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Holocaust remembrance

May 10, 2010

Now five years old, Berlin's Holocaust Memorial serves as a landmark of remembrance and a symbol of collective conscience - even as the structure threatens to crumble. DW looks at the memorial's past, present and future.

Visitors wander through the Berlin Holocaust Memorial
The Berlin Holocaust Memorial was a long time in the makingImage: AP

In 1953 - in the wake of the Holocaust - a first order of business for the young Israeli state was the construction of the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem. Forty years later, Washington, D.C. built its Holocaust Memorial. Yet it wasn't until 2005, 60 years after the end of World War II, that Germany, the atrocity's perpetrator, unveiled its Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

It's been five years since the Holocaust memorial opened at the center of Berlin. Support and appreciation for the monument - which caused 13 years of heated debate and may now be disintegrating - is stronger than ever.

A grassroots proposal

The idea for the memorial first came at the beginning of 1989 through a citizens' initiative in Berlin, spearheaded by journalist and publicist Lea Rosh and historian Eberhard Jaeckel. The group wanted to see a national memorial to the Jews who perished in the Holocaust built in Berlin, which was the capital of East Germany at the time.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall a few months later and the excitement of Germany's reunification shortly thereafter, the idea was almost immediately placed on the backburner. A few years later, in 1992, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government became proponents of the memorial's construction and set aside space for it next to Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

Peter Eisenman and Lea Rosh talk on the construction site of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial
Architect Peter Eisenman says he couldn't have done it without Rosh's supportImage: dpa

In Bonn, still the capital of West Germany, many parliamentarians fought for the monument to be built. Among them was Christian Democrat Norbert Lammert, who is now head of the memorial's curatorial committee.

Lammert says that he and several others "emphatically advocated that the government's move to Berlin after reunification needed to begin with such a demonstrative sign."

But the monument itself would not be realized for quite some time. After rounds of hearings, debates, competitions and exhibitions, the German parliament finally decided to create a foundation to decide on and implement a design for the memorial.

Throughout this process and the further debates that ensued, the memorial's conceptualists, Rosh and Jaeckel, remained clear on what they wanted their brainchild to accomplish. "We wanted the memorial to do three things," Rosh told Deutsche Welle: "to commemorate what took place, to honor the victims and to give them back their names."

The fruits of a long labor

Today, the monument does just that. Spreading over 19,000 square meters (over 200,000 square feet) in the middle of Berlin, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is made up of 2,711 gray, concrete steles of varying heights - a seemingly endless landscape of concrete waves that can't be overlooked.

Some critics found the monument too abstract and anonymous, so an information center was later added beneath the terrain, where visitors can learn about the Holocaust and its victims.

The Reichstag is seen behind the memorial
The memorial, located at the heart of Berlin, is facing serious renovationImage: AP

The monument's designer, American architect Peter Eisenman, has not been back to the memorial since its opening in May 2005, and was originally against the addition of the information center. Now, he is more pleased than ever with his work.

"It's unusual for an American to sit here and say, it was my intention to give you back your memory," Eisenman said. "It sounds rather condescending, but I think if I had been German, I would have done it and perceived it in the same way."

It wasn't an easy road for Eisenman; the memorial that was finally constructed was the second proposal, after the large-scale sculptor Richard Serra backed out of the project.

"I'm very proud of what we accomplished. We encountered a great deal of disputes and setbacks. But Lea Rosh kept us from giving up, and step by step we got there. By now, those difficulties have faded into history. Now it's about the present and the future.

Looking forward

The monument's future is not fully unproblematic. Recently, faulty construction has begun taking a toll on the concrete pillars, and renovation or partial reconstruction will soon become urgently necessary.

Uwe Neumaerker, the director of the memorial foundation, told Deutsche Welle he does not know how long the process will take, adding that "tests have shown that unfortunately it will take a very long time." Still, Neumaerker assures that "nothing will fall apart."

More likely than the memorial's concrete steles falling on visitors, it seems, is visitors falling off steles. The monument has become a popular destination for games of hide-and-seek, parkour daredevils and sun-worshippers that come on warm days to enjoy the shade-free tops of the steles.

Two children hop from one stele to the next
The memorial is sometimes used for other purposesImage: AP

Rosh takes a relatively relaxed stance toward visitors repurposing her memorial.

"Sometimes I go and see people sunning themselves on the steles and tell them that there are lawns for sunbathing in the Tiergarten just across the street," she said. "I tell the boys who are hopping around on the steles that they should do that somewhere else.

"When I tell the eight- to 12-year-olds that they should go into the information center below the memorial and then come talk to me about it, it's always very powerful. They tell me they've learned a lot."

Author: Marcel Fuerstenau (dl)

Editor: Kate Bowen