Berlin – The Holocaust memorial wasn’t on my to-do list when I arrived. Although suggested by my friend Rohit, it wasn’t listed in my guidebook (which, I believed, was a comment on the quality of the memorial).
But then Rohit recommended it a second time, and when someone asks you twice to check something out, you check it out. My only hesitation was that during my stay I’d visited the German Resistance Memorial Center, the Schwules Museum about the persecution of gays, the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. I was emotionally exhausted.
The memorial, designed by American architect Peter Eisenman, consists of a series of 2,711 dark, rectangular concrete blocks, no two exactly alike. On this sunny afternoon, the grey slabs remind me of caskets neatly aligned in rows, a clear nod to the 6 million murdered Jews. I wonder why something so simple and plain can be a source of controversy.
Some visitors don’t seem to share my response, though. Tourists in pastel polo shirts and khaki shorts walk through the rows and columns of blocks laughing and taking pictures. Children sit on the blocks around the perimeter, and one girl swings her leg nonchalantly while chatting with her friends. No one is shocked.
Maybe this is the cause of the controversy. Do these stones actually memorialize the Holocaust? Or will these tourists and children only think of it as a nice place to sit and enjoy the sun?
Situated physically between Germany’s far past at the Brandenburg Gate and the shiny new corporate development of Potsdamer Platz, the memorial is an appropriate intermediary, an acknowledgement of the horrific events that separate the past from the future.
The waist-high blocks at the outer edges resemble tombstones without names. There are no signs or directions, no anecdotes to make it more digestible. Their blankness demands that you take them for what they are.
The path slopes downwards toward the centre of the memorial, and the blocks grow bigger until they are more than twice my height. These reach up like skyscrapers to form the silhouette of a city, a place for those who were lost.
I lay my hand on a stone and press my weight against it. It’s cool to the touch and immobile. Feeling much as I do when I stand before an evocative painting, I drift in thought amongst the stones and their shadows.
The tall blocks on either side of me could easily be the fence posts of a concentration camp. Trapped inside, I search for the sun and long to be in its warmth. Even in these few moments, my forehead goes clammy and I’m gripped by panic. I need to be free.
After making my way out, I linger on the perimeter thinking of the lives around me – the guards who protect the memorial from vandalism, the Spanish, English and Americans tourists, the carefree girl sitting with her friends – and how life might be in Darfur, northern Iraq or Kosovo.
As a tourist, it’s easy to fall into the trap of robotically checking off sights and attractions one by one: read about the history, take the guided tour, finish with a photograph. There’s no such comfort at the memorial, no easy tasks to cross off a list.
I spend almost an hour weaving through the stones before setting off to an Internet café to write Rohit about my thoughts. As I leave, I can hear children behind me playing hide-and-seek around the blocks.