Monday, May 09, 2005


It's time to do more than just remember the Holocaust.

It's time to stop them from happening.

From a description in today's Times of the new Holocaust memorial in Berlin, which opens on Thursday.
A Forest of Pillars, Recalling the Unimaginable

In the 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the nation has struggled - painfully and sometimes defensively - to come to terms with its Nazi past. Nowhere has that been more evident than in Berlin, the restored capital, where a vast rebuilding effort has transformed the once-ravaged city center.

The new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenman, is the apotheosis of this soul-searching. A vast grid of 2,711 concrete pillars whose jostling forms seem to be sinking into the earth, it is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust's horrors without stooping to sentimentality - showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion.

The memorial's power lies in its willingness to grapple with the moral ambiguities arising in the Holocaust's shadow. Its focus is on the delicate, almost imperceptible line that separates good and evil, life and death, guilt and innocence.

The location could not be more apt. During the war, this was the administrative locus of Hitler's killing machine. His chancellery building, designed by Albert Speer and since demolished, was a few hundred yards away just to the south; his bunker lies beneath a nearby parking lot.

Covering five and a half acres in the center of Berlin, the memorial, which opens May 10, will be an unavoidable fixture of the city's life - reassuring those who see the Holocaust as a singular marker of human evil while upsetting those who feel that Germany has already spent too much time wallowing in guilt.


These moments speak to one of the Holocaust's most tragic lessons, the ability of human beings to numb themselves to all sorts of suffering - a feeling that only intensifies as you descend into the site. Paved in uneven cobblestones, the ground between the pillars slopes down as you move deeper in.

At first, you retain glimpses of the city. The rows of pillars frame a distant view of the Reichstag's skeletal glass dome. To the west, you can glimpse the canopy of trees in the Tiergarten. Then as you descend further, the views begin to disappear. The sound of gravel crunching under your feet gets more perceptible; the gray pillars, their towering forms tilting unsteadily, become more menacing and oppressive. The effect is intentionally disorienting. You are left alone with memories of life outside - the cheerful child, for example, balanced on the concrete platform.

This is a chilling moment. For me, it evoked Primo Levi's description of the death camps. "To sink is the easiest of matters," he wrote in "Survival in Auschwitz." "It is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp." Only through constant struggle and arbitrary luck was survival possible.

But it is only as you re-emerge from the memorial, rejoining the everyday world, that what you have experienced becomes clear. Mr. Eisenman, the architect, has said that his greatest fear was to sentimentalize the Holocaust. "I don't want people to weep and then walk away with a clear conscience," he explained.
I imagine the effect is like walking into a forest ever deeper, so that you can't be sure you will ever emerge back into the light, into the real world. That must have been what it was like for the victims of the Holocaust, herded by the Nazis into the forest of the camps, of the brutality and murder and fear and terror.

Unimaginable, no matter how many times you see Schindler's List or The Pianist (once each was more than enough for me), no matter how many times you read Anne Frank's Diary or any of the other books and memoirs on the subject. Endless night, with no hope of daylight ever coming, as Elie Wiesel described it.

And it goes on. Cambodia, Bosnia, East Timor, Rwanda, now Darfur. How many memorials will it take? How many museums? How many sensitive, historically contextual, even insightful architectural reviews?

I don't want to have to commemmorate any more of these nightmares.
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