Museums, temples, and kosher coffee shops – it’s still there, despite the darkest chapter of European history: Jewish culture in Berlin. And still it plays an important role in shaping the face of the city. Did you know how closely linked the history of Berlin is to its Jewish community? We from Industriepalast Hostel want to explore this interesting aspect of the German capital and find out more about the many facets of Jewish life here in our newest series: Jewish Berlin. Since you’ve already been introduced to the history of Jews in Berlin in the Jewish Museum, we’ll now turn to a unique place of remembrance in the capital: the Holocaust Memorial.
Perspectives of Forsakenness
2711, that is the number of concrete slabs that form this strange site, and there are probably just as many possible interpretations. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, often called by its short name Holocaust Memorial, has made for a central place of contemplation since its opening in 2005. Right next to iconic Brandenburg Gate on an open space of 19,000 sqm rest the angular cuboids, and as so often, effect is a question of perspective here. When observed from a distance, an overall image of the wave-like block pattern unfolds. If you enter the field, however, you get to lose perspective – in the truest sense of the word. The concrete blocks measure up to four and a half meters in height and the pathways among them are narrow enough so you have to walk alone. If you dare to advance deeper into the field you might experience a feeling of being crushed or forsaken; others find a strange quietness and peace among the shielding staele in the heart of the urban jungle. Whatever you may find here, it won’t leave you indifferent.
And that might come as a surprise, since the monument is plain as could be. Whereas other memorial sites tend to point more or less precisely to a historic event or persona, US architect Peter Eisenman’s work is beyond obvious interpretations. For a reason: “Dimension and scale of the Holocaust make every attempt of representing it by traditional means inevitably a forlorn endeavour”, the architect once said about his plans, and: “our memorial attempts to create a new idea of remembrance.” Thus it is left to the visitors to find their own interpretation of this unique site. A similar concept using a resemblant design can be found in the “Garden of Exile” at Jewish Museum.
Place of Information
Context is everything, so the free-to-read memorial comes with a Place of Information, a subterranean permanent exhibition documenting in four rooms the persecution and killing of European Jews. Six Million Jews lost their lives due to the Nazi regime, a number so ungraspable, it is in danger to turn into an empty phrase. Thus the Place of Information shines a light on individual fates and single stories of life and death, so the Holocaust becomes comprehensible as a collective trauma. No wonder it is referred to as Shoah in Hebrew: “doom, misery”. Nonetheless, the explicit exhibition and the plain staele field do not represent two opposite approaches of remembrance. They complete each other and create a personal connection to the horrors of the Holocaust. Recommendation: For your first visit walk through the field by yourself, then visit the Place of Information, only to get lost between the slabs again. What has changed in your perception? What are the thoughts and emotions that come to you? You may have found the numerous children running around here impious at first – you might be grateful to them now for reminding you that life does go on after all.
Not without criticism
It may not come as a surprise to you that the Holocaust Memorial has not been without criticism. Many find the concept too loose and miss a clear interpretation. Since the site is always open to the public and accessible from all sides, there were fears of vandalism. The concrete slabs are therefore covered in a specific coating to remove graffities and smearings easily. The high costs for construction and maintenance were often criticized, there was a legitimate claim to rather invest the money in existing memorial sites like Concentration Camp Memorial Site Sachsenhausen. Since the Holocaust Memorial does not include other groups of victims, smaller monuments were erected in nearby Tiergarten. Recently, however, another problem has given rise to discussions: the concrete material is porous and fragile and most slabs show cracks already. Some of the cuboids are currently held together by steel cuffs, a costly renovation will soon be inevitable.
Still, the staele field has proven to be a real magnet for visitors and locals. It is so popular, it even makes the Top 10 landmarks in Germany and is one of the most visited memorial sites in the entire world. So when it is your turn to visit the German capital, make sure you’re not missing out on this unique monument.
The memorial site is open 24/7 and fully accessible from all sides. The Place of Information is located underneath the site and is open from Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 – 20h (7 pm in winter). There is no admission fee.
“Mir lebn ejbig” – “We’ll live forever” – is the title of a yiddish song from 1943, and indeed: Despite the horrors of the Shoah, there still is a vibrant Jewish culture in the German capital. Next week we’ll visit legendary Scheunenviertel, the former Jewish quarter of Berlin, as part of our series Jewish Berlin. Stay tuned!
Lehitraot and see you soon,
is Berliner by choice and a passionate backpacker himself. As a receptionist he knows the real hostel life; as a blogger he's been writing for Industriepalast Hostel's Berlin blog since 2014.