Peter Eisenman’s Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe was preceded by over a decade of controversy. From the beginning it was clear that whatever got built on the tract of land reserved for the purpose just a block away from the Brandenburg Gate would become the highest-profile memorial in the country. (Originally a less prominent site had been chosen, but the government was soon shamed into upgrading the location by accusations that it wished to tuck the memorial away out of sight.) Many artists and architects competed for the honor of designing the memorial, but in the end so many different interest groups and political factions had a say in choosing the final design that it came as no surprise that the winning model was bland, a compromise. No one I know ever liked the sound of Eisenman’s proposal; but it was only when it was standing there as a fact on the ground that it became clear how utterly awful a plan it was. Basically, this block of dark-gray rectangular poured-concrete “Stelen” or pillars arranged on a grid crisscrossed by walkways is just a big fake-stone playground where you inevitably wind up playing hide-and-seek with people you’ve never seen before. Eisenman’s idea was that visitors to the memorial would get lost among its tall pillars and suffer the feelings of isolation and cut-off-ness
experienced by those interned in concentration camps. He wanted, he said in an interview in 2005 when the memorial was unveiled, for people “to have a feeling of being in the present and an experience that they had never had before. And one that was different and slightly unsettling.” Nothing of the sort is the case. Walking among these pillars, you are surrounded by the multilingual chatter of other visitors, and the constant danger of bumping head-on into someone else (there are intersections every meter or two) makes people walk with comical caution, peeping around each corner as they arrive. At least on a sunny day, it’s all a bit jolly, and anyone who manages to remember those who died in Bergen-Belson or Auschwitz while playing peek-a-boo like this does so only by an impressive act of will. In fact, it’s so difficult to preserve an air of solemnity while navigating this labyrinth that the government created a Besucherordnung—visiting regulations—to govern people’s behavior: no running, no singing, no climbing, as a somber plaque set into the ground instructs us. Last time I visited, the policemen guarding the memorial were making no attempt to enforce these rules. Just imagine what that would look like: German policemen attempting to impose discipline on frolicking children at a Holocaust memorial.
There was some grumbling when the plan for Eisenman’s memorial was unveiled that his design was a rip-off of the “Garden of Exile” that stands in the back courtyard of the Jewish Museum in Berlin designed by Daniel Libeskind. These accusations are quite correct, the borrowing is obvious. And the original is infinitely more effective as a memorial. Liebeskind’s field of pillars is far more difficult to navigate than Eisenman’s: they’re taller, the foliage planted at their tops blocks out a fair bit of the sunlight (it’s a shrub chosen because it resembles olive branches but is hardy enough to weather a Berlin winter); it feels subterranean; and since you don’t have a clear view of the horizon from within the maze, the fact that the ground beneath your feet keeps slanting in unpredictable directions creates dizziness, disorientation. It can get hard to keep your balance, and by this effect Libeskind is asking us to imagine the disorientation of Jews who, fleeing the Nazis, went into exile, where they had to struggle to make lives for themselves while mourning the loss of their lost homes and worlds, loved ones and language.
Meanwhile, one of the most beautiful memorials I’ve ever seen can be found on Berlin’s Bebelplatz, next to the Staatsoper and across the avenue Unter den Linden from the Humboldt University. This 2005 memorial created by Israeli artist Micha Ullman to bear witness to the infamous book burning orchestrated there by Joseph Goebbels in 1933 consists of a subterranean library buried beneath the square and visible through a thick pane of plexiglass. The many empty white shelves gleam at night and are half-obscured during the daytime by the reflections on the viewing window. A plaque sunk into the pavement nearby bears a quote from the great 19th century German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, whose books were banned in 1835: “This was merely a prelude. Where books are burned, in the end human beings will be burned as well.”