The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the finest piece of public art I’ve encountered. It stands at the heart of Berlin, only yards from the Reichstag, and it memorialises what is perhaps humanity’s greatest ever crime. How could any work of art rise to the challenge, but it undoubtedly does.
Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the memorial comprises dark grey blocks covering almost five acres. The blocks, or stelae, are arranged in a grid pattern, and they vary in height from nothing (embedded in the pavement) to perhaps twice the height of a man.
The blocks inevitably make you think of tombs. That they are unmarked makes you understand that the Nazis weren’t interested in who these people were–but simply that they were Jewish. The grid pattern symbolises the military and industrial manner of the murders. But despite being a grid the memorial is also a maze: Lin and I thought how easy it would be to lose Alexander, our two year old grandson, in the memorial, just as Jewish families lost their children.
Underneath the memorial is a museum, which is well constructed. At the beginning is Primo Levi’s statement: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”
(Earlier we had driven past the square where the Nazis had burnt 25 000 unGerman books, and I remembered the saying: Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen. Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings. I’d forgotten the exact words, and didn’t know the German. Nor did I remember that it was said by Heinrich Heine, the German romantic poet who died almost a century before the Nazis came to power.)
The first room tells the all-too-familiar story of the rounding up and extermination of the Jews in words and pictures. As Levi says, it’s a story that can never be told enough. At the end of the room were large pictures of the murdered.
The second room takes you to individuals. Lighted rectangles in the ground (like lit graves) have the last pieces of writing, letters and postcards, written by those about to be murdered. Around the walls are the numbers who came from each country: more than three million from Poland, and, to my surprise, only (the strangest ever use of that word) around 100 000 from Germany, fewer than several other countries. I felt proud that there were none from Britain, although I know well that there would have been had the Germans invaded.
The third room tells the stories of families from around Europe. We see the families together in pictures, perhaps enjoying a meal, and then an account of what happened. In some families everybody was murdered, but in other families some escaped.
In the fourth room the stories of individuals are told by voices in German and English while their names are projected on a wall. It would take more than six years to tell the story of every murdered person.
The last room has information on holocaust memorials around the world.
You leave the museum directly into the blocks of the memorial above ground. You are shaken.
PS. As I write this I listen to some exquisite Schubert and wonder that the German-speaking people could both produce some of the world’s finest music and its greatest crime. But I shouldn’t wonder: they, like ll of us, are human beings.