Remembering in Place: Reflections on Berlin’s Memorials

I have often wondered if places hold traces of the past beyond the past’s material inscription. If the pain or joy of a family who has moved out of a house still resides there in some ineffable way. If tragedy stays somewhere in those walls. If memories float through the hallways. Or maybe, the presence of history disappears once those physical traces are rendered invisible. A war zone gets rebuilt. A cracked dam gets patched up, and the damage of the flood is dealt with. Or not. And the people whose lives were destroyed by such tragedies are left to put their lives back together, and then to remember. The traces of these historical tragedies, for those that survived, are left within them.

To live in Berlin is to ponder the question of how history leaves its traces on every corner. Every country in the world has seen its share of violence and horror, but few have seen it and endeavored to remember it as Germany has. As a Jew and as someone whose family fled Europe during the second world war, the question of whether the past leaves spiritual markings on the present has taken on renewed significance for me during my semester in Berlin. What does it mean to know that horror happened here? What does one do with that awareness? And is that awareness truly relevant today? We are, after all, in 2021, decades past the blood shed. And yet, the knowledge I hold of the atrocities that were orchestrated and happened in this very city, beckons me to sit in this place and feel the weight of the past. I allow myself to try to imagine what took place here mere decades ago, to turn away from turning away, to reject obliviousness and instead grapple. 

Many projects in Berlin seek to explore the question of how one can reckon with the tragedies that occured in the city. Through art, memorials, and works of public education, these various projects all approach the role of remembrance differently. Some seek to provide clear-cut historical information, allowing visitors to learn and then reflect on their own. Others attempt to grasp at the vaguer feelings of grief and loss, creating spaces for grappling and reflection. None are perfect; to me, all miss something fundamental about what it means to remember the Holocaust. The Holocaust is too complex, too horrifying to ever fully commemorate. Simply put, no structure, no plaque, can ever capture the Holocaust or the history of this city and the atrocities it has seen. And yet artists’ attempts to do so can help us move closer to some deeper understanding of what it means to inhabit a space where horror has occurred. Seeking this understanding is vital; as Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel said in his famous Novel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” To remember the Holocaust, to understand its scope, is to help ensure that such atrocity never occurs again. Thus the work of memorials, according to Wiesel’s important dictum, is to aid in this process of understanding. As a member of the group of German historians tasked with judging Holocaust memorials in the ‘90s said,  a memorial must never be “a political insurance policy,” simply there to provide the impression of serious rememberance. It must aid the process of active, intentional grappling and recollection.

One famous example of a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust is the Stumbling Stones, or “Stolpersteine”, which seeks to create intimate moments where visitors can reflect upon the meaning of individual lives. These small gold plates that are cemented in cobble stones and engraved with the names of those killed in the Holocaust, can be found throughout the city. The plates are placed in front of the former homes of the victims they commemorate. The artist behind the project, Gunter Denmig, has laid 70,000 stones throughout the world. Denmig, speaking of the philosophy behind the project, says, “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.” To Denmig, the stones are a way of keeping the victims of the Holocaust alive in the collective memory. It seems to Denmig then, that the traces history leaves on a place are dangerously fleeting. Without the stones, the memory of what occurred in these homes, what happened to these individuals, would vanish. The stones, through memorial, keep the traces of history visible. 

The project is not without controversy. Charlotte Knobloch, former President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has been a vocal opponent to the Stumbling Stones. “It is my firm belief that we need to do everything we can in order to make sure that remembrance preserves the dignity of the victims,” she states, “stumbling over a piece of metal in the ground is anything but dignified.” I find Knobloch’s response to the stones to be a bit reductive; they are more than meager spots on the ground over which to trample. They can be sites for spontaneous and deep reflection. And yet, there may be something worth considering in Konbloch’s response to the stones’ innocuous, small nature. Is the subtlety and meager size of the stones a disservice to the totality of pain and suffering caused by the Holocaust? I also wonder if these individualized moments of remembrance marginalize the idea of the Holocaust’s scope. We see the stones and remember these names, but are millions murdered merely the total sum of individual lives lost, or is the idea of those millions a harsher, more abstract truth that we must reckon with? The holocaust was not simply the indivudal execution of individual people, but a system of mass oppression, deprivation, and murder. In the individualizing of remembrance, this overwhelming truth might be ignored. 

Photo of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (photo by pixababy)

Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is gargantuan, overwhelming, and seeks to capture the Holocaust’s scope. Eisenman’s memorial, located in central Berlin next to the Tiergarten, consists of 2,711 concrete slabs that form a vast labyrinth. Eisenman, speaking on the theory behind the massive project, says that his memorial “makes it clear that an ostensibly rational and orderly system loses touch with human reason when it becomes too large and grows beyond its originally intended proportions.” The Nazi regime was systemic and organized from the top-down, but beneath that massive scale laid immense human suffering and human complexity. Walking through the labyrinth, the paths shift in scale, narrowing and widening, and the heights of the pillars also differ, creating disorientations when looking up towards the top of the labyrinth and when looking through it as one navigates the maze. Such a large physical memorial seeks to match the scale of atrocity with a similarly huge scale of material size. Instead of creating small moments of unplanned remembrance, as the Stumbling Stones do, memorials such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe create a space for grand and sweeping reflection. One regards the immensity of the structure, and in turn reflects upon the immensity of the bloodshed. 

I feel a sense of inhumanity in this memorial, which may be the point. Walking through the labyrinth, one feels stuck in an overwhelming system; and yet, lives were lived within this system, and small acts of resistance took place every day. Where is the acknowledgement and room for the complexity of that? In a re-creation of the abstract feeling of horror, the memorial misses the feeling of perseverance that I believe is vital to consider when remembering the Holocaust. Speaking to the dangers of over-abstraction and the memorial, Richard Brody of the New Yorker writes that “pseudo-universal abstractions put a great gray sentiment in the place of actual memory.” In the effort to create a broad space for contemplation, the texture of life and history is turned, as he says, “grey.” Further the abstract quality of the memorial extends itself to the name of the memorial itself. Brody writes that the memorial’s failure to explicitly state that it commemorates those murdered by the Nazi regime “separates the victims from their killers and leaches the moral element from the historical event, shunting it to the category of a natural catastrophe.” A memorial to “the murdered Jews of Europe” omits the killers of these Jews, rendering the contemplation it wishes to invoke vague. And in an effort to create a space that fosters individual interpretations, the memorial turns into a space that fosters a muddle of inconclusive reflection instead.

Other works of memorial are simpler than the stumbling stones and Eisenman’s gargantuan structure. These memorials merely tell the story of what happened at a given location through language. In Berlin, plaques of text can be found on the street reminding the passerby of that location’s historical significance. For example, a text next to the Tempelhofer Feld details the former airport’s significance during the period of the Berlin Blockade, when American and British forces airlifted vital supplies to West Berlin after the Soviet Union blockaded all access to West Berlin via rail, road, and canal. And in our very own neighborhood of Pankow, there is Schloss Schönhausen, a beautiful park and estate that locals and BCB students enjoy during their leisure time. On the premises of Schloss Schönhausen, there is a nondescript room that houses a simple series of plaques on its walls. These plaques detail the history of the park’s grand estate. When I entered that room during a typical jog through the park, I was merely curious, and then amazed, to find out the scope and gravity of the estate and park’s history. Schloss Schönhausen housed the wife of King Friedrich II, Elisabeth Christine who spent her summers there for 50 years in the mid to late 1700s. During the Nazi regime, the estate exhibited hundreds of works of art, many of them deemed “degenerate,” for their association with Jews, queer people, and other groups villified in Nazi society. After the partition of Germany, this estate was “the official seat” for the first and only president of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck. This beautiful park and manor, that I had so casually enjoyed while studying at BCB, was used by the German monarchy and two separate authoritarian governments, one of which killed 6 million people who practiced my faith tradition. I learn of this history in this room in Schloss Schönhausen and read it in its straightforward cadence, left to reckon with the depravity of this history on my own. This task being entrusted to me may reveal a faith the project has in its viewers to interpret the history, but an acknowledgement of the horror behind some of these events by the text  would help in alleviating the queasy feeling I had when reading those plaques on the wall. The lack of that acknowledgement made it seem as if my feelings of shock and anger towards this history were merely opinion, and not the necessity of public record. Neutrality, in conveying the history of the Nazi regime in particular, is not neutrality: it’s cowardice.

Memorials are an imperfect form; how can one represent life lost through a structure? How can one capture the totality of a happening in a curated location? And yet, the attempt to do so seems vital to me. Without creating space to acknowledge what happened on this very land, the likelihood of history repeating itself, or the dark cloud of history and trauma remaining in the air, becomes far more likely. Spaces such as the ones I have explored here in Berlin have sought to deal with acknowledging the past in different ways, from creating small moments of reflection, to curating deep and immersive experiences for the individual to ruminate in, to simply naming what happened here. And while none achieve capturing history’s dark totality, all are at least grasping at telling the story of the Holocaust, of capturing some essence of its  darkness. And perhaps that’s all we can ask for. Remembrance and acknowledgement is an iterative act, an active process. That process must never stop.

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