“A monument of shame” is how Bjoern Hoecke, a leading figure of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, recently described Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Ignoring for a moment the AfD’s historically anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, we might ask; do they have a point? Apart from the intentional provocation, the obvious thrust for indignant, horrified reactions from the left (a member for Social Left Party, Diether Dehm, said he would report the speech for inciting hatred, for instance) is there some sense of reason in Hoecke’s statement?
How long does one feel guilty? Peter Eisenman, the designer of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, has asked this same question. What is the purpose of a monument – memory, or absolution? Should we tear down all the statues of dictators, slave owners and murderers in a symbolic, restorative purge? Or should we let them stand to preserve the memory of the atrocity? Who and what do we choose to remember, and to forget?
I will never take a selfie at any place that has the words “Murdered Jews” in its name, at least not in such close succession. As to the fact that other people do? Well, I’m not sure how to feel.
On the one hand, can’t a monument be a transformative space, can’t it eventually evolve from its violent history into a place of remembrance and new joy? We are dynamic creatures, and the spaces within our cities reflect this. This is not Auschwitz, where the horror is perfectly preserved, where buttons still litter the floor as signs of the people who lived and suffered and were murdered there. Then, visitors should be allowed, even expected to express themselves – it’s not a sacred place, as Eisenman says.
On the other, is it appropriate to indulge the self so totally in a place – The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – that eulogises the attempted genocide of a group of people based on their appearance, culture, religion and shared memories? When children step through the memorial, playing and screaming, when models lean against the straight stone and when our faces are framed by what seems like hundreds of huge concrete slabs dedicated to the death of 6 million and more, isn’t that the purest form of disrespect to a memory best left untouched?
It’s hard to not find beauty and art in the architecture of memory. In Berlin’s memorial, we can see its resemblance to a graveyard, we can see the heads of visitors disappearing slowly as if they are going under water. Despite the evocation of the memories of murder and violence for which words fail, there is beauty in the smooth surfaces, placed perfectly apart and together, in the sharp lines of the concrete blocks.
I see the most poignant balance of this beauty and memory in Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. The main museum is a prism that cuts through the Mount of Remembrance like a scar, consumed by the landscape itself, peaked with a ridge of glass. Visitors enter and are immediately met by a massive concrete slab, the solid start of the prism building. They then journey through an exhibit that begins with the colour of the life of the Jewish diaspora before the war, and ends as the hall peels out in two curved surfaces extending directly from the sides of the prism, framing the hills of Jerusalem. The light from this opening is visible for all 200 meters of the museum – a literal light at the end of the tunnel. The exhibit itself traces a path through trenches cut out to force the visitors to follow the narrative of The Holocaust from beginning to end, resulting in an experience that the designer, Moshe Safdie, compares to music.
There is room for all of these spaces, I think. From a dynamic and evolving monument, the architecture of which may one day eclipse the memory of its horrors, to a permanent, static, purely evocative and historical space, that, by its nature as an almost artefact, can never escape its origins. These, as well as all in between, are appropriate and necessary and deserve their place in our cultural memory.
And within the spaces themselves there is room for both remembrance and a certain feeling of peace and joy. However paradoxical, they are not exclusive – these spaces are as dichotomous as we are. In them we will find the quiet visitors sinking into the ground as well as the selfie takers and jugglers, the stark slabs of concrete as well as the light from the green hills of Jerusalem, the rusted signs of Arbeit Macht Frei as well as the blue sky above.
Words by James Brooks, image by Chakris Srisuwan
This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 1 HEAT