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As Berlin’s Shoah Memorial Opens, Debate Rages over Its Real Meaning

On a cold May night, a man with a mane of gray hair stands alone on a Berlin street, aiming his camera between the bars of a metal fence. On the other side are 2,711 cement slabs, some twice as tall as he is, assembled in rows.

“I wanted to see it at night, before the memorial is opened and walked on,” says Helmut, 53, who lives here and has watched the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe rise from a dusty brown swath of earth in the center of Berlin.

“I’ve seen it quite often,” he says. “But this is a holy moment.”

Whatever anyone feels about the memorial, which was officially to open to the public Thursday, it seems impossible to be indifferent to it.

Debate about its construction raged for 17 years, even after the German Parliament reached a decision to build it in June 1999 and even after the last of the cement steles was lowered into place in January.

Designed by American architect Peter Eisenman and complemented by an underground information center, as mandated by Germany’s Parliament, the memorial was created by and for German non-Jews.

Many Jews here reserved judgment, saying their views didn’t matter much.

By now it’s clear that many prominent German Jews feel uncomfortable about the monument.

“It doesn’t come from the hearts of people, but from politicians,” Albert Meyer, head of Berlin’s Jewish community, told JTA. “I’m afraid it’s like a final stroke: ‘We have done everything for you, we even built a memorial.’ But it doesn’t give anything to the brothers and sisters who were killed, or to those who are living.”

It’s true that politicians, including former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, pushed for the memorial, but it was the brainchild of a non-Jewish German TV personality, Lea Rosh.

Seventeen years after the memorial was proposed, it’s finally a reality. In the meantime, the Berlin Wall fell, a divided Germany became one and the capital moved to Berlin, where new construction has all but obliterated evidence of the no-man’s land between the eastern and western parts of the city.

Also in that time, the Claims Conference and World Jewish Congress brought the issue of reparations and compensation back into the public eye. Jewish immigrants flowed into Germany from the former Soviet Union, more than tripling the Jewish population here to more than 100,000.

Jews have become visible again, bolder, part of the fabric — and yet still apart.

Anti-Semitism also has become more visible, not only on the extremes but in the center of society, and in some Islamic circles.

It’s against this backdrop that Eisenman’s memorial has grown and become a topic of continuous debate of fluctuating intensity.

The memorial has been subjected to typical postwar German intellectual scrutiny, born of a pleasure in arguing, philosophizing, deconstructing and reconstructing. This is a country where a controversial idea, word or object can generate headlines for days, weeks or months.

Far from the headlines, Helmut focuses his camera between the bars of the fence, hoping to capture the stillness that remains before the memorial is made public.

“Today I had the vision that these buildings all around should be gray, like the stones. This is why I am taking pictures. I want to make a painting,” he says.

The grayness of the memorial does seem somehow to spread into the street and the buildings beyond. It was intentional: The memorial represents crimes that were accepted, and so the edges of the memorial blend into their surroundings.

But the site itself is an unavoidable gash.

“This place is big enough to express the wound, the scar that we Germans have,” Helmut says.

The day before, Elly Gross viewed the same scene from the Berlin headquarters of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, on the opposite side of the memorial.

A Romanian survivor of Auschwitz and of German labor camps who now lives in New York, Gross saw the sea of steles as a graveyard.

Below, in the underground information center — like the inner chamber of a shattered pyramid — the story of Gross’ lost family is told, together with those of hundreds of other Jews.

Her family was chosen in part for its drama: Gross recognized her own face, and the faces of her lost family, in photos taken by an SS man in Auschwitz.

The family arrived in Auschwitz on June 2, 1944. Someone advised Gross to say she was 18.

“I waved to my mom and brother and never saw them again,” she said.

Seeing their faces in the Berlin display was a shock, even though she knows the photos well.

“I’m not breaking down, but it is emotional,” she said. “It’s like seeing them again. I always see them again.”

The cement steles look at times like still figures, at times like groups assembled, at times like skyscrapers between which fall slivers of light. Raindrops cling to the gray walls. On one stele, a tiny winged insect quivers.

On the pathway lies a cigarette butt, perhaps from a ceremony Tuesday dedicating the memorial. After the ceremony, people were talking about Rosh’s announcement that she had found a tooth at an extermination camp memorial 17 years ago and had brought it back to Germany.

On the podium Tuesday, she held the tooth between thumb and forefinger and said Eisenman had agreed to place it in one of the steles.

“It was the most embarrassing thing,” said Hermann Simon, director of the New Synagogue Foundation-Centrum Judaicum in Berlin.

Barbara Distel, director of the memorial at the Dachau concentration camp, said it was “beyond the boundaries of tastelessness.”

But there also were moments of elevation.

As visitors walked through the maze of steles for the first time, Rabbi Josh Spinner, vice president of the Lauder Foundation and head of its Berlin yeshiva, rushed off to inform Eisenman that the number of steles is exactly the same as the number of pages in the Babylonian Talmud.

“He was very surprised,” says Spinner, adding that the news has been spreading via an Internet Torah discussion site.

That poetic moment was punctuated by a cloudburst.

Virtually every German knows the 1949 line by German philosopher Theodor Adorno that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

They also know the terrible beauty of “Death Fugue” by poet and survivor Paul Celan, who once said a poem was like a message in a bottle, which might one day find land.

Perhaps Germany’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is such a message, barbaric to some, terribly beautiful to others. It may wash up on the shore of anyone’s memory, meaning something different to each person.

Close to midnight, Helmut is seen for the last time. He is searching for a tree to climb, to get a view of the still-quiet memorial, this time from above.

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