Yom Hashoah Feature 60 Years After War’s End, Berlin Remembers Europe’s Murdered Jews

A long-disputed national Holocaust memorial that is set to open in Berlin will be Germany’s first monument dedicated to all the Jews murdered across Nazi-occupied Europe. On May 12, a few days after ceremonies marking 60 years since the end of World War II in Europe, the public will be able to enter the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a sea of 2,700 cement steles in the heart of Berlin.

Visitors also may descend into an information center, where the history of the Holocaust is told with photos, documents and names.

They can learn about Meyer Spektor of Odessa, shot to death by a Nazi mobile killing squad in 1942, when he was 64. Or Olga from Litomysl in the former Czechoslovakia, murdered at 46 in Auschwitz. Or Rachel Posinova of Hamburg, asphyxiated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz with her daughter in 1944.

In all, 800 names — of infants, adults, the elderly — will represent the 6 million murdered Jews.

“The main task of the memorial is to keep alive the discussion about German history,” says Dagmar von Wilcken, 46, the exhibition designer whose concept for the underground center complements the aboveground sculptural memorial designed by American architect Peter Eisenman.

“What I like about the memorial is that it is not a thing that says we have apologized and now it is over,” von Wilcken says. “Rather, people will like it and dislike it and discuss it. And maybe we can even expect that right-wing people will spray-paint graffiti on it. It is a place where all the different thoughts in Germany exist at the same time.”

Paired like the conscious and subconscious mind, the memorial’s two elements represent the landscape of Germany’s so-called culture of remembrance, marked by 60 years of confronting the legacy of National Socialism.

In 1945, many Germans were relieved to blame a few perpetrators. Today it is widely understood that Nazi crimes against humanity were committed with the help, approval and acceptance of a majority of Germans.

By now, the period has been memorialized in hundreds of monuments, in museums at former concentration camps and in books about local history.

But there still is resistance to establishing a huge memorial in Germany’s reclaimed capital. There are questions of cost — which runs to the tens of millions of dollars — and of purpose.

For more than a decade, many Germans have expressed annoyance with the constant reminders of their history. That’s one reason why TV personality Lea Rosh, who is not Jewish, fought for 10 years to have an unavoidable reminder of the Holocaust placed in the nation’s capital.

The German Parliament gave its approval in 1999. But the question remains: For whom is this memorial? The historians and artists working on it say it is for them, and for all Germans.

Until now, “There had been no place in Germany that was dedicated to all the murdered Jews of Europe,” says historian Ulrich Baumann, who for three years assembled family histories for the information center. “It is a subject that is nearly unbearable.”

He often asks himself, “What would I have done if I lived in the ghetto?” How would he have felt “going to the gas chamber?”

“The murder plan was so brutal, and you can’t really imagine it,” he says. It’s also difficult to imagine how Germans “coming from more or less normal families went to Poland and became murderers. These are some of the questions that we faced every day” on the project.

“It’s sometimes very difficult to fight against the tears,” says historian Jurgen Lillteicher, who since 2002 has worked on the presentation of 800 biographies from the archive of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Together with the Topography of Terror archive and memorial in Berlin, Lillteicher is responsible for a database on Holocaust memorials across Europe.

“A lot of grief was accumulated” in his years of work on the project, says Lillteicher, 36. “Sometimes you even have survivors coming here and telling their stories. A link develops between the historian and the survivor and the families, which is rather unusual.”

Though German Jews are on the board of the memorial foundation, Lillteicher says that this is “a project of German non-Jews to show the world, and also the people here, that even when the survivors die, what happened is represented in the heart of the city and should never be forgotten.”

One of the youngest staff members, museum-education expert Stefanie Fischer, 27, helped set the tone for the underground exhibit.

“We had a lot of discussions on just how much violence we would depict, and on how to protect the dignity of the victims,” she says.

The theme of the Holocaust has “somehow always accompanied my life,” says Fischer, whose undergraduate project focused on former West German exhibitions on the Holocaust. “As a result of the Cold War, most museums in [West] Germany focused on the fate of German Jews, and that’s a very small minority among Holocaust victims. So I think we are going to close a gap in the presentation of the Holocaust in Germany.”

“Many Germans are tired of talking or hearing about the Holocaust,” she adds. “They think they have already heard so much about it, they hear it every day. But if you listen very closely to what they know, they know nothing. And this tells me that there is still a lot you can teach people.”

The Holocaust haunts exhibition designer von Wilcken. Though her parents were children during the Nazi era, her uncle was one of many Germans forced by Russian troops to look at dead victims at Buchenwald when the camp was liberated.

“My mother was not allowed because she was a young girl,” von Wilcken says. “But her brother would not eat for a week afterward.”

Such scenes were repeated across Germany by virtually all liberating forces.

Von Wilcken first met Holocaust survivors years ago, when she was working on a kibbutz in Israel. Meeting people “with numbers on their arms” shook her deeply.

She knew she “could not change history,” she says. “But I felt some kind of responsibility.”

Designing the information center has given her the sense of doing “something against forgetting.”

She tried to make the four-room exhibition space correspond to Eisenman’s memorial, bringing the rectangular shapes of his steles down “through the ceiling.”

Visitors can “look into the pillars” to see photos, documents and personal statements. It gives the victims “a voice, a face,” she says.

Dealing with the subject every day for four years does not remove the shock, she adds.

“It hits me every time like the first time, sometimes even worse,” she says. “It’s still not understandable.”

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