadequate.” I would argue that the Berlin memorial is suitably adequate and that, perhaps, the high point of memorialization can only be adequacy. It’s not that anything more is undesirable, but that it might not be possible. The pursuit of something more risks turning the memorial into something it is not – it risks turning it into a museum.

Inadequate memorialization was all too common. A few weeks ago, I visited Rastatt, a small town in Baden-Würrtemberg, with a group of scholars who research German-Jewish culture and society. One of the organized events was tour of the city’s Jewish history. As we approached the building where the city’s synagogue once stood, one of my German colleagues departed slightly from the group and read a affixed placard on the wall; she responded to it with a mixture of cackle, exasperation, and recognition. This is what she read: „Hier stand die Synagoge der Israelitengemeinde Rastatt. Sie wurde am 10. November 1938 unter der Herrschaft der Gewalt und des Unrechts zerstört.“ My German is good, but after quickly reading the placard, I didn’t understand my colleague’s response. If I were asked to convey the meaning of the text, I would have said that this was the location of the Rastatt synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht, the most notorious and violent domestic attack on Germany’s Jews under the Nazi regime prior to World War II. I wouldn’t be wrong, but it would elide the tone of the text. The translation of words and sentiment has a different implication. It reads: “Here stood the synagogue of Rastatt’s Israeli community. It was destroyed on 10 November, 1938 under the dominion of violence and of injustice.”

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This placard hopelessly lacks substance; it is also grounded in the context of lukewarm memorialization in the 1960s. It stands now as a reminder of the insufficiency of memorialization in that decade and for some years after. First, it identifies the Jewish community as the “Israelite community.” This is not as strange as it first appears. Throughout the nineteenth century and the early parts of the twentieth century, it was common for “Jewish” and “Israelite” to be used interchangeably in public discourse and even the state census. However, this was not the case under the Nazi regime, which always referred to the “Jewish” element in society and the population as “Jews.” Additionally, this placard was put up in 1964, when the Israeli state actually existed. By saying “Israelite community” the placard simultaneously avoids using Nazi language while also implying that the violence was directed toward people and an institution with ties to a foreign state, not citizens of Germany. Second, while passive voice is common in German, the effect here completely dismisses any subject or actor. Nobody did the destroying. The possessive language suggests that if there was an actor, it was an abstract regime of violence—not one constituted by actors. Finally, the language of dominion uncomfortably and sarcastically invokes the image of the wrathful god of the Hebrew bible. When I read the text now, it seems to be narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. It might as well also say “And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!” To a contemporary observer, an obvious lack is an updated placard that explains the shortcomings of the other one.

That is what an inadequate memorial looks like. Brody’s approach and criticisms of the Berlin memorial not only highlight the vast difference between the insufficient memorialization of the past in Germany and what has appeared over the last twenty years, but his entire piece speaks to the engagement of the memorial and its fulfillment of purpose. He argues that the title of the memorial is insufficient: Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). He asks: “Which murdered Jews? When? Where?” and follows by asking if the memorial refers to all Jews who have ever been murdered in Europe.

Usually an information plaque is sufficient to explain such questions as when, where, and who? These are rarely, if ever, integral to the design of the memorial as an architectural structure.  In the case of the Memorial in Berlin, there is an information center below the memorial that goes well beyond what any small plaque could convey. I’ll soon comment on what is in the information center, but for right now suffice to say that it is not only a necessary component of the installation, but also easy to access and free.

Brody suggest that, “the title doesn’t say ‘Holocaust’ or ‘Shoah’; in other words, it doesn’t say anything about who did the murdering or why—there’s nothing along the lines of ‘by Germany under Hitler’s regime,’ and the vagueness is disturbing.” The title is not nearly as vague as he makes it seem. In fact, it’s direct and clear. The site is designed to commemorate the Jews (object) of Europe who were murdered (by human subjects). The title is deliberate in its inclusion of victims and perpetrators, and in a memorial the naming of the former group is far more important than the latter.  It doesn’t say the phrases he suggests for a good reason. If it read, “by Germany under Hitler’s regime,” the title would truly suffer from a vague subject. “Germany” simply can’t stand in for party elites, high ranking party members, members of the German military at all levels, passive civilians, and willing collaborators everywhere from France to the Ukraine. Evoking Hitler would put a name to it, but that would de-emphasize the enormity of reach to where the term “perpetrator” applies. I don’t think the memorial needs to use terms like the Holocaust or Shoa to be adequate in its commemoration of murder of European Jews.

In fact, Brody concedes that just about all visitors will bring with them a familiarity of the subject. He argues that “the assumption of this familiarity—the failure to mention it at the country’s main memorial for the Jews killed in the Holocaust—separates the victims from their killers and leaches the moral element from the historical event, shunting it to the category of a natural catastrophe.” Reiterating his mistake that the title of the memorial is in passive voice—as opposed to the example from Rastatt, which is actually passive—he likens the catastrophe at hand to a natural disaster. I am unsure how he comes to this conclusion, given that the title has “murder” in it, which is almost exclusively associated with human action. In the same vein, Brody makes a fundamental error regarding the goal of the memorial. He states, “the reduction of responsibility to an embarrassing, tacit fact that ‘everybody knows’ is the first step on the road to forgetting.” I disagree. The first step on the road to remembering and reconciling is acknowledging that while everyone may know, few understand; and the pursuit of an acknowledged unreachable understanding is the way to never forget. In lieu of an impossible full understanding of the degree of the crimes, an adequate comprehension must suffice.

Brody’s claim of inadequacy is odd considering he offers one of the most elegant descriptions I have read of a self-reflective response generated by the memorial. It is worth reading in full:

In the shallow corner of the plaza, tourists sit and chat on bench-high stelae,[the columns that compose the memorial]children climb, all enjoy wide-open and thrillingly grand perspectives on the surroundings, including the Tiergarten to the west, and the installation takes on the cast of an austerely modern yet pleasantly welcoming park. But, upon entering the narrow alleys and plunging between higher and higher slabs, perspectives are sliced to a ribbon, other visitors are cut off from view, and an eerie claustrophobia sets in—even as some visitors (not just kids) play little games of hide-and-seek in the rectilinear maze. And the title, striking against the experience, creates sparks of metaphorical extrapolation: The Jews of Europe lived carefree, as in a park, until they wandered into frightening canyons of shadows from which the escape routes were narrow and distant. 

I would add that walking through the memorial becomes increasingly haunting, as other visitors appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. They existed, and then they don’t. The feeling that you are surrounded by ghosts is compounded by the echoes of unfamiliar voices that surround you.

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The names of all known victims of the Holocaust are weightily present at the memorial’s information center. In it, there is a room where each and every known victim’s name is read, along with the information known about the specific background and the location where the victim was murdered. Moreover, if the names of victims are the most appropriate way to memorialize, one needs only to walk in any city, town, or village in Germany and casually glance at the ground, where thousands of Stolpersteinecommemorate victims by name. Berlin is “heavy with history,” and it is a history that can only be conveyed through the interaction of its sites. Two other rooms in the information center explain the geographical extent of murder, answering Brody’s question of “where” with abundant educational detail. The first indicates the estimated number of Jews killed from every country in Europe. It is here that the significant but often unrecognized fact that about half of the victims of the Holocaust, three million, were Polish Jews. In contrast, while almost all of Germany’s Jews were also killed, that number was around 100,000. The other room details where every single concentration camp in Europe was; the exhaustive map might be called a constellation of death if there weren’t far too many dots to connect, rendering it almost illegible.

In what might be a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, Brody offers an alternative to the current memorial: “the restoration of that prominence [of Jewish life in Germany, especially Berlin], in a symbolic form, would make sense—maybe by way of a gigantic Star of David, occupying the entire ground and standing many stories high. That symbol would also be a fitting provocation: if it proved irritating, that feeling of irritation might stand most evocatively for the history in question.” Jewish prominence and presence might have been felt in a place like Berlin, where at its high point Jews composed ten percent of the population. Such an overbearing display would simply reiterate the Nazi myth of Jewish power and influence within Germany’s borders. Additionally, such a prominent presence would only be symbolic, which is the target of most of Brody’s critique. It’s symbolic in that the presence is not there; the Nazis accomplished their goal. The existing memorial more adequately symbolizes what was left behind of Europe’s Jewish population: an unadorned mass grave that will remain sewn into the center of Berlin’s urban fabric.

Ultimately, Brody’s critique of the memorial is rooted in his conflation of the function of a museum and a memorial. While a museum is designed to educate andn inform through various forms of narrative strategies and explanation, a memorial is designed to commemorate and elicit a self-reflective emotional response that might (should, I would argue) change over time for both the individual and society as a whole. Naming the perpetrators in a museum is necessary; naming them at a memorial risks being inappropriate. This is precisely the problem with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York. The faces, names, and motives of the perpetrators have to be there because it is a museum, but what does that mean for the memorialization of the victims? In the end, Brody’s article is the type of engagement (including his radical alternatives) that I think makes the memorial successful. The conversation about the memorial should not stop, just as the conversation of the subject being memorialized should continue. This type of ongoing conversation is the reason why the placards that continue to stand in places like Rastatt are a thing of the past. Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is adequate; more might be too much.

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