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A Journalist's Memorial to Holocaust Victims

Marcel Füstenau (ncy)May 9, 2005

After journalist Lea Rosh first publicized plans for a central German Holocaust memorial 17 years ago, her life's work will finally be inaugurated. Deutsche Welle spoke with the 68-year-old.

From Yad Vashem to Berlin: Lea Rosh and architect Peter EisenmanImage: dpa

No other German memorial has been the subject of such a long and agonizing debate as the 2,711 cement pillars, or steles, installed since 2003 on an expanse between the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz and Hitler's former chancellery in central Berlin. In the beginning, it was not at all clear what the monument to Europe's six million murdered Jews would look like. Then, in 1988, historian Eberhard Jäckel suggested the idea to Lea Rosh while visiting the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.

"We have to have something in Germany that commemorates the murdered Jews," Rosh quoted Jäckel as saying. "And I said to him, 'Why? We do have something. We have many (memorials) in Germany,' and I listed them. And then Eberhard said, 'That's for the Berlin Jews or for the Frankfurt Jews or for those from Hanover, but we don't have anything in Germany -- and as far as I know there is nothing (anywhere), except for Yad Vashem, that commemorates the murdered European Jews'."

Rosh returned to Berlin, where she headed a citizens' initiative, and she posed the question to her group: Did Germany need a central monument commemorating the genocide of Europe's Jews? "We discussed for a long time whether (it should be) exclusively for the Jews or also for other groups of victims, and we decided exclusively for the Jews," Rosh said.

Holocaust-Mahnmal vor Eröffnung
Part of the information center beneath the Holocaust memorialImage: dpa

It took four years for Rosh attract the federal government's attention. Finally, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl gave the idea his blessing. Rosh set out to quickly realize the idea, a monument she was convinced should be located in a highly visible location in Berlin. She expected to be confronted with resistance from within German society, but she never imagined that the project would take 17 years to be completed.

Letting go

"I thought, it's fully clear that we must erect a monument in Berlin for the murdered European Jews," Rosh said. "And I told my board of directors: 'We'll have it in three to four years, or else we'll let it go.' But the 'we'll let it go' part wasn't so easy after all. We had collected signatures, many signatures; we had collected money, within two to three years 100,000 deutsche marks (51,000 euros, $66,000) in 100 mark notes, but also 20 marks, 10 marks or two marks, off the street. And then you can't just say after four years we're going to let it all go now. Besides, we felt we owed it to the victims. So, we kept at it, year for year. But that it would take 17 years until the unveiling -- naturally we never expected that."

Even so, Rosh says she's glad Germany debated the issue. She credits the sometimes heated public discussion with generating a candor about topic that she claims wouldn't have developed otherwise. But it's an open question whether unveiling the monument designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman will put an end to the debate.

Keeping it lively

Luftbild Holocaust Mahnmal in Berlin
An aerial view of the Berlin monument to the victims of the HolocaustImage: AP

Rosh is hopeful that the monument will not only keep the memory of the Holocaust's victims alive but that the debate will remain lively too, when, for example, school classes from Germany or abroad visit the memorial.

"We do a lot of tours through the monument site and talk with groups of visitors. And there's an enormous amount of interest, especially among young people. They want to know exactly how it was, how it was possible, who collaborated, who refused. And those are such interesting discussions that I believe the monument will be a trigger for many people to really thoroughly delve into the topic. That's why we do especially like to do these tours."

The tours include visits to the underground documentation center beneath the monument. It's at the heart of Lea Rosh's next project: to raise money so the facility can exhibit the biographic data of more than three million murdered Jews.