Behind the Headlines: Memorial in Berlin Does Not End Debate on Guilt and Remembrance
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Behind the Headlines: Memorial in Berlin Does Not End Debate on Guilt and Remembrance

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A gray-haired man and woman stood at the wooden fence, reading the posters pasted onto its planks:

“This is the site of Germany’s future memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe.”

Behind the high wall is a sandy lot, big as several football fields, sprinkled with wild flowers and pools of rainwater.

Soon this lot will look much different.

The Holocaust memorial was a common topic this weekend, as it has been off and on during more than a decade of its planning and debate.

At the site, located near the Brandenburg Gate, pedestrians stopped to read the posters and articles pasted on the fence.

“There are memorials for war heroes and victors, so why not for the murdered people?” said Wolfgang Schoels, 39, a doctor from Heidelberg.

“I have always been for the memorial,” said student Daniel Tretter, 25. “But other countries should also think about what happened. There were many helpers” in the genocide, he said.

“It disturbs me that it took so long, and that the decision might have been made now under pressure,” said student Swenya Maass, 23, who was 12 years old when the memorial was first proposed. She and friend Matthias Temme, 23, had paused here during a bike ride. “But in principle, I think it is a good idea.”

“Perhaps it is best that it is gigantic, to show the dimensions of the persecution,” said Temme. “The Eisenman design is not the most beautiful, but maybe the memorial should not be beautiful.”

While Maass said many younger people are seeking information about the history of the Holocaust, Temme said he thought more are disinterested or even hostile.

“There is so much hatred of foreigners,” he said.

The older couple, who preferred not to give their names, said the memorial will anger younger Germans.

“They say, `We never killed a Jew and neither did my parents. Why should we be ashamed or sad?'” said the man.

The woman said the memorial would attract dogs and vandalism.

“And we feel bad that it is only for the Jews. What about the other victims?”

Last Friday, more than half a century after the end of World War II, Germany’s Parliament finally decided to build a Holocaust memorial here — a vast field of 2,700 cement slabs resembling giant gravestones, designed by American architect Peter Eisenman.

Not all questions have been resolved — such as how to honor the memory of other victims of the Nazis, including homosexuals, slave laborers and the Roma and Sinti, as Gypsies prefer to be known.

But in general, politicians and religious leaders expressed relief at the Parliament’s decision.

It capped 11 years of public debate, an often painful confrontation with questions of guilt and responsibility that penetrated all levels of German society.

Opting to include an information center at the site, legislators made it clear that the memorial should not end this discussion but rather ensure that it continue after the last survivors and perpetrators are gone.

Indeed, the discussion — which many have called more revealing and more important than a concrete memorial — is far from over.

Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, who opposed the Eisenman design as too huge and unrelated to history, now has turned his criticism to the suggestion that separate memorials be built for the other Nazi victims.

Not in Berlin, he has said, gearing up for the next showdown.

For his part, Andreas Nachama, president of Berlin’s Jewish community, hopes the planned memorial will speak for other persecuted groups as well.

“The general public speaks about a Holocaust memorial,” he said. “That means it is primarily for the Jews, but it also includes other victims. So maybe this is a first step toward seeing that others are included, even if their names are not on it.”

Other groups should have their own memorials, said Lea Rosh, who first proposed the memorial.

“But they don’t have to be in Berlin. We have already said that there should be one for Roma and Sinti, but in Stuttgart, where they were imprisoned,” Rosh said in a telephone interview with JTA.

The 11-year debate about the memorial has reflected advances made in the decades of discussion on questions of guilt and responsibility, particularly in the former West Germany.

Since the days of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, where the finger was pointed at major players, there has been a giant leap in public awareness of the role played by ordinary Germans in Nazi crimes.

This awareness has grown just as the perpetrator generation passes on.

So the postwar generations are the ones busy with the task of remembering.

The parliamentary debate before last Friday’s vote mirrored this struggle to come to terms with the past.

“Fifty-four years had to go by before our country had the courage to find a common form of remembering,” said one of the youngest legislators, Michael Roth, 28, of the Social Democratic Party. “Why only now?”

“We’re not building this memorial for the Jews or for other victims,” said the president of Parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, also a Social Democrat.

“We’re building it for us. With this memorial there can be no more denial or indifference.”

Last Friday’s vote was one of the Parliament’s last official acts in Bonn before its move to new headquarters in Berlin’s newly refurbished Reichstag.

The cost of the memorial is estimated at about $8 million.

Michael Naumann, cultural adviser to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, says construction should begin next year.

Friday’s decision does mean an end to one chapter. And it took way too long, said culture critic Michael Cullen, who has edited a book documenting the decade of debate.

Just the same, there may be no other place in the world that has a monument dedicated to its own victims.

Can such a monument ever be a sufficient response to what happened during the war?

“Can any response — aesthetic, religious, social, political — ever be adequate to Holocaust memory?” asked James Young, American scholar and expert on memorials, who has been a consultant on the Berlin project.

“Probably not, but we continue to respond nonetheless, adequately or not.”

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