Berlin's Holocaust Memorial - A Moving Tribute, Provocative Public Art or a Giant Playground?

Having decided that I should visit Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I had deliberately avoided reading too much about the its controversial design and the reaction it has provoked since it was opened in May 2005. Wanting to arrive there with as few pre-conceptions as possible, I took the short walk there from the Brandenburg Gate one chilly January morning.

Half an hour later I would leave, feeling extremely disconcerted.

Peter Eisenman - the architect of the memorial - has indeed created something unique, not to mention a powerful piece of public art.  What greeted me was over 2,000 grey concrete slabs, representing headstones, coffins or sarcophagi (depending on your perception). Spread out in a grid patter covering 4.7 acres, they have been placed at different heights and angles and whilst their horizontal dimensions are identical, their vertical lengths differ dramatically.  When placed upright, therefore, some of them take on the appearance of stelae - monuments that are generally taller than they are wide.  

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From a distance, the appearance of these blocks deceived me entirely.  Only as I ‘entered’ and began walking between them did I realise how easy it was to become disoriented.  Soon I was entirely lost, in a maze of blocks…  and the deeper inside I wandered, the larger the blocks became.  Before I knew it, I found myself in a confined dark space.  Hunting for a way back to the light, in the short time it took me to 'escape' I felt my heart rate rise, my palms sweat, and a strong notion of fear.

Confusing…disorienting…claustrophobic - these are some of the emotions Eisenman wanted his visitors to feel, and in this respect I am sure he has succeeded.  Indeed, in “The Illusion of Order” he talks about how wandering in this labyrinth of pathways might help the visitor feel the helplessness and despair that Jews felt during the holocaust.  It is his hope, he says, to create a place where it can be grasped “what loneliness, powerlessness and despair mean.”

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Moreover, whether this is provocative public art or simply a unique memorial to millions of murdered Jews, there is still the question of what these concrete blocks stand for and open to much interpretation.  Some say the plain, unnamed slabs represent inmates at the Nazi concretisation camps - with their heads shaved, and only referred to by the numbers tattooed on their arms, they were entirely anonymous. Conversely, the blocks are all of different sizes - representing an idea that despite their depersonalisation, each of the victims had their own, unique identity.

Walking here is not easy - because you cannot fail to be reminded of one of the darkest periods in European history, But there is something else…not only do you have to contend with the horrors of Nazi history, you are faced with  phenomena just as ugly in their own way - invasive social media practices, badly-behaved children and a general lack of education that surrounds the memorial.

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What do I mean?  Well, whilst I was there, families were playing hide and seek between the pillars.  Two American tourists were jumping from slab to slab, in a attempt to race each other to the end.  Teenagers were chasing each other through the paths, shrieking loudly all the while.  And although I was lucky enough not to witness it, it is well-known that selfies at the memorial are the order of the day. 

Selfies at a Holocaust Memorial?  Seriously.  But that’s the state of play.  Around 4 million people visit this site every year, including many school parties and from what I’ve read, many of them show not just a complete lack of respect but a complete lack of awareness about why this memorial exists.  Indeed, one sociologist, Iris Dekel, has remarked that many of them are entirely unaware that they are at a memorial. 

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So if you have any desire to stand in quiet contemplation, taking a moment to reflect, to ponder, to respect the millions of murdered Jews.  Your attempts to do so will, most likely be ruined - in my case, by two teenagers who - running up and down - shoved me aside then ran off, yelling at the top of their lungs.  In turn, I lost my temper and began screaming back at them, demanding that they show a little respect.  All to no avail of course - they were long gone, lost in a mass of concrete.  

Shaking with anger, I realised it was better I leave.  Making my way to the exit, I bumped into the sole guard there - given the thankless task of trying to control the hoards.  Mine was the first of endless complaints he had received in the last weeks.  But, he told me, he was powerless to do much.

So what’s the answer?  It is Shahak Shapira’s ‘Yolocaust’ art project, shaming selfie-takers by combining their pictures with archival images of the victims of Nazi concentration camps? 

Photo: Courtesy of Shahak Shapira, "Yolocaust'

Photo: Courtesy of Shahak Shapira, "Yolocaust'

Is it better education for the millions of school children sent here on compulsory visits, who, bored and restless, are just counting the minutes until their teacher’s lecture ends and they can have fun?  Is it a memorial that is more personal - less provocative public art and more a place of quiet contemplation?  

I’m not sure.  All I know is that it was hard enough for me to deal with the pain of visiting this site, without having to watch people joking and laughing.  Even if this is not ‘sacred space’ (which in itself is debatable) then it is  definitely not a playground.  Had I seen people snapping selfies, I suspect I would have lost my temper in a big way.  As it was, I came away saddened and disconcerted. I understand that people have different reactions to this memorial but mine was puzzlement and sadness.

I will not return.