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In Berlin, What Makes a Memorial?


BERLIN—Each idea sounded more outrageous than the next: A Ferris wheel erected in the center of the city, each gondola replaced by a macabre cattle car. The total destruction of the Brandenburg Gate — blown to bits by explosives, its pieces ground to dust and spread throughout the city.

Neither of those proposals was considered seriously by Berlin officials preparing to construct a national monument more than one decade ago. But those potential designs for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe stimulated soul-searching among Germans seeking the right tone for their grand mea culpa, said Belinda Cooper, Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute, as she spoke to students at the memorial site today.

“There are many people who believe that the best part of this monument,” Cooper said, surrounded by concrete slabs, “was the debate that preceded it.”

As 24 journalists and law students of the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics embarked on their first day in Berlin, they considered the power and politics of memorial-making — a topic fraught with significance for a group whose careers center on the communication of ideas.

Berlin is a city bursting with memorials: some tiny and subtle, others looming and bombastic. On Bebelplatz Square, the fellows stooped to the ground to peer through a glass tile. Beneath the glass was a room, completely white, featuring only barren shelves — a symbol for the book-burning that took place at that spot in 1933, as the Nazis rose to power.

Dustin Volz, journalist for the National Journal, peers into the memorial to 1933 book burnings on Bebelplatz.

Dustin Volz, journalist for the National Journal, peers into the memorial to 1933 book burnings on Bebelplatz.

An accompanying plaque displayed a quote from the writer Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people.”

It’s one of Berlin’s more abstract World War II memorials, said Thorsten Wagner, European Director of FASPE.

“We have to work with absence, with palimpsest … with something that is gone,” Wagner said.

None of the day’s memorials were more dramatic than the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The FASPE fellows wandered through the memorial, its vast field of uneven gray slabs creating an eerie atmosphere.

“It looks like graves,” said journalism student Ania Siatka.

Ryland Li, a Harvard Law School student, compared the wave-like oscillations of the stones to biblical images of the Red Sea swallowing up throngs of people.

Some grew irritated at groups of teenagers shrieking as they played hide-and-seek, sprinting through the aisles between the tall stones; others wondered whether that scenario might have been part of the designer’s intention.

Wagner posed one of the days most difficult questions: How do you honor the immeasurable suffering of Jewish victims, while also acknowledging the Nazi terrorism experienced by others, such as gay men, Roma and Sinti communities, and disabled people?

His questions brought the FASPE group to other memorials, including the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma victims of National Socialism and the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. The latter was a source of debate among members of the group. Several people questioned whether the peepshow aesthetic of the monument — a massive stone block with a small glass window showing movie clips of gay couples kissing — was respectful to victims.

It turned out, Wagner said, that the monument to gays and lesbians was also controversial among Germans, a product of continued discrimination against gays and lesbians. The window is frequently smashed by vandals, he said.

“I have probably seen this four, five, six times,” Wagner said. “That movie must provoke enough young men to feel threatened.”

“Another night of broken glass,” noted law professor Eric L. Muller.

Still, there were moments of levity in FASPE’s third day — especially when Cooper described her recollections of the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the commotion that arose as East Berliners rushed across the border. Many East Berliners, Cooper said, leapt at the chance to get a taste of capitalism and buy inexpensive electronics. Still, they hurried home hours later, unwilling to miss a day of work just because the wall had fallen.

“That moment of euphoria was really pretty short-lived,” she said.

And the East Berliners, Cooper said, found some aspects of life on the west side of the border daunting.

“Friends from East Berlin, they got nauseous in the supermarket,” Cooper recalled. “One of my friends said, ‘How can you have so many yogurts? How is that possible?’”

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