The Ghosts of the Memorial
A Visual Exploration of the Holocaust Memorial Berlin
Description of the Memorial
Just south of the Brandenburg Gate is Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, with its two thousand, seven hundred and eleven gray concrete slabs, or stelae. They are identical in their horizontal dimensions (reminiscent of coffins), differing vertically (from eight inches to more than fifteen feet tall), arranged in a precise rectilinear array over 4.7 acres, allowing for long, straight, and narrow alleys between them, along which the ground undulates. The installation is a living experiment in montage, a Kuleshov effect of the juxtaposition of image and text. The text in question is the title of the memorial: in German, Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas—a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Without that title, it would be impossible to know what the structure is meant to commemorate; there’s nothing about these concrete slabs that signifies any of the words of the title, except, perhaps, “memorial”—insofar as some of them, depending on their height, may resemble either headstones or sarcophagi. So it’s something to do with death. And as for the title itself—which murdered Jews? When? Where?
The omission is all the stranger inasmuch as the experience of traversing the field of stelae, which was designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, is, in itself, strong and complex. In the shallow corner of the plaza, tourists sit and chat on bench-high stelae, children climb, all enjoy wide-open and thrillingly grand perspectives on the surroundings, including the Tiergarten to the west, and the installation takes on the cast of an austerely modern yet pleasantly welcoming park. But, upon entering the narrow alleys and plunging between higher and higher slabs, perspectives are sliced to a ribbon, other visitors are cut off from view, and an eerie claustrophobia sets in—even as some visitors (not just kids) play little games of hide-and-seek in the rectilinear maze.
The memorial also evokes a graveyard for those who were unburied or thrown into unmarked pits, and several uneasily tilting stelae suggest an old, untended, or even desecrated cemetery.
It’s a memorial to one of the murdered Jews of Europe. Eisenman’s installation commemorates the six million murdered Jews collectively; but there is no more a collective death than there is a collective life; an appropriate memorial would commemorate six million times one.
excerpt of The New Yorker