The Art of Atrocity: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

November 21, 2014 — We were strolling the Eberstrasse on our way to what is perhaps Berlin’s signature monument. The Brandenburg Gate is a 65-foot-tall, 12-collumned triumphal arch topped by a life-sized bronze quadriga. The gate was built in the late 18th century, and opens onto the Unter den Linden. During the Cold War, the Wall snaked right behind it. It was also where David Hasselhoff performed Looking for Freedom in a piano scarf and an electric leather jacket perforated with light bulbs (that, judging by the video, he almost forgot to turn on). This latter was, of course, our entire reason for heading to the gate. As we skirted the edge of the Tiergarten, we caught sight of a strange expanse to our right. It was filled with stumpy, gray concrete blocks that seemed three or four feet tall and covered an area of almost five acres of valuable urban real estate. It looked like a massive garden of unripe 2001 monoliths.

The field bore no signage that I could see, so I checked Google Maps on my phone and saw the space labeled as “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” It was a Holocaust memorial. Now, as morbid as I am, I’m not particularly drawn to Holocaust memorials in general. I kind of think of them as the breast cancer ribbon of atrocity commemorations. Just a ton of them around everywhere, and there are enough people interested in Holocaust memorials that I feel okay passing them by for other things. Like a David Hasselhoff site.

But, going on the supposition that visiting a Holocaust memorial in the capital city of the country that committed this particular atrocity was probably worth checking out, we detoured into the alien landscape. Plus, the place just looked intriguing.

As we entered the field, something strange happened. Physical space seemed to warp. What started out as short blocky columns grew, elongated, and soon towered over us at a height of 16 feet, even though from outside the field they all appeared roughly the same height. Simple answer, though. The ground depresses in the middle, meaning at some point you’re not just at the memorial, you’re inside it. The slabs are too regularly spaced to call the place a labyrinth, but they were close enough together to make me feel like I was in one.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was built in 2004 after a decade of all the inevitable setbacks, restarts, and controversy that you think would happen for such a sensitive topic in such a sensitive place. It features 2,711 columns (“stelae”) that are about eight feet wide and range in height from 10 inches to almost 16 feet. Nestled at one edge is an information center…underground so as not to disturb the effect of the plain of stelae.

Wikipedia offers a few explanations for the mysterious memorial design—That it’s supposed to make visitors feel uneasy, that its creators (Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold) wanted to avoid easy symbolism, that it looks kind of like a cemetery. To me, once I knew what it was, I could almost imagine the feeling of being a young Jewish child looking up at the daunting, inhuman soldiers of the Third Reich surrounding me and cutting off all escape.

I like this memorial. The only problem I see with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is that…it’s fun. Walking deep within the stelae made me want to play hide and seek or start up a game of lazer tag or film an avant-garde science fiction movie. Going by the shoe prints at the top edges of some of the taller ones, I assume a few kids had even parkour’d it.

Anyway, we didn’t spend a ton of time in the memorial. Didn’t even enter the information center. And I don’t know what the experts who critique this kind of thing think about it, but it seemed to get one thing right that many memorials to tragedy don’t. It was interesting in itself.