Explaining Mass Murder | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 10.05.2005

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Explaining Mass Murder

On Tuesday, a memorial to the European Jews murdered by the Nazi regime opens in Berlin. Under the monument, an information center provides visitors a personalized glimpse into one of the greatest crimes in history.

The monument aims to teach as well as cause reflection

The monument aims to teach as well as cause reflection

After a long process and much debate, Berlin will unveil on Tuesday a central memorial to the Holocaust. Covering an area of 19,000 square meters, the memorial comprises 2,711 grey pillars, or steles, of varying heights, from a few centimeters to 4.7 meters.

They form a dense grid, which, according to the monument's New York-based architect, Peter Eisenman, is supposed to create a sense of unease and loneliness among visitors who wander through it, reflecting the feelings of Jews who were sent to concentration camps.

Holocaust Mahnmal in Berlin

Aerial view of the Memorial for the Murdered Jews in Europe

The monument, which has been under discussion for 17 years, has been both widely praised and roundly criticized. Its supporters say it is a courageous way for the Germans to acknowledge in the very center of their capital city the darkest chapter of their history. Detractors have slammed the monument as an eyesore, a target for vandals and overly abstract.

Bringing it to earth

But one part of the monument, which was initially opposed by Eisenman, has been left alone by critics: the underground information center which documents the killing of six million Jews by focusing on individual, personal stories. Even those who find the symbolism of the above-ground field of steles hard to comprehend will likely clearly understand the very concrete histories of deportation and destruction that are presented below.

Holocaust Mahnmal Berlin Innenansicht

Interior of the information center still under construction in January 2005

In the four exhibition rooms of the information center, the idea of the steles is maintained as a unifying theme. Cubes project down from the ceilings of the four rooms, appearing to be continuations of the concrete blocks on the surface.

The first room contains six large-format portraits of victims of the mass-murder, representing the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. One is of a boy from Prague, Zdenek Konas, who was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp at the age of 11 and later sent to Auschwitz. The last line in his short biography next to his picture is the word "lost."

The organizers wanted to pull the Holocaust out of the realm of abstraction, a place it often resides since numbers like six million are hard for the human mind to fathom. While the numbers of victims from different countries are listed on the walls, citations on glass surfaces elucidate the fates of individual people.

One entry comes from the diary of Herman Kruk, written while he was in the Vilnius ghetto: "What kind of life will it even be afterwards if I survive? What is the point of this whole pursuit of survival, enduring it all, hanging on? What is the point?"

Lifting the anonymity

According to Dagmar von Wilcken, one of the creators of the information center, the personalization of unimaginable suffering is one of the chief aims of the center. It is the only way, she said, to lift the anonymity of the victims. In the "Room of Names," the names of individual victims are projected onto the walls while at the same time visitors can hear biographical details from the lives.

Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem

* FILE ** A visitor enters an exhibition hall displaying photographs and paintings inside a new wing of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem Sunday Feb. 13, 2005. The inauguration of the new Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem, the memorial to the 6 million Jewish victims of the Nazis will take place Tuesday March 15. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty) ** zu unserem Korr **

This was made possible through cooperative efforts with Israel, which, for the first time, opened the databank at its Yad Vashem memorial (photo), in which the names of Holocaust victims have been gathered since 1954. Still, the Berlin memorial is also using new research techniques in order to get a more precise picture of the lives and deaths of many victims. It will take years before all known names can be recorded in the information center. At the opening, there will have been just 800 names registered.

But the exhibition does not just concentrate on the dead. In one room, a large selection of portraits of survivors will be on hand. The information center, with the help of the Furtunoff Video Archive from Yale University, has been able to bring an extensive body of interview documents to Berlin, some of which date from the end of the 1970s.

With the help of the center's computers, visitors can research their own personal family histories and students can listen to or read first-hand accounts of what happened during the "Final Solution."

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