Wednesday, July 13, 2005
MEMORIAL FOR THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE
MEMORIAL FOR THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE (Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas)Please first go to the official website in English or German to look here at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by architect Peter Eisenman:
(personal impressions by Nemeton [www.darkmattersoundsystem.com])
(personal impressions by Nemeton [www.darkmattersoundsystem.com])
The plan for this memorial has been about 17 years in the making, with vocal and publicized discussions beginning in 1988. The memorial is a extremely contentious issue in Germany and for Berlin. At the heart of the matter is how the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) will nationally recognize, represent and memorialize the Holocaust. As central to politicized memorial is the issue of the singularity of Jewish experience in the Holocaust. There has been a extremely contentious debate (philosophical, political, ethical) on this issue since the 1950s. These words, singularity or uniqueness, express that genocide, mass industrial extermination, was specifically engineered and developed strategically to be the fate for Jews in Europe. Although many other types (that the National Socialists identified through detailed organization mechanisms as "threats") included people of mixed marriages, multi-racial backgrounds, political dissidents, gypsies, homosexuals, "deviants", non-workers, the disabled, non-Aryan, etc., and who were selected for forced labor, concentration camps, and death camps, it was the Jewish "race" that was to be totally eliminated first and primarily. Please refer to the article in English by Moishe Postone titled "Anti-Semitism and National Socialism" (http://www.asayake.org/postone1.html ) for a highly developed critique of the dynamics of economically based Anti-Semitism based in the materialist circumstances of capitalist cycles of production and consumption, industrialization, and capitalist democracy.
10 years into this debate on the memorial, the German parliament (Bundestag) finally took action and made the memorial project national and concretized the central ideas that would be addressed. The Bundestag voted for the project to be the "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe," rather than dedicated to all victims of the Holocaust, or all victims of Fascism. (The strategic terminology to describe Holocaust as an experience of "all victims of Fascism" was used by the USSR and the Democratic Republic of Germany (GDR) to diminishing the centrality of the Jew experience in the Holocaust, a strategy that operated in conjunction with USSR’s own repression of Jews during and after WW2.)
I really want to write about is the actual experience of the memorial itself. The physical, emotional, intellectual and psychological experience. I had some preconceptions about what it would be, and was particularly nervous to actually see the memorial based on the changes to architectural design of the memorial forced through in parliamentary vote by the conservative politicians. At issue is the fact that the memorial is located just down the street from the Reichstag, the parliamentary building, most of the government offices located in the Platz der Republic or across the Spree River, the Tiergarten, the Brandeburger Tor, and the former Berlin Wall. This is the central government area of Berlin and to place a memorial here demonstrates physically the centrality of the Holocaust to the German government, people and history, today and in the past. The field of steele were first designed to be quite tall, much taller than a standing individual without having the ground of the site sunk down. The effect of the original memorial design would have been extremely noticeable and striking, at definitive memorial at the heart of central Berlin. This original plan was reworked several times to the final design which we have today in which the field of steele appear from the street to be quite low, maybe knee level, but in actuality the ground is sunk down so that as you descend down into the central area of the memorial the steele rise dramatically taller than the viewer.
The Berlin memorial operates as an intense phenominological experience, as it is designed explicitly for people to traverse in and through the space of the site. Unlike a traditional memorial such as the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial designed by Natan Rappaport, which is a large high relief bronze sculpture depicting women, children, men struggling against the National Socialists in various ways, this Berlin memorial has no typical iconographic representational schemas. The Berlin memorial isn't about images representing history which are easy understood, such as a child suffering that can easily ignite sympathetic emotions. Memorials like the one in the Warsaw Ghetto gives the viewer a representation of history, what happened, who suffered, why it is important. There is little mental work to be done to understand the history depicted. Furthermore, the iconographic representations of this sort lends itself to function as an image of the past: the viewer sees timeless images, depictions of events that happened in the past, not history that is affecting the past, present and future. Traditional memorials also impose certain accepted modes of decorum and interaction which compound to possibly distance the ways in which the viewer can interact with the memorial.
The Berlin memorial radically changes the idea and the physicality of the traditional memorial. The memorial contains no iconographic representation, although we can interpret the field of steele on a variety of symbolic levels. When the viewer stands at the edge of the site one has an expansive view, of the whole field of steele. The architectural design of the site makes it appear that the steele are not tall. As soon as you start to traverse the site, your experience immediately changes. The steele are all the same width and length , but are different heights. Initially the steele are knee or waist height and the concentration of steele is slightly lower than in the interior of the site. There are certain areas where there are no steele, an open void. The multiple and infinite paths between the steele are made of small gray squares 8 between each steele with little gray pebbles between each small gray square. The ground materials give a very tactile, rough feeling to the space that contrasts to the smooth, dull feel of the steele. As you walk into the site it becomes apparent that the ground is in fact slopped, but rolling. It feels as if you are both ascending and descending into the field of steele. If you are at any convergence of any 2 pathways you can see in all four directions to the edges of the site. You have an expansive view even if you are standing near the tallest steele. But if you stand between 2 steele then you can only see in front and in back of you.
When traversing the space into the center, the steele grow taller and the feeling becomes much more isolating: you don’t know where you are going since there are infinite paths through the site; you don’t know when and who you will meet as you walk straight ahead or turn a corner, but you hear other people. There is less light as the steele are taller and the steele cast shadows upon each other; your shadow is also cast upon the steele. The steele are a dark charcol grey color, smooth, very nice to touch, not necessarily cold like stone is cold, but cool. There is a play of light and shadow between the steele, a jagged design of fragmented lines and depths of gray spread over the site. The steele appear to be slightly leaning when you look down the ailes, a forest of crooked, disjointed structures. There are just endless symbolic relationships you can draw out between the physically of the site and history and experience of the Holocaust.
I had many thoughts as I walked through the space. At first when I could see the expanse of the site I walked “strategically”: I made active decisions about where to turn, where to walk, if I wanted to follow another person, if I wanted to see what was over there, etc. As I started to descend into the space more, the ground swells and ebbs like a series of waves and the steele get much taller. At this point for me the experience became much more emotional, closed in, less "strategic" or "instrumental," but as if I was traversing space that was not only physical but an evocation of emotional - psychological relationship to space. I found myself wandering, not trying to go from x to y, but just wandering, feeling emotions that I associate with the Holocaust, thinking about the symbolism of the site, thinking about illusions, about associations. It is very powerful.
Although I don’t know for sure, I would suggest that the architect Eisenmann might have been referencing Situationist thinking or psychogeographical ideas because this is a space to interact with on many levels. Nothing is given to you, nothing is explained to you, there is no apparent connection between the field of steele and the Holocaust. Yet this is why I would argue that the memorial is so powerful. You are forced because of the physicality and the design to interact with the site on multiple levels. Even if you don’t have a thought in your head about Jewish suffering, the site is in itself still an experience, a physical encounter that forces you to on a somewhat mental plan to deal with the space you are in.
In the German press after the memorial was opened in May 2005, there was a big debate about how people use the memorial site. Very unexpectedly, unusual things happened that did not coincide with somber or decorous behaviour associated with traditional memorials. Little kids ran around the steele playing hide and seek. Young kids jumped on tops of the steele, one to the next. People sunbathed on the steele, or sat or talked. Others laid flowers on the steele, a more traditional use of the memorial space. The appropriation of the space for any and all activity seems to be central to the site. Now there are one or two security guards around, but generally after staying there for about 2 hours people could do whatever they wanted. A central problem to traditional memorials is that what is represented and how the viewer is to understand or interact with the messages is already given. It is an official explanation for which one passively accepts. Here at the Berlin memorial people have appropriated an official space (which lacks iconographic representation, but is still officially promoted by the government) for there own uses. One might suggest that the memorial space has become a “civic” site, a place of gathering. Although the "civic" quality may be lessened by that fact that really only tourists go to this area of Berlin, I would at minimum argue that the appropriation of space and the site’s usefulness are key ways in which the memorial operates outside the parameters of traditional memorials.
The German press lamented that people acted inappropriately when they laugh or play on site, that they should be solomn as would be fitting a traditional memorial. In fact, I would counter this by noting that through the present use of the site for many activities, people are making living history. They are not relating to history (the Holocaust) nostalgically as if it is only to be passively remembered as something that happened long ago with little effect today, but that there is a present-ness and a future quality to the history of the Holocaust and the site. The history is lived, it is interacted with in manifold ways, unique to each individual who comes to the site. Personal thinking-mediation at the memorial may focus for some on the death, the destruction and the dying as fundamental experiences of the Holocaust. The field of steel may reference, for example, the ancient Greek grave stones were called steele, usually made of gray stone with high relief carving, inscribed or were plain slabs. The steele in the Berlin memorial could be interpreted as referencing grave markers or people who died, although I wouldn’t pin a particular meaning onto the steele or the site. In this context where individuals interact with the memorial space, there also appears through this engagement to be a dialogue formed between the dead and the dying and the living. Life is re-emphasized. In direct solidarity the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, one might also see that people did survive and so did the Jewish religion and traditions. I think that site operates to both acknowledge the loss at the core of the Holocaust, but also through its appropriation by people that there is life. There is an element of play in the site’s appropriation, which might be viewed as an acknowledgment that history continues into the present...
The rationality of the memorial is apparent. The spaces between the steele is uniform, the width and length of the steele are uniform, the site itself has an exact measurement, it is a mathmatical grid plan. The rationality of the site, of the architecture, is confronted by the "irrationality, emotionality, mental thinking" of the way that people use the space. This dichotomy of rationality-irrationality for me clearly alludes to the Holocaust, the scientific management of gas chambers, train schedules, with the irrationality of experience of murderous death, the perverted thinking of Anti-Semitism, the reasons for such deadly mechanization of life…
This is one interpretation of the power of the memorial: meaning, the way one chooses to think about memory and history, the way one moves through the space is manifold, multiple. There is no given, no set way to interpret the site or history of the Holocaust. One has to do this work oneself. I think the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe answers clearly Theodor W. Adorno’s (and others’) call that each individual and society as a whole must take an active, mental, emotional, physical relationship to the events of the Holocaust. One ought to, if one desires to, actively engage with memory and history ....
Notes and Recommendations: Please see the works of Jean Amery, a socialist who was captured by the SS in Belgium, imprisoned in Auschwitz III and spent much of his life fighting to maintain a living, critical memory of the holocaust:
Jean Améry: A Biographical Introduction
The Asayake Blog will be more regular from here on out. Expect in the relatively near future:
- A critical analysis of the left's approach to capitalism, disaster and Islamic fascism.
- The second part of 'Beheading Scylla: Fascism in the age of Empire'
- ガザ地区からの撤退は解放的な未来を本当にめざしますか？A dissection of the Gaza pull-out and its implications/forebodings for an emancipatory future
- News from Japanese struggles