BERLIN (Mar. 9)
Sometimes, a bad joke can elicit worse things than a painful groan from listeners.
Especially when the joke is about the poison gas the Nazis used to kill Jews during the Holocaust.
Peter Eisenman, the architect of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial, caused a stir recently when he told a meeting of the memorial’s board of trustees that his New York dentist, after putting a gold filling in his teeth, “said he had just put a Degussa product in my tooth, and asked if he should take it out again.”
The Degussa company produced the Zyklon B gas used to kill Jews at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. Degussa also is the firm charged with graffiti-proofing Berlin’s new Holocaust memorial.
The firm was nearly dropped from the project after sponsors learned of its history.
Eisenman, who is Jewish, said he told the story to lighten up the meeting, and didn’t mention Holocaust victims.
But his listeners were incensed.
Alexander Brenner, former president of Berlin’s Jewish community and one of the few members of his family to survive the Holocaust, stormed out of the meeting and later accused Eisenman of disparaging the memory of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. He asked the memorial board’s chairman, Wolfgang Thierse, president of the Bundestag, to take a position on the issue.
Meanwhile, Albert Meyer, the new head of Berlin’s Jewish community, used the occasion to criticize the memorial itself, saying it would have been better to spend the money to reopen Berlin’s pre-war Academy for the Science of Judaism — where Rabbi Leo Baeck, among others, was a teacher.
Thierse said it was too late to criticize the project, which was approved by the Bundestag in 1999 after more than a decade of debate.
The memorial is still under construction, expected to be completed in 2005.
Lea Rosh, deputy chairwoman of the memorial’s board, called Eisenman’s joke an example of “pure tastelessness,” and an embarrassment.
Eisenman offered a verbal apology this week. He also told the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper, “If necessary, I will ask personally for forgiveness again. I did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings or snub them. I am sorry. I did not intend that.”
Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, is demanding an apology in writing.
Wolfgang Benz, spokesman for the memorial’s advisory board and head of the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at the Technical University of Berlin, said Eisenman used American-style humor and had not taken into consideration the effect it might have.
In America, Benz said, “people are much looser with themselves and with history, including Jewish history.”