Field of Silent Markers
A Berlin memorial is a stark reminder of the methodical destruction of European Jews.
By Carol Salus
Max Page, Iguana Photo, iguanaphoto.com
Peter Eisenman’s understated Memorial to the Murdered Jews
of Europe, a field of abstract pillars, is located in central Berlin. There are
no signs designating the memorial, no sentimentality, no symbolism, no
iconography of remembrance, no significance to the number of concrete slabs on
the 4.7-acre site.
The monument, which takes up a city block in what used to be
no-man’s-land next to the Berlin Wall, is an irregular quadrangle formed by the
surrounding sidewalks. People can enter and exit the huge forest of almost
imperceptibly leaning slabs from all sides and at all times of day or night.
(Security guards patrol the site 24 hours a day.) They must wander through the
field of ordered, rational, nameless stelae in single file and can easily get
lost or disoriented, or at least feel confined.
Eisenman’s piece is radically minimalist and clean: It is
the opposite of safe, boring, public art memorials. This is bold, pure form—no
realist heroic statuary or tasteful copycat aesthetic. Its title is telling: Mahnmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas.
Denk-mal is the usual label for German monuments and war memorials from all
eras. A denkmal is a monument or
statue honoring or commemorating a certain person or group of people (for
example, a famous author, composer, victims of war, founder of a city). The
word stems from the German verb gedenken,
meaning “to remember.” By contrast, mahnmal contains the verb mahnen, which means “to warn.” A mahnmal is therefore a memorial set up
to remind people of certain events in history, to urge them to keep these
events in their memory, and to make sure history will not be repeated.
Eisenman’s stark field of silent markers addresses what has to be one of the
most difficult design problems—a memorial to the deaths of millions of
innocents in a nation facing 60-plus years of complex moral questions of
responsibility and memory.
Since the memorial, commissioned by the German government,
was dedicated on May 10, 2005, countless people have wandered through the site,
and some 2,100 visitors a day on average have entered the underground
information center. The memorial is located south of the Brandenburg Gate, on
the former grounds of the Reich’s Ministry Gardens. Goebbels’s underground
bunker still edges it on the north, and it is 328 feet from the buried remains
of Hitler’s bunker. The German parliament building, the Reichstag, with its glass-filled
dome by British architect Sir Norman Foster clearly visible from the memorial,
is a few hundred yards to the north. Directly across from Eisenman’s memorial
is the site of the future U.S. embassy. The 17-year history behind the Memorial
for the Murdered European Jews, Germany’s official acknowledgment of guilt, was
filled with difficulties. In January 1998, Eisenman and Richard Serra were the
finalists in an invitational competition of internationally renowned artists
and architects for this long-debated memorial. Günter Schlusche, the memorial’s
architect and planner, explains that “Serra quit the partnership with Eisenman
in June 1998 after having been asked for some alterations to their design. As
an artist he refused any alterations (take it or leave it), while Eisenman
always argued that he wanted to cooperate with his clients.” Specifically Serra
refused certain changes insisted on by then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After
Serra’s departure, Eisenman went through several design revisions before the
final version was approved.
The $25 million memorial was initially conceived in 1988,
prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, by Lea Rosh, a television journalist.
After years of controversy, in 1999, it was adopted by the Bundestag of a
reunified Germany, which established a Memorial Foundation to raise funds. One
of the biggest debates concerned the dedication. Not unexpectedly, the question
arose as to why a memorial should be created exclusively for the Jews murdered
by the National Socialist regime. The Roma and Sinti (gypsies) as well as the
homosexuals killed by the Nazis also deserved representation. Rosh countered,
“The central goal of National Socialist genocide policy was the destruction of
Jewry. The consummation of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism on this continent and
the figure of six million Jewish victims demanded a memorial dedicated to
Jews.” In recent years, plans have been approved for memorials for the other
Eisenman’s palette of colors and range of materials are
subtly blended. The 2,711 dark-gray abstract precast concrete pillars are
placed in a tight grid pattern on a contoured topography imposed on the site.
The pillars, which are three feet wide and almost eight feet long, range in
height from a foot to more than 15 feet. Eisenman sculpted the flat site into
rolling contours so that the differing heights of the stelae are exaggerated,
then tilted from one-half to two degrees in two different directions to
maintain an overall unity of a level top within this changing topography. They
loom highest at the center of the site, where the terrain dips to about eight
feet below grade. When standing among these central stelae, the visitor can see
and hear the sounds of the city only in the distance. On the edges, the
unadorned concrete blocks rise almost a foot from the sidewalk, and people use
them as benches. Gridded paths, also about three feet wide, are paved in
concrete tiles embedded in gravel; these weave through the monoliths,
undulating at times softly, at times steeply.
Since the May 2005 opening of the memorial, small cracks
have developed in the concrete stelae, and these will be repaired. Schlusche
says that “only a few (10 to 15 out of 2,711) stelae show thin cracks. This is
not abnormal after two years of exposure to weather.” After repairs, the cracks
will be “invisible to the visitor.” Trees appear occasionally between the
stelae or at the edges of the site. One can stray aimlessly through Eisenman’s
field of pillars without reflection or meditation on the near-erasure of a
thriving culture. The architect clearly does not dictate any specific thoughts
or experiences for the viewer.
The field can function as a shortcut for pedestrians or a
place to watch children playing hide-and-seek among the slabs, activities that
do not bother Eisenman. Max Page, assistant professor of art at the University
of Massachusetts, has astutely written: “This is a memorial for adults and an
adult nation. The design assumes a mature citizenry and a democracy that
recognizes that responsibility for confronting a nation’s past crimes rests not
only with the culprits but with future generations as well. The memorial does
not inculcate or preach. It challenges.”
Eisenman’s memorial and its title assume knowledge of the
Final Solution. The architect has stated, “It is impossible to represent the
Holocaust.” In the late 1950s, the first Holocaust memorial competition was
held—an open competition sponsored by the International Committee of Auschwitz
for a monument to be built at Auschwitz–Birkenau. After evaluating 426
submissions from 36 countries, the jury, chaired by sculptor Henry Moore,
failed to pick a winner, concluding that none of the entries satisfactorily
memorialized a crime of such stupendous proportions. In his announcement, Moore
posed the fundamental question of Holocaust art: “Is it in fact possible to
create a work of art that can express the emotions engendered by Auschwitz?”
The grid of stelae will undoubtedly be a tourist site. Yet the wider issue of
historical significance remains: 50 percent of Britons, according to the
History News Network, have never heard of Auschwitz.
The design of the field is repeated in an underground
information center, where facts and personal accounts about the Holocaust are
connected to the abstract sculptural forms above. The center, which includes
four exhibition rooms, was mandated by the Bundestag against Eisenman’s will,
but he agreed to the addition after criticism that the memorial had the
responsibility to educate. The center, reached by a flight of stairs, has
off-white walls, dark gray floors, and steel beams, and the concrete and glass
foyer continues the minimalist aesthetic found in the field of stelae above.
This 22,776-square-foot archival center, on the southeastern edge of Eisenman’s
design, has a poured concrete ceiling that repeats the contours of the site,
with coffers and ribs the length and width of the pillars. The exhibition in
the center, designed by Dagmar von Wilcken, includes illuminated glass floor
panels; display cases filled with photographs, wall texts, diaries, and letters
from those who were deported; maps with deportation routes through the center
of Europe; timelines; and videos in which state-of-the-art technologies present
eyewitness evidence of the atrocities. For example, in the Room of Names, the
names of individual victims appear illuminated on the walls, while their
biographical details are piped through the speakers. The visitor hears: “Tibor
Rot was born in Romania. He was murdered immediately upon arrival by suffocation
in the gas chamber. He was five years old.” The visitor’s movement down the
flight of stairs into the center becomes in itself a metaphoric descent into
Eisenman has sensitively treated perhaps the most complex
and profound of issues—genocide and its remembrance. For the thoughtful, his
design is a place of reflection and learning. He has created a forceful
monument to an unredeemable past for those who have heard of Buchenwald,
Sobibor, Treblinka, Dachau, Auschwitz, Bergen–Belsen, and the countless other
camps and sites of torture and death.
Carol Salus is an associate professor of art history at Kent State University.
Reprinted with permission from Sculpture magazine, September 2006.