The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe remains one of my favourite (if that word can be applied to such a thing) parts of Berlin. I find it particularly powerful.
This directly contrasts with the experience of most everyone else, who can be placed in two groups. The first are the puzzled tourists who mutter “This is it?” to each other. The second are the classicists who see it as insultingly inadequate, painfully vague, or, at best, underwhelming.
It is, without question, non-traditional. It doesn’t have any of the architectural trappings usually associated with memorials. It’s relative blandness is made even more stark by its proximity to the Brandenburg Gate.
But to focus on its physical appearance is to miss the point. It is an experiential memorial that provides the participant with the briefest (and, by limits of representation, inadequate) glimpse into what it might have been like to be near or involved in the actual event.
First and most importantly, there is the obvious symbolism of the stacked coffins – that you are surrounded and overpowered by death. But that’s just the beginning.
You don’t know what it is. Walking by, you can’t help but notice it, but there are no signs explaining it or indicating its importance. It’s just there, defying explanation.
People disappear into it. If you stand across the street and watch, you’ll see groups of people slowly sink from view as they walk between the pillars. They don’t reemerge.
Its true scale and depth are imperceptible, till you’re already consumed within it. The pillars in the middle stand 12 to 15 feet high. You don’t realize how ‘tall’ the coffins are stacked when you’re on the outside looking in.
Similarly, you can’t tell how many people are inside it till you’re also inside. From the street it looks empty. Once inside, you realize there can be upwards of 100 people trapped in its maze.
Enter and you quickly get separated from your group. Take one unexpected turn and you lose contact with your friends and family who entered just a few steps behind you. It takes considerable effort to find them again.
Which means you’re on your own. Isolated. It’s you vs. the memorial.
People flit in and out of view. As you walk through the memorial, other people quickly cross your path and disappear. Brief, fleeting glimpses of strangers you’ll never see again.
The close confines force you into unexpected confrontations with strangers. You can easily run into people also trying to find their way through.
It is aggressively and unforgivingly regimented. It is organized. And it is unimaginative in its organization. It’s banal. (Which, in my mind, is one of the true horrors of the holocaust.)
And finally, despite the regimented layout, there are enough incongruencies – like the occasional leaning pillar threatening to fall over, or the undulating ground throwing you off your stride – to ensure you never gain total confidence.
It is impossible to convey the scale, misery, and horror of the Holocaust. But I find the memorial significantly more evocative and moving for its lack of pretension.