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  • Writer's pictureHester Vaizey, PhD

A Brief History of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

What is the Holocaust Memorial?

The Holocaust Memorial, full name 'Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ is a Memorial in Berlin that’s dedicated to the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. It was designed by American architect Peter Eisenman.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Holocaust Memorial History

The facts remain appalling, barely comprehensible: between 1941 and 1945 Hitler’s Nazi regime murdered six million European Jews in concentration camps. How should the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust be best remembered? What kind of monument would be most fitting? Is it even possible to commemorate properly so many individuals’ deaths collectively? These are difficult, controversial questions with no easy or right answers.

The German government committed to building a Holocaust Memorial in 1999, but it was only in May 2005, after intensive discussion and deliberation, that it was finally unveiled. The decision to build an enormous memorial right in the heart of the city, on a slice of prime real estate, itself caused uproar. And it was not only the location that provoked controversy. The unusual design, by American architect Peter Eisenman, was also the subject of much debate. The memorial consists of 2,711 grey, concrete slabs (also known as ‘stelae’) of varying heights but identical width. These blocks are arranged in long, straight rows with narrow alleyways between them, and the ground itself undulates, making it uneven. Eisenman did not wish to represent the Holocaust, which he acknowledged is an impossible and flawed task, but rather to give visitors an experience of uncertainty, causing them to question themselves and the very process of remembrance. The memorial, officially called ‘Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas’ (or ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’), is reminiscent of a graveyard for those who were unburied or thrown into unmarked pits, and several of the concrete slabs are tilting, suggesting old, neglected graves in a cemetery.

Holocaust Memorial Berlin showing uneven sizes

The site’s central location in the Mitte district, just south of the Brandenburg Gate, was part of a deliberate decision to allow the memory of Germany’s dark past to pierce the everyday sphere. As such a large, open space, and with the trees of the Tiergarten just to the west, the memorial could be mistaken for a slightly austere, modern park. Berliners walk past it, sometimes even through it, often perching for a rest on the lower stones. So do tourists, keen to learn more about the most dramatic chapter in Germany’s history. Many column inches have been written on the pros and cons of the memorial’s central location. Is it disrespectful for people to sit on the memorial, some eating sandwiches, others chatting on their mobile phones? Or is this scene an emblem of the peaceful, tolerant life to which Europe has mostly turned after the war? Or does such behaviour make the history of the Holocaust unavoidable, and therefore part and parcel of the consciousness of those who pass it by? The debate still rages.

In the basement below the memorial there’s an Information Centre. The exhibition, designed by Dagmar von Wilcken, tells the story of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, shining the spotlight on individual experiences. First hand testimonies bring to life what it was like to be subject to the increasingly violent measures meted out against the Jewish population during the twelve years of Hitler’s rule. Jews were always the central target of the Holocaust, and were murdered in the greatest number, but other groups suffered terribly too. Since 2009, the Memorial site is also responsible for the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime and the Memorial to the Murdered Sinti and Roma of Europe.

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