Is the Berlin Holocaust Memorial too abstract to elicit an emotional response?
The Holocaust Memorial, erected in Berlin, was inaugurated in 2005; sixty years after the end of the Second World War.
It showcases 2,711 grey block-like pillars at different levels, somewhat resembling a number of coffins stretching over 4.7 acres of land, only a few yards from Brandenburg Gate. There is a separate memorial to the homosexuals, who died under Nazi dictatorship, across the road and leading into the park. The memorial engaged with quite a bit of controversy when it was being built over a decade ago and it is still causing controversy even at the present. I was lucky enough to visit Berlin on a university trip and got to experience the memorial firsthand.
Walking past the memorial, it is almost impossible to know that it was erected in honour of the millions of Jews murdered across Europe. Although the overbearing pillars seem to represent the overbearing oppression that the Jewish people felt, there is very little evidence of what exactly the memorial represents. There are no inscriptions on the stone with some of the known names of the victims. Although the names of all those that were murdered during the Nazi period will never be completely known, the ‘Book of Names’ seen at Auschwitz concentration camp would be a good place to start. Richard Brody states that “Without that title [Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe], it would be impossible to know what the structure is meant to commemorate; there’s nothing about these concrete slabs that signifies any of the words of the title, except, perhaps, “memorial”—insofar as some of them, depending on their height, may resemble either headstones or sarcophagi.” We are told very little about what inspired the memorial to look the way it does as there is a certain type of vagueness encompassing the whole memorial. The sense of detachment felt by many is disturbing, particularly because the memorial attempts to distance the perpetrators from their victims by not referencing the Holocaust or the Nazi’s at all. The memorial depends on people knowing and understanding the events that took place during 1939 (when the Nazi’s began to implement the Final Solution) to 1945 (the end of World War II). This assumption that is put in place disregards those who were killed and those who did the killing as it attempts to forget.
The ambiguity of the memorial is one of the reasons it feels immensely impersonal to those who go to see it. The question of whether it is a piece of art or perhaps a memorial is one that is repeated over and over. The sloping ground that it is built on and the difference in the sizes of many of the pillars make it appear as though it is a piece of modernist art. The memorial is a sign of remembrance to all those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, however, the abstractness of it makes it appear as though it is a piece of art that should be interpreted. Paul Spiegel, the then-president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, “criticized it [the memorial] for being too abstract and failing to address the issue of guilt”. The abstractness of the memorial creates a feeling of detachment for many people and this is perhaps why many feel happy enough to take selfies and play games there.
It is hard not to notice the mass amount of families that are content taking selfies among the memorial of the victims killed. Anthony Faiola pictured something similar when he visited the memorial; “At a place honouring the memory of the Nazis’ victims, young laughing visitors hop from block to block, searching for the best angles. Some pose sensually atop the slabs for eye-candy shots on dating websites. One man had his picture taken between the stones while juggling. “There is a sense of a complete lack of respect shown to those that are supposed to be commemorated. Could this be because the memorial is so out of reach of what a memorial should be that people’s detachment from it makes them think it is not a problem for them to enjoy themselves among the grey, dull pillars? Best-selling author Shahak Shapira “became an instant example of the power of the internet to generate shame.” He published images of several families that had taken selfies at the memorial and then blended them into some of the horrifying backdrops that took place during the Nazi dictatorship. Despite his images going viral across Europe, it seems that people still do not understand the effect they have on a memorial such as this.
Furthermore, it is not only people taking photos of themselves and their friends that discredit the site honouring Holocaust victims. Many groups of children are seen running around, playing amongst the coffin-like structures, as though it is a maze. Games of hide-and-seek take place here and it is a complete contrast to the memory of the children that died in the Holocaust. On display at Auschwitz are children’s artefacts, clothes and shoes, found after the liberation of the camp. Over a million Jewish children, along with thousands of Polish and Romani children were murdered as part of the Nazi’s plans for the destruction of those who were deemed as unwanted or useless. The striking contrast between the children that play amongst the pillars and those that are being honoured thereafter they were murdered is disturbing. The disrespect seen by those treating the memorial as though it is a game is devastating.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe attempts to serve as a reminder of all those that were lost, innocently murdered under Hitler’s rule in Germany. Despite the grey pillars resembling coffins with their shape and size, the memorial offers very little in the way of commemorating the dead. There is no plaque, there are no inscriptions of names and there are no touching words to read. There is a museum underneath the memorial that offers a timeline of events as well as poignant letters, diary entries and photos that were received years later, a touching tribute to the deceased. However, the 4.7 acres of land that the memorial encompasses shows no sympathy or empathy for the events that took place in the middle of the 20th century. The Holocaust memorial in Berlin is unlike any of the other memorials. The National 9/11 Memorial in New York and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial both name the victims at the memorial site and surround the victims with photos, flowers and flags. They are memorials rather than seen as a piece of art, and by ignoring those who perpetrated the horrific events, expecting visitors to already understand what happened, the attempt to forget makes the memorial all the more disturbing. Although an emotional response incited from this memorial is personal to each person, it is hard to imagine all of those who were killed when there are children playing games and couples taking selfies all around.