Cities & Architecture

Holocaust Memorials in Berlin: When Concrete Articulates the Unspeakable

Few European capitals are as stamped with their recent history as the city of Berlin. Wherever you go, you’re sure to encounter telltale marks left by Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and the Cold War.

A vertical shot of a section of the pillars in the ‘Garden of Exile’.

A vertical shot of a section of the pillars in the ‘Garden of Exile’.

Berlin: I had first visited Berlin in 2007 and was very impressed by the way Germany had memorialised the Holocaust, and wondered why there was no such comparable public memorialisation of the Partition in India. As a Partition scholar, I found it intriguing that though it has spawned an entire academic ‘industry’ comparable to that of the Holocaust, it has never been accorded a space in the public culture of India (except for the general currency of some popular literature, especially those that have been adapted on screen). That was a decade back. Last month I went to Berlin again, and this time I was struck even more by the conscious effort made by Germans to confront their recent past – to acknowledge it, understand it, to try and learn from it.

What was this past?

It was six momentous decades of the 20th century – from 1933 to 1990. It all began on 30 January 1933, when Adolf Hitler became the Reich Chancellor. The reign of the Third Reich (1932-1945), under Hitler and his National Socialist Party, was a veritable reign of terror – a ruthless period of dictatorship that was, above all, defined by its anti-Semitism: from the systematic disempowerment of German-Jews in civic life in the early years of the Reich, followed by expedite measures to force the transfer of large sections of their population, to eventually deciding on and implementing the ‘Final Solution’ of their total extermination in the death camps of occupied Eastern Europe. The particular way that this ghastly story unfolded had to do, in no small measure, with the changing – and increasingly losing – fortunes of Germany in the Second World War (1939-1945), which accelerated the process of the annihilation of Jews.

The humiliating defeat of Germany in the war and Hitler’s suicide, however, brought no closure – only renewed tensions, as the country got divided into East and West Germany during the Cold War period. West Germany (or the Federal Republic of Germany) was formed in the “Allied Zones” that were occupied by the US, UK and France during the War; while East Germany (or the German Democratic Republic) came under direct Soviet rule in 1949. The most potent symbol of this East-West divide in Germany was the Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 by the GDR to keep its civilians from defecting to the west, and dismantled in November 1989. The fall of the Wall not only paved the way for German reunification in 1990, but also marked the beginning of the end of the USSR.

A map of divided Berlin during the Cold War – part of a street exhibition that currently lines the walls adjacent to the Berlin Wall Museum.

A map of divided Berlin during the Cold War – part of a street exhibition that currently lines the walls adjacent to the Berlin Wall Museum.

The German re-unification also marked a spate of efforts by both civilians and the government to memorialise their turbulent (and shameful) recent past. I would like to share my experience of three of the most important initiatives among them, related specifically to the Holocaust.

Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe (MMJ)

My first visit to Berlin was only for a day and all I could manage to do was a visit to the Charlottenburg Palace and take a general historical walking tour of Berlin, by what was touted to be the most popular English tour company of the city – ‘Original Berlin Walks’. There is really no better way of exploring a city than by walking, and in our 4-hour walk we did cover a substantial part of the city – Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall, Hitler’s Bunker, Checkpoint Charlie, Reichstag Dome, War Memorial, TV Tower, Berlin Cathedral, Humboldt University. But what I remember most about that walk is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial.

The history of how it came to happen is a fascinating story in itself, and our guide took some time to elaborate on it: the first initiative for the Memorial was taken up by a TV journalist in the late 1980s, a project which soon earned government support; thereafter, there was a design competition in 1994, but unfortunately it fell through; a second design competition was announced in 1997, and this time the winning design – by Peter Eisenman – was eventually executed; with the Memorial being formally opened in May 2005, as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations of VE Day.

What struck me about this story was the synergy between civilian and government efforts to honour the dead, and bring to life the most shameful chapter in not only German history but the history of mankind. At the end of his narration, our guide gave us some time to explore the Memorial on our own, which in any case we were all eager to do. Eisenmann’s design no doubt resembles a graveyard – a huge grey graveyard, its row upon row of ordered stelae symbolising the systematic way in which the Jews were murdered, its different sizes standing for (so it seemed to me) the different age-groups and nationalities of the Jews. Walking through the rows, which at places become narrow corridors (see photo below), was an eerie experience, even on a sunny day in October; and covering the whole plot (which I tried to do) in the short time allotted to us was a bit tiring.

Hence, I gave up that effort and instead, sat at a random point, contemplating the enormity of the crime that the Memorial attested to. It left a residue of infinite sadness in me. There is an ‘Information Centre’ below the Memorial – which is a documentation centre detailing personal histories of victims’ families that was made possible by the support of ‘Yad Vashem’, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. It has immense significance for those with a deeper interest in the history of the Holocaust, but the bare concrete of the Memorial articulates that unspeakable history in a way that nothing else can.

Tourists walk through the stelae.

Tourists walk through the stelae.

The topography of terror (TT)

This could be said to be the antithesis of the above. While MMJ tells the story – both in the abstract and with documentary evidence – of the victims of the Holocaust, TT says it from the point of view of the perpetrators. Hitler’s dictatorship could be what it was because of the instruments of repression – the notorious SS and the Gestapo – which he had perfected against the Jews and other minorities and made wholly subservient to the cause of the War. TT, located on the historic site of these institutions – i.e., the former Gestapo and SS headquarters – is a museum dedicated to detailing the history and system of their oppression.

The building has a complicated history over three decades, beginning way back in the 1970s. One of the high points in that history was its first exhibition that was held to commemorate the 750th birth anniversary of Berlin City in 1987; another was the creation of a Foundation in 1992. The most important landmark, however, was the architectural design competition of 2005.  In 2007, at the time of my visit, the museum had not yet been constructed; and though the open-air exhibition was already in place by then, it had not yet become a recognised tourist spot. The Museum was formally opened only in 2010, in time to commemorate (like the MMJ) the (65th) anniversary celebrations of VE Day.

I went to the museum this time on a Sunday, when, in addition to the free entrance, free guided tours are also offered. Our guide did a very good job of giving us a concise history of the time through some key photographs in the Permanent Exhibition, adding useful insights along the way. But it was the Open-air Exhibition – detailing how the Nazi terror unfolded, year to year, from 1932-1945 – which was my favourite. It is symbolic, I think, of the attitude of the Germans towards grappling their mired history, with the glass slides and glass roof aptly evoking the transparency of the effort.

In the hung photo - Hitler with his chief associates; 2nd from right is Heinrich Himmler. Behind the photo - a group of eager tourists listen to a guide, free, on a Sunday afternoon in July 2016.

In the hung photo – Hitler with his chief associates; 2nd from right is Heinrich Himmler. Behind the photo – a group of eager tourists listen to a guide, free, on a Sunday afternoon in July 2016.

TIME covers that tell it like it was!

TIME covers that tell it like it was!

“Taking a break from mass murder… SS female auxiliaries (‘SS maids’) and SS men from Auschwitz concentration camp at the SS retreat Sola-Hutte, 30 kms south of the camp, in an idyllic mountain landscape. (Undated - probably July 22, 1944). At the center is Karl Hocker, adjutant to camp commandant Richard Baer.”

“Taking a break from mass murder… SS female auxiliaries (‘SS maids’) and SS men from Auschwitz concentration camp at the SS retreat Sola-Hutte, 30 kms south of the camp, in an idyllic mountain landscape. (Undated – probably July 22, 1944). At the centre is Karl Hocker, adjutant to camp commandant Richard Baer.”

Jewish Museum Berlin (JMB)

The most memorable visit of my trip was to the Jewish Museum Berlin. It is actually an extension of an already existing museum – the Berlin History Museum – that opened in 2010. The ‘Permanent Exhibition’ of this new museum traces 2000 years of German-Jewish history, right from Roman times to the Holocaust – a most fascinating story. However, what I found more arresting about the museum is its award-winning design, created by the architect Daniel Libeskind.

It is a design completely open to interpretation – hence I feel free to give my own. In a conventional museum, you can decipher (at least a bit of) the structure/shape from outside; there is an entrance which leads you to a foyer, with a (wide) reception area where you buy tickets, audio-guides etc.; and as you do so, you get a feeling of the space you have entered, some sense of its height and width. And you usually climb up a flight of stairs – into an edifying experience! With the JMB, none of these apply: you can decipher the shape of the new museum only with an aerial view; there is no direct entrance to the new building, it can only be accessed through the old; and you need to descend through a narrow dark alley of a staircase into a cavernous space below – to start! All you see at first are angular lines stretching out before you and jagged slits through walls. The effect is disorienting, even if you’ve read the preliminary literature on the museum website. Nothing quite prepares you for such a confrontation with space, and you feel confused as to which direction to take. Thankfully “hosts” are around – dressed in black, and sporting red and gold sashes – to explain things and help you get back on to the right track.

The map of the new museum, showing the three Axes.

The map of the new museum, showing the three Axes.

Text on the museum wall.

Text on the museum wall.

The first and longest of these axes is the ‘Axis of Continuity’ – the connecting path from which the other axes branch off. It leads on to the ‘Permanent Exhibition’ in the upper floors, showcasing the continuity of German-Jewish history. The ‘Axis of Emigration’ leads outside to the ‘Garden of Exile’. And the ‘Axis of the Holocaust’ is a dead end: it becomes ever narrower and darker and ends at the ‘Holocaust Tower’. The glass cases on the way display memorabilia from the lives of people who were killed by the Nazi regime, donated to the museum by their surviving relatives or friends.

Here, along these stretches, the anonymous numbers of murdered Jews are dignified – given a face and a name. And individual stories. The purpose of Libeskind’s unique museum design is thus twofold and seemingly contradictory: to humanise/individualise numbers; and to render into the abstract what can’t be quantified – pain, loss, annihilation. The abstract comes out most forcefully in three stunning features of the museum.

The Garden of Exile – Like everything else, it is angular. The floor tilts on a slope. If you stand at one end, you will feel insecure – as if you are not on firm ground. If you sit on the rim skirting the garden, you might have a sensation of falling forward. There is no stable point in the garden to sit or stand. Just the way the Jews must have experienced exile – always insecure, unsure, uprooted… never feeling at home. The 48 concrete pillars of the garden, its hollows filled with soil from Israel, symbolically stand for 1948 – the year Israel was born; and the Russian willow oak that grows atop the pillars symbolize hope. Access to the garden is not easy – you have to get to it through a heavy door that opens only with great effort. The experience of the Jews is thus architecturally inscribed in the design. Their story is not only ‘told’ in the exhibition – the design IS the story!

The Holocaust Tower It stands at the end of the ‘Axis of the Holocaust’. It is made of concrete, is completely closed, and only illuminated through a narrow slit high up. It is impossible to stay there for more than a few minutes without feeling suffocated. It seemed to be a space outside time, with no link to the mortal world we inhabit. No wonder, Libeskind called this empty tower the “Voided Void”!

Death routes along the ‘Axis of Holocaust’ - to Auschwitz, Lublin-Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen. The previous names on the left were Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Mauthaus, Lodz, Mins, Chelmno, Belzec, and Theresienstadt. Remember the Holocaust survivors and perpetrators Claude Lanzmann interviewed in Shoah?

Death routes along the ‘Axis of Holocaust’ – to Auschwitz, Lublin-Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen. The previous names on the left were Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Mauthaus, Lodz, Mins, Chelmno, Belzec, and Theresienstadt. Remember the Holocaust survivors and perpetrators Claude Lanzmann interviewed in Shoah?

‘Shalechet’ – After every museum experience, some images stay with you. JMB was a ‘physical’ experience for me like few others have been. But the image that has stuck in my mind is that of the ‘Shalechet’ – an installation by the Israeli sculptor Menashe Kadishman. ‘Shalechet’ means ‘fallen leaves’ in Hebrew – and what you have here are 10,000 circular iron discs with cut-out faces scattered across the floor, covering it as fallen leaves might. All the faces have their mouths agape – as if in silent scream – and no two are the same. The iron tells a horrible tale of victimhood better than a thousand words.

A horizontal shot of a section of Kadishman’s installation

A horizontal shot of a section of Kadishman’s installation.

The Sukkah  JMB was a disturbing, disorienting experience for me – far more than the MML or TT. It was meant to be that way. It was however balanced at the end when I took refreshments in the Sukkah (Hebrew for ‘tent’) – the glass-covered space in the courtyard of the Old Building. The dull ache that I had felt throughout walking the dark underground corridors was assuaged somewhat sitting in this huge sun-lit courtyard opening out into the museum garden outside, its glass facade affording a beautiful view even from within. After the constricted, almost suffocating feeling of the 3 axes, this was a welcome relief! And the most potent statement of hope that could have been devised by the architect. For, like every other aspect of Libeskind’s design, the Sukkah is symbolic. Its tent-like construction, with the transparent roof resting on four pillars and a steel net, is meant to recall the temporary huts of the Israelites as they wandered 40 years through the wilderness following their expulsion from Egypt. It is meant as a reminder that the history of the persecution of Jews is a long one, dating far back in historical time from the Holocaust; but at the same time, the Sukkah being housed in the Old Building of the museum is also meant to emphasise the continuity of Jewish history in Berlin – hopefully with a brighter future.

All the memorials that I have discussed above have a complicated history – all were conceived during the Cold War; went through phases of intense debate and discussion as to its content and purpose; but all came to fruition within a matter of two decades, from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to 2010. Within 60 years of the end of the Second World War in 1945, Germany courageously confronted its past. Can we hope to have similar initiatives in India in the coming year – that marks the 70th anniversary of India’s Partition?