The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is one of the most visited sites in the German capital, described by Visit Berlin (2018) as an imposing place of contemplation, remembrance and warning. Opened in 2005 and designed by architect Peter Eisenmann, the memorial is described as an open, abstract and accessible structure which provokes the viewer to confront the topic independently (Visit Berlin 2018). Being a poignant place for tourists and Berliners alike, this memorial is a significant addition to Berlin’s urban landscape; provoking thought about memorialisation in the city and Berlin’s relationship to its geopolitical past, present and future. Taking photos of memorial sites is nothing new. However, being an avid people watcher, trying to make sense of interactions with this memorial is fascinating.
‘Is this the right place to take a smiling selfie?’, ‘Is that guy really on Skype to his friend at a memorial?’, ‘Is hide and seek an appropriate game to play around symbolic gravestones?’, ‘Is that girl really standing on top of the memorial, making her friend take seven different photos of her jumping like Gabriella from High School Musical?’
These are all moments that struck me when I was weaving my way in, out and around the concrete stelae. Who am I to say what is the right or wrong way to engage with this memorial?
This memorial is both architecturally and aesthetically striking; or to use a millennial phrase, ‘Instagrammable’. The 2711 towering concrete blocks that create a 4.7 acre grey expanse in the middle of one of Europe’s most vibrant cities do not make up your ‘average’ memorial (Brody 2012). There are no names, no gold etching, no sculptures or statues and little to no information describing what the memorial commemorates. While widely stated as open to personal interpretation, Brody (2012) suggests the memorials ambiguity is the first step to forgetting- the assumption of familiarity separates the victims from their murderers and portrays the Holocaust as a “natural catastrophe”. The memorial has been the topic of fierce debate since installation: see Chin (et al 2011), Ouroussoff (2005), Young (2002), and Till (2005) for a particularly critical cross examination.
Do the pillars represent coffins? Do the different heights portray the rise and fall of the Third Reich? I relished having conversations with my peers trying to make sense of the memorial and its effect on contemporary Berlin’s urban, social and digital landscape. The grey stelae are consuming; standing in the middle you find an eerie silence in the hustle and bustle of Stadtmitte. These feelings are symbolic- prisoners identities were traded for a tattooed number and my momentary feelings of foreboding uncertainty are minor compared to what the persecuted must have felt. Similarly to Ouroussoff (2005), there is one thing I cannot help but ask myself; if you are parkour style posing on a memorial for millions of murdered Jews, are you here for the right reasons? One can only hope the majority of visitors engage with the memorial like Mumma (2015) however Ouroussoff (2005) suggests these moments showcase human’s ability to numb themselves from the harsh reality of the Holocaust. This is something we must avoid at all costs.
In addition to field observations, searching the location tagged photos on Instagram and Twitter hashtag, you are inundated with social media interactions. Check out this Metro Online (2017) article exploring the work of Israeli author Shahak Sapira who created Yolocaust, a platform showcasing selfies from various social media platforms and dating apps projected onto death camp photos. Makes you think twice, huh?
Whatever way people engage with this memorial, it serves as a stark reminder of Germany’s troublesome past and stands as a testament to not make the same mistakes. Chin (et al 2011) suggests the memorial etches the Holocaust in “the permanent memory of Germany’s history and landscape”. With this in mind, it is important to be critical of the memorials portrayal which I feel is symbolic of the way Germany wants to present itself post-unification. Is this memorial symbolic of contemporary Germany’s desire to forget their social responsibility for the past (Till 2005 p2) or a fitting, respectful memorial for millions murdered, with Germany holding themselves accountable on the world stage? For me, with its placement close to embassies and consulates, it is somewhere in the middle.
So, if you do visit the memorial, look around. What fills the landscape? What is happening around and in-between the memorial? Most importantly, put your phone down and spark the conversation to ensure lessons from the Holocaust live on.
References and suggestions for further reading:
Brody R (2012) ‘The Inadequacy of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’. The New Yorker. Accessed 02/04/18, available at https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-inadequacy-of-berlins-memorial-to-the-murdered-jews-of-europe
Chin S M, Franke F, Halpern S (2011) ‘A Self Serving Admission of Guilt: An Examination of the Intentions and Effects of Germany’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’. In Zarankin J (2011) (eds.) Reflections on the Holocaust. New York: Humanity in Action, 13-21
Hartley-Parkinson H (2017) Powerful images that show why Holocaust Memorial selfies are so disrespectful, Metro Online. Last edited 19/01/17, accessed 26/04/18, available at http://metro.co.uk/2017/01/19/powerful-images-that-show-why-holocaust-selfies-are-so-disrespectful-6391091/
Mumma R (2015) A Reaction to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Dialogue of Civilization, global, intellectual life, University Scholars. Northeastern University. Accessed 13/04/18, last edited 17/08/15, available at https://www.northeastern.edu/universityscholars/a-reaction-to-the-memorial-to-the-murdered-jews-of-europe/
Ouroussoff N (2005) A Forest of Pillars, Recalling the Unimaginable. The New York Times. Last edited 09/05/05, accessed 19/04/18, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/09/arts/design/a-forest-of-pillars-recalling-the-unimaginable.html
Shapira S (2017) Yolocaust. Accessed 26/04/18, available at http://yolocaust.de/
Till K E (2005) New Berlin: Memory, Politics, Place. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.
Visit Berlin (2018) Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Accessed 04/04/18, available at https://www.visitberlin.de/en/memorial-murdered-jews-europe
Young J E (2002) ‘Germany’s Holocaust Memorial Problem- and Mine’. The Public Historian, Vol 24, No 4, p65-80. JSTOR, accessed 13/04/18 available at www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2002.24.4.65