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In Berlin, honoring a memorial

Naomi Conrad, Berlin May 7, 2015

Many feared Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial would become a target for neo-Nazis. But ten years after its inauguration, it has become a major tourist attraction - and a place to remember, as Naomi Conrad reports.

Couple kissing at the site (Foto: Paul Zinken/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

The young couple making out on the big concrete block seemed oblivious to the strong gusts of wind blowing across Berlin's Holocaust Memorial on Thursday afternoon, a huge undulating maze of more than 2,700 steles. They ignored the small group of solemn looking tourists huddled around their guide a few feet to their left, who was busily holding forth on the Memorial's genesis – a genesis, that was fraught by "years of debate", as Norbert Lammert, the speaker of the German parliament recalled during a ceremony marking the tenth year of the memorial's inauguration.

As tourists wandered past the small stage set up by the entrance to the subterranean museum, Lammert recalled the "intense debates" in Parliament surrounding the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, as it is officially called. At the time, critics feared the site, spread over a huge area in central Berlin adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, might turn into a target for neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists.

Others questioned the need for such a memorial, while some called the design by the US architect Peter Eisenmann too abstract.

Memorial took 17 years to build

After 17 years of debate and a two year delay when it emerged that the company providing the anti-graffiti paint for the stele had supplied the gas to the Nazi death camps used to exterminate countless lives, the memorial was finally inaugurated on May 10, 2005.

Aerial view of the Memorial (Foto: Jens Kalaene/dpa)
A persistent problem are cracks in the concrete, almost all of the bigger stele are affected.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

Today, Lea Rosh, a journalist who spent 17 years campaigning for the monument, which attracts nearly half a million visitors each year, had finally become the place "to commemorate the crime" committed against the Jews.

When she and others pushed for the site, she said, they had decided to dedicate it exclusively to the Jewish victims, given that "the murder of so many Jews was the core element of Hitler's policy of extermination." However, she added, the initiators had always emphasized that other memorial sites were needed to commemorate the Nazi's many other victims.

Over the last decade, smaller memorials have been built in the vicinity to commemorate the many homosexuals, Roma and Sinti and disabled people murdered during the Second World War.

Survivor: "A place where I can remember my family"

And so, the Holocaust Memorial remains a place to remember the estimated six million Jewish victims. Marian Turski, a frail, bent Holocaust survivor, who had traveled from Poland for the ceremony, told the audience of politicians, Jewish representatives and survivors, that the labyrinth was more than a memorial for the estimated six million German and European Jews exterminated by the Nazis. "It's the place where I can remember my father and my brother, who were gassed."

Turski, who lost 43 family members in the Holocaust and barely survived the daily horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp, himself said he felt grateful.

A place for many "who don't have a grave"

For the vast majority of those slaughtered by the Nazis, this was the only memorial, Ingeburg Geißler said, "because they don't have a grave." Many of the Nazi's victims were burnt, others buried in mass graves.

Geißler, who was sent to the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia in 1945, said she scrawled a desperate "I'm not coming back" on a postcard and threw it out of the packed train that took her to what was for many a certain death in the Nazi gas chambers. Others were worked and starved to death.

People climbing on the stele (Foto: Stephanie Pilick/dpa)
Personnel at the memorial discourages visitors from "inappropriate behaviour"Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick

The many victims, Geißler said quietly, "accompany me when I make my way through the stele."

But, she added, as if addressing the group of laughing teenagers lounging on a stele a few feet behind the police barricades surrounding the stage, the memorial also held a message for future generations: "to show courage, not to tolerate any kind of racism and to fight for a more human world."

As the audience slowly filed out past and the string quartet packed up, a young tourist from Japan smiled shyly. She had come to the memorial, she said, "because it is such an important place for German history." It was, she added, a good museum, "a place to remember." Then she wandered off and disappeared among the big, gray steles.