Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Berlin's slightly awkward Holocaust memorial

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe can sometimes seem more like a playground than a place for somber reflection.

Today I made a visit to the holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin. I had been there once before, shortly after it opened in 2006. My impressions this time were the same as the last; this would be a powerful memorial, were it not for all the other people in it.

The memorial is a forest of 2,711 concrete slabs, arranged in a maze with varying elevation. The architect, Peter Eisenman, took his inspiration from the Jewish cemetery in Prague, where the gravestones are crammed in tightly at odd angles. I used to visit that cemetery often when I lived in Prague in 2002, it's very moving (photo below).

The design was not without controversy. Eberhard Diepgen, the mayor of Berlin when the project was selected, notoriously hated it and refused to attend the inauguration ceremony. People criticised the memorial for being vague and without explanation. A scathing review in The New Yorker said:
"Without the title, it would be impossible to know what the structure is meant to commemorate; there’s nothing about these concrete slabs that signifies any of the words of the title, except, perhaps, “memorial”—insofar as some of them, depending on their height, may resemble either headstones or sarcophagi. So it’s something to do with death. And as for the title itself—which murdered Jews? When? Where?"
Eisenman defended his design by saying he did not want this memorial to resort to trite sentimentality, instead keeping the message open to interpretation by the viewer. The design is meant to "produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason," he said.

The problem, however, is that the confusing atmosphere gives the feeling of a hedge maze. The memorial is completely open and people can wander in and out of it. The inevitable result is that during any visit you see people playing hide-and-seek within the maze - running, climbing on the pillars, laughing and playing. Another common sight is people laying on the slabs sunning themselves.

During both of my visits I felt a bit uncomfortable with all this activity going on around me. But I almost couldn't blame them. The design seems to invite this kind of frivolity, particularly for young visitors. Because it's an 'interactive' memorial that visitors become a part of, there's no way to control how people behave in it.

A few years ago there was a controversy after a gay news website wrote an article questioning why so many men were using pictures taken in the memorial as their profile photo on Grindr, a gay dating app. The story was quickly picked up by right-wing papers such as The Daily Mail in the UK. There were even some bizarre attempts to defend it as an "ironic trend" or as a tribute to the victims. Someone even started a blog collecting all the memorial grindr selfies.

I think the real explanation is much less deep. The memorial just doesn't convey a somber or serious effect, and so it doesn't occur to people that it might be inappropriate to play amongst the stones or take selfies. After all, I doubt that anybody's ever posted a Grindr profile photo in Auschwitz, or at the US holocaust memorial museum. There's just something about this Berlin memorial that seems to make people think that a visit is playtime rather than thinking time.

Speaking to Deutsche Welle in 2010, publicist Lea Rosh, who spearheaded the memorial project, said she was relatively relaxed about the way many visitors had repurposed the memorial.

"Sometimes I go and see people sunning themselves on the steles and tell them that there are lawns for sunbathing in the Tiergarten just across the street," she said. "I tell the boys who are hopping around on the steles that they should do that somewhere else. When I tell the eight- to 12-year-olds that they should go into the information center below the memorial and then come talk to me about it, it's always very powerful. They tell me they've learned a lot."
Another criticism of the memorial is that it only honours the Jewish victims of the Nazis, which Paul Spiegel, the former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has suggested portrays a "hierarchy of suffering", that Jewish victims are more important than other victims.

In response, a memorial to the Roma (gypsy) victims and the homosexual victims were built across the street in thee Tiergarten. The homosexual monument is one single stone slab, hidden behind some bushes in the park. Like the Jewish memorial, it has no plaque telling people what it is. But it has a small window, and when you look inside, you see a video of two men kissing. It's meant to symbolise the hidden nature of the gay victims, who were not publicly acknowledged by West Germany until the 1980s. Personally, I found this memorial much more moving than the one across the street.

I haven't yet seen any Grindr selfies at the gay memorial.

Designing these memorials is a tricky business - just witness how long it took to agree on a 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan (which, incidently, has also been criticised for the convivial atmosphere around the fountains). Berlin could have gone with a more traditional memorial, but at the end of the day you can say this for it - it is visually arresting. You can't ignore it. And even if some people are playing, or sunning themselves, there is something disjointing about the experience of walking through it. And that's probably what the architect was trying to convey.

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