September 5, 2007

Berlin Highlights: the Holocaust Memorials

There's no question that Berlin has brilliant architecture to spare, but I find it interesting that besides the Reichstag, the city's two most interesting pieces are memorials to Germany’s darkest moment: the Holocaust.

Peter Eisenman’s ""Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" is quite simply one of the most interesting and emotional pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen. Thousands of concrete stelae cover a space in central Berlin that’s roughly the size of a football field, and each stele is said to be unique – in terms of height and thickness – representing, in a way, the uniqueness of the individual victims of the Holocaust. For a contemporary viewer like me, who’s heard the figure “six million murdered Jews” repeated again and again until it almost loses all meaning, it was a powerful reminder of the individual nature of this colossal tragedy.

More astonishing, though, was the site’s uncanny resemblance to the Jewish cemeteries of Old Europe, with its crowded disorganized rows of wilding-titling rough-hewn stones. Of course, all but a handful of these cemeteries were destroyed during Hitler’s reign of terror, and apparently it was not uncommon for the Reich to reuse the stones as street pavers. The only extant example I’ve ever seen is the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, and Eisenman’s memorial perfectly captures the feel of that unusual space. I find it really fitting that a memorial to Europe’s murdered Jews also manages to pay tribute to, and in a way to recreate, a such an important symbol Europe’s ancient Jewish culture – without it seeming contrived.

Visiting the memorial is also deeply unsettling physical experience, one that’s to make you feel small and vulnerable. As you walk down a subtle slope and deeper into the memorial, the stelae, which appeared about waist high from the outside, suddenly shoot up like trees in some petrified forest. The towering stones, leaning as they do at noticeable angles, looked as if they might fall at any moment, and the cobblestone paths between them are uneven and undulating, as if the Earth is rolling beneath your feet. It reminded me a bit of being eight years old and walking through the “Casa Magnetica” at Six Flags, where everything was built at a 45-degree angle, and yet the memorial always manages to stay above the level of some amusement park ride.

In the center of the field the stelae reach their greatest height, some ten or twenty feet tall, and no matter how bright the sun is shining very little of it ever reaches the ground. It is a very deep, dark place. From this vantage point, the rows of stones stretch out as far as the eye can see, curving slightly at the ends so that there seems to be no exit. It’s very easy to become lost inside. Once Kevin and I became separated, and it was twenty minutes before we found each other again – calling out for one another over the tops of the stelae.

On the day we visited, I noticed several younger tourists used this very sense of disorientation to play an excellent game of hide-and-seek. However, some of the older visitors were really put off by this, deeming it inappropriate behavior at a Holocaust memorial. But Eisenman, himself Jewish, has emphasized from the beginning that he didn’t want to dictate the memorial’s interpretation or even its use. “People are going to picnic in the field. Children will play tag in the field. There will be fashion models modeling there and films will be shot there. I can easily imagine some spy shoot 'em ups ending in the field,” he told Der Spiegel. “What can I say? It's not a sacred space.”

But the Germans had other ideas. Fearing that the memorial might become a target for neo-Nazi graffiti, they insisted on coating the stones with an anti-graffiti sealant. But Eisenman was against this from the start, saying that the memorial could serve as an important litmus test for public sentiment. “If a swastika is painted on it, it is a reflection of how people feel,” he said. “And if it remains there, it is a reflection of how the German government feels about people painting swastikas on the monument.” So far, no graffiti of any sort has appeared.

In addition, the private foundation that owns the site has also installed an “education center” beneath the memorial, also against Eisenman’s wishes. It explains, in very apologetic tones, the history of the Holocaust and points out the meaning of the memorial and the lessons the visitor should take away. It never ceases to amaze me how the Germans can never let a thing just be. They are big on intention, interpretation, and didacticism here. Fortunately, you can completely avoid this room, which is underground, and interpret the memorial for yourself. You might not know it’s there at all unless you go looking for it.

Just a few blocks away, is Berlin’s other big Holocaust attraction, if one can call it that: the Jewish Museum-Berlin. A few years ago, the museum got a new look: a building from the American architect Daniel Liebeskind, the one with the funny black glasses who won the competition to design site plan for the new World Trade Center. Titled “Between the Lines,” the Berlin building is a “deconstructivist masterpiece” (or so says the museum’s Web site), and immediately after its completion it was opened to the public – long before it held any exhibits. The empty space itself was unusual enough to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Like Eisenman’s memorial, the Jewish Museum is designed in such a way as to create a sense of insecurity through uneven and sloping floors and walls that jut-out at odd angles. (I apologize for not knowing which architect first came up with this concept; both structures were built around the same time.) But the Jewish Museum caused even more of the “Casa Magnetica”-effect than the Holocaust memorial: I actually felt a little dizzy and nauseous inside, especially on the staircases. Even more than Eisenman’s project, though, Liebeskind’s building attempts to give a physical form to the idea of the Holocaust. Its footprint is an enormous zigzag, which Liebeskind calls a “broken Star of David.” OK, then. If you want to be literal about the extermination of the Jews, I guess a broken six-point star is the way to go.

Critics of the museum have claimed that the space is overly thought-out at best, and downright kitschy at worst. Compared to Eisenman’s more stripped-down space, I would have to agree. The main exhibit space consists of three long halls, or “axes” as Liebeskind calls them, awkwardly named “The Axis of the Holocaust,” “The Axis of Emigration,” and the “Axis of Continuity,’ which – you guessed it – correspond with the typed of stories they tell. Still, Liebeskind’s boutique design is not the real purpose of the Jewish Museum. The exhibits, which chart the stories of a few dozen real families through the years of the Holocaust using their letters and photos and artifacts, are why I went and why I’d go back again an again. I guess the most that can be said for the axes is that they don’t detract from the brilliantly curated exhibits they hold.

However, Liebeskind’s “voids,” five enormous empty spaces at the end of the axes, are amazing. There are five voids in all, but the two that stood out most were the “Memory Void” and Liebeskind’s own masterpiece, “The Holocaust Tower.”

The “Memory Void” houses an installation by Israeli artist Menasche Kadishman titled Schalechet, or “Fallen Leaves” in English, but the 10,000 or so three-dimensional plates that fill this void are about as much like leaves as, well, a fish is like a submarine. The heavy, iron slabs are coarsely cut into the shape of human faces, and they play with the same ideas of individuality and repetition as Eisenman’s stelae: Each face is hand wrought and so is a little bit different. And here, too, the visitor is encouraged to participate – by walking across the room, on top of the exhibit. Of course, walking on top thousands of metal faces is terribly disconcerting, not to mention the enormous racket it makes in an empty concrete hall. I couldn’t help feeling the way a cat must feel when he wanders into a puddle by mistake: I just wanted to get back out again, as fast as possible. I have a hard time putting in to words exactly what this has to do with the Holocaust, nonetheless, it was a rare experience, and one that everyone should experience for himself.

Finally, Liebeskind’s real pièce de résistance is his Holocaust Tower, a bare, concrete room, semi-detached from the rest of the museum, and one which is neither heated or insulated. The temperature inside is always the same as the temperature out-of-doors, and the room isn’t lit. The only light in the space comes from a long slit near the ceiling, which allows in a narrow stream of radiant natural light. I’ve heard this room compared to a gas chamber and to a cattle-car, one of the infamous train cars used to transport Jews to the concentration camps. Both of these descriptions are pretty apt, although I prefer to see the space as a less blatantly symbolic. Quite simply: You feel trapped here, and the light streaming in from above is a reminder of you of the world you are cut off from as well as a sign of hope. And that’s a pretty remarkable feeling and a pretty remarkable space.

Disclaimer: I apologize for going on and on about Berlin’s architecture. I realize this is no less than my third post on the subject, and I promise it will be my last. My excuse must be that, while at my former job, I worked on two websites related to this topic: one on Daniel Liebeskind, and another on Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial. Although I spent months researching and writing on these projects, I never visited either site in the flesh until now, and although it is now some years later, I guess I had a few ideas still rolling around in my head.


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