Just one block south of the most iconic tourist attractions in Berlin – the Reichstag building and the Brandenburger Gate – you can notice an unusual place. It is a 19,000 metre² (200,000 ft²) area covered with thousands of... concrete slabs! There are more than 2,700 of these so-called "stelae", they are quite different in height (from just a few decimetres/ft to 5 metres, or 15 ft) but have the same width (almost 1 metre, or 3 ft) and length (over 2 metres, or 7 ft). But what do they all represent? And what is this place about?
This place was designed by an American architect Peter Eisenman and opened in 2005. It is a memorial site dedicated to one of the greatest tragedies and crimes in history known as the Holocaust, or the Shoah! The murder of around six million Jews in Europe during World War II. The major perpetrators, who masterminded the largest genocide in history ever committed, lived and acted in or near Berlin. The Reichstag was their political and ideological headquarters. But it was not the place where the idea of planned extermination emerged...
Wannsee is a wonderful area on the outskirts of Berlin. It became a luxurious settlement in the XXth century with a large Jewish population. But unfortunately it also became a synonym of the so-called “Final Solution” of the “Jewish question”. It was there, in one of the expropriated mansions (today this Wannsee villa hosts an exhibition on the Holocaust), where the high-ranking Nazi officials met to discuss in detail their plans of the extermination of the Jews. A few months after the Wannsee Conference, the first „Vernichtungslager“ (“death camps”) in history were put in operation in occupied Poland. It marked the onset of the industrialisation of killing.
It is worth noting that the mass killings had begun much earlier. In fact, nearly the same number of the Jews had been shot, starved or "worked" to death ("Vernichtung durch Arbeit" strategy) by the Nazis and their collaborators as later gassed at death facilities (extermination camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec, or Treblinka). Most of these atrocities were perpetrated by the Nazis in Eastern Europe.
The word "Holocaust" had not been very popular until the 1970s when it was popularised by an American TV series. The term derives from Greek ὁλόκαυστος (holokostos) meaning “completely burnt” and refers to the common method that the Nazis used to dispose of the corpses of their victims at camps, i.e. burning in pits, on pyres, or in the crematoria furnaces. From the very beginning, the Jewish people, however, have predominantly used another term, "Shoah", which is a biblical Hebrew word meaning “the catastrophe”.
Now back to Berlin and our times. This Holocaust memorial on Cora-Berliner-Straße 1 was built in 2003–2004 and opened to the public in 2005, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II. In Berlin, the idea of commemorating the Holocaust victims had appeared only in the late 1980s. Since then, a number of fundraising campaigns had been launched, followed by the government support, and as a result a few years later enough money was already collected for a memorial. But it took about 10 years of public discussions to approve the final design of the place. The German chancellor personally supervised the process and even intervened a few times. It took another 5-6 years to complete the project. Like many works of art on extremely hard topics, the Holocaust memorial in Berlin immediately stirred controversy.
The architect Peter Eisenman, a famous deconstructivist from New York, didn't provide much description and interpretation of his work, but the artist made it crystal clear that he didn't want to saturate the monument with explicit messages. For instance, "stelae" (stone blocks) were used in ancient architecture to honour the dead, so they usually had inscriptions. But Eisenman decided to give some anonymity, leaving the memorial without any names*.
* see "Place of Information" paragragh below
Many renowned architects seek to integrate their works into the surroundings. Peter Eisenman, however, has been known for doing the opposite: he was trying to make his pieces of art look detached and stripped of any historical context. Yet, it was for this reason that the monument in Berlin sparked controversy: some found it too abstract and excessively simplistic. It is true, of course, that the memorial doesn't contain any historical information like names, inscriptions, or symbols. But on the other hand, a vast field full of thousands of massive gray blocks in the heart of German capital is already something quite impressive. The mere scale of it definitely makes people stop and think. Probably, it is the monument itself - with its location, size, shape, colour, and other features taken as a whole - what delivers a message. A message everyone should find by themselves after some reflection.
Most people have associations with a graveyard, in which concrete slabs resemble coffins. Naturally, the Nazi camps with death facilities is what comes to one's mind. In addition, numerous blocks that are perfectly arranged in a grid pattern make some people think of order and how well this monstrous plan of extermination was organised and carried out. At the same time, the sloping stretch of land, on which the concrete stelae are arranged, provides the undulating effect which brings some trouble, perturbation, and anxiety. Furthermore, a labyrinth of cobblestone pathways may cause the feeling of confusion, disorientation, or loss that Jewish victims often felt.
Remember that it is NOT allowed to stand or jump on the slabs. Although it is permitted to sit on them. If you happen to forget this rule, be sure: security guards will not hesitate to remind you.
What's remarkable, the memorial was built on a plot of land between East and West Berlin. After the Second World War and until the end of the Cold War, this area was known as "the death strip". It was a place where the notorious Berlin Wall once stood, dividing Europe in "East" and "West".
What many people do not know is that the memorial doesn't end above the ground. There is also an underground part known as „Ort der Information“ (“place of information”). The names of about 3 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust are recorded there. The entrance to it is in the south-eastern corner of the memorial area. Interestingly, the designer Peter Eisenman was against this idea, arguing that the site should not provide any textual information. Besides, he believed, there is more than enough places in Europe where people can read about the Holocaust, but not that many where people can simply ponder over it.
If you are visiting Berlin and want to see and learn more about this memorial join our Welcome to Berlin tour, you can book it right here.