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'Holocaust ashes' memorial erected in Berlin

Rebecca Staudenmaier
December 2, 2019

German activists who installed the memorial say it contains a soil sample with the human remains of Holocaust victims. The group wants to send a message to Angela Merkel's conservatives: Don't work with the far-right.

An art installation by the Center for Political Beauty that allegedly contains the ashes of Holocaust victims, set up outside the German parliament in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Gateau

An art installation that claims to contain the ashes of Nazi victims appeared outside Germany's parliament on Monday.

The memorial is part of a new campaign launched by art-activist collective Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty) called "Come look for us!"

The group says it spent two years digging up soil and testing rivers near areas where the "Nazis perfected and industrialized mass murder."

"At one of the horrific sites we found ashes and bone char a meter deep. This column contains the sample from this soil that has been preserved for all eternity."

Dubbed the "Resistance Column," the solemn gray cylinder is partly illuminated from the inside with an orange light — giving viewers a chance to look at the soil sample contained inside.

Defending against criticism about desecrating human remains, the group said in a statement: "There were no graves where we sampled the soil."

Read more: German Holocaust victims' group loses charity status

A message to Merkel's conservatives

Although the activist artists say the memorial is designed to remember Holocaust victims, it's also intended to send a message to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives about the dangers of working with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

"The only likely path to power for the AfD is through the conservatives," the Center for Political Beauty said.

An art installation by the Center for Political Beauty that allegedly contains the ashes of Holocaust victims, set up outside the German parliament in Berlin
The column contains a drill sample that allegedly contains the ashes and bone fragments of those who lost their lives in the HolocaustImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Gateau

Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) have ruled out working with the far-right on a national and state-wide level.

At the local level, however, the success of the AfD has led some CDU politicians to team up with the far-right. Recently, a group of CDU politicians in the eastern state of Thuringia called for talks with "all democratically elected parties."

The Center for Political Beauty said it picked the location for its Holocaust memorial carefully. Located between the Bundestag and the chancellery, the artwork stands where the Kroll Opera House once stood — the site where German members of parliament gave dictator Adolf Hitler virtually unlimited authority in 1933.

Jewish community calls memorial 'problematic'

The Central Council of Jews in Germany said although it welcomes political protests to combat the rise of the far right, the memorial in Berlin raises several concerns.

"From a Jewish perspective, the Center for Political Beauty's latest campaign is problematic because it violates Jewish religious law about not disturbing the dead," council president Josef Schuster told DW in a statement.

He noted that if the human remains in the soil sample are actually Jewish victims of the Holocaust, then Jewish religious leaders need to be consulted on the best way to deal with those remains.

"It would be a welcome gesture if a rabbi were consulted when dismantling the 'Resistance Column' in order to ensure at least a respectful and correct handling of the ashes according to halacha," Schuster added.

Police have only granted permission for the memorial to remain in place until Saturday. The activists have put out a call for collections so they can pour concrete to make the memorial permanent.

Searching for remains

The Center for Political Beauty said it collected over 240 samples from 23 locations across Germany as well as in previously Nazi-occupied areas in Poland and Ukraine.

Lab results found traces of human remains in over 70% of the samples, the group said in a statement.

The samples were taken from areas near Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka and other sites of Nazi German concentration camps where the ashes and remains of victims were spread in nearby fields and rivers.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, over 1.1 million victims — including some 1 million Jewish prisoners — were killed. The ashes of hundreds of thousands of bodies were disposed of in the lakes and grounds surrounding the camp.

The artists' collective is known for its headline-grabbing protest pieces — particularly for setting up a replica of Berlin's Holocaust memorial outside the house of AfD politician Björn Höcke in 2017.

Earlier that year Höcke dubbed the memorial in Berlin as a "monument of shame" and has called for a reversal of Germany's culture of remembrance surrounding the Holocaust.

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