As If These Walls Had Tears: Reflections on Berlin’s Holocaust memorial
Apparently there were only 19 hours of sunshine in Berlin between 1st January and 22nd March – a record low. Such absolute greyness is oppressive. But in recent weeks, there have also been huge snowfalls. The result is an eerily monochrome world. Not ideal for taking sightseers’ photographs. But somehow appropriate for a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Such was the horror of it all that too much can’t be said about it. But how do you memorialise it – worthily, provocatively, unforgettably – without impenetrable forests of words? How do you do it here, at the heart of the very city in which the ideology that created it held sway. When I first saw images of Berlin’s memorial, I confess I was sceptical. But having visited on Wednesday, I realise that it is not designed to be witnessed on page or screen. It only works as an immersive experience.
I deliberately avoided reading anything about it before visiting. It seemed important to take it as it presents itself. So here are a few meandering reflections on what it was like.
Initially, it seems so … dare, I say it… dull, mundane, unimaginative. But I’m sure that’s the point. It fully occupies a huge area (where the Berlin wall once divided the city just below the Brandenburg Gate) filling it with rectangular, monumental, solid slabs. Each is roughly the area of a coffin… If there were just one or two, it might be like the tombs in some medieval cathedral of the great and the good. But here there are hundreds, aligned in an almost obsessive-compulsive (dis)order.
But then of course, that’s also the point. The Holocaust was nothing if not a model of superb administrative execution (in both senses). How appropriate that the street to the memorial’s south is Hannah-Arendt Strasse – for it was she who famously described the horror in terms of ‘the banality of evil‘.
Then as you start walking down the innumerable corridors of slabs, it quickly becomes clear: each one is just slightly different in some way. Slightly taller, slightly off-line, slightly tilting. There is a deliberate disorder as the floor undulates and slopes unpredictably. None of it is as perpendicular as it first seems.
The effect is both unsettling and consoling. But of course it is. Despite the archetypal modernist attempt to categorise, bureaucratise, abase whole populations of human beings deemed unworthy of life, humanity is irrepressibly diverse, a fact only discernible on closer encounter. Just as with helicopter footage of a demonstration or football crowd, you can only differentiate in the sea of people when you zoom in. That seems to be an implication: look beyond the statistics – even though each of these forbidding coffins remains anonymous. Others have made other attempts to convey this (e.g. the girl in the red coat in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC which presents you with an ID card of a German Jew on your entry, so that you trace that individual’s life as you walk through the chronological exhibits; you only discover if they survived when you reach the end).
Walk towards the centre and you are quickly dwarfed by the slabs – some are perhaps 15ft high. The horizon is blocked, claustrophobia and disorientation deepen. It reminded me a little of being in the stacks of some great library or archive – but unlike a depository of wonder and discovery, this one is latent with hidden horrors, each neatly typed, filed, processed … and then forgotten. The Holocaust perpetrators (and their DDR successors, the Stasi, whose even more obsessive archive is pictured here, above) were nothing if not thorough.
I was troubled by the anonymity of it all – but quickly realised there was not really an alternative. 6 million names inscribed…? Not possible. It’s only when you go down into the small information centre built underneath that there is an attempt to counteract this. Deliberately corresponding to the slabs above ground, there are slabs of light. As if the light of these lives somehow could not be snuffed out completely. Hence the details of personalities and experiences, each taking samples of individual life and death stories. There are also links to computer archives for searching names in the files.
But there was something chillingly appropriate about the unnamed, stark, blank slabs above. For that is how the 6 million were treated, despite the obsessively detailed records. And with 2700+ slabs, there are more than enough to convey scale. This is an installation that requires – no, it demands – time and immersion. And rightly so. For it means you can’t fail to ponder the imponderables of the horror. How? Why? WHY? Such mindlessness. Such evil. WHY!? As Primo Levi discovered in Auschwitz (in his account If This is A Man). When he tried to break off an icicle to slake his thirst he was reprimanded and prevented from doing so. He naturally asked, “Warum?/Why?” To which he received the infamous, arctic response:
Hier ist kein warum! Here there is no ‘why’.
Memorials (as the word suggests) are about memory. Though to be more accurate, as the generation of Holocaust survivors passes on, they have to be about something slightly different. Recognition. Acknowledgement. Confrontation. Again as Levi said, “Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.” Those of us who came later, can’t remember, for we weren’t there.
And these slabs of stone don’t remember either. Visiting historical sights always evokes a feeling for the events that occurred there. We muse on the ‘what ifs’ of these walls having ears and eyes. What stories they could tell? But this monument’s myriad walls have no ears or eyes. They heard nothing, repeat nothing, remember nothing. They never saw. Nor did we. But we now KNOW. And that is what matters more than anything now. The question that hangs over it all, though: is that enough? Is it enough now to know…? Or might it happen again?
There is perhaps some hope. The thought wouldn’t have occurred to me, though, until I happened to see Yale theologian’s Miroslav Volf‘s Facebook entry that afternoon. It seems he’d been only visiting a couple of hours before me. For as he observes, there is always a way out. The memorial is not a maze of inescapable darkness. In other words, it doesn’t have to be like this again… hopefully.
Nevertheless, hope is in short supply. And the freezing conditions brought that truth forcibly home. The snow along the countless corridors had been heavily compacted by the 1000s of passing feet, making them mildly treacherous. The occasional blasts of Siberian wind created a desperate wind-chill. And yet, in just a few places, snow must have melted at a few points, dripping down the sides of these monolithic coffins. But before reaching the ground, these tiny streams froze.
And that is what finally got me. This is what seemed to speak more powerfully than anything at all. Philosophical and theological maelstroms would have to wait. This seemed the point of it all.
Because at that particular moment, it was as if these walls had tears.
To see other photographs I took there, go to this Flickr Slideshow.