Berlin is a city that has seen many contentious projects over the years but The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe has to be one of the most controversial of all. It wasn’t just because it covers part of the site where Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had his office, but for a variety of other reasons.
The memorial was conceived by journalist Lea Rosh and designed by New Yorker Peter Eisenman. The area is about the size of three football pitches and just a few minutes away from the bunker where Hitler committed suicide on 30th April 1945. Being flattened during the war, the site is in an area of high real estate value, which for some was probably a lost opportunity to make a good deal of money, but the Berlin authorities did the brave thing and endorsed the project with the hope that it would help the city come to terms with its inauspicious past.
Built between April 2003 and December 2004, the monument consists of 2,711 slabs of concrete known as ‘Stelae’ arranged in a grid pattern on sloping ground which Eisenman wanted to be an “uneasy, confusing atmosphere”. Apparently, he got his idea from the overcrowded Jewish cemetery in Prague.
This concrete maze cost €25m to install and it wasn’t just Berliners who thought that it didn’t belong here – even the Jewish fraternity thought that it wasn’t necessary.
The monument has an underground ‘Place of Information’ which makes a lot more sense of what it all means and holds the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims. Like any other holocaust museum, it is a very profound experience, so make sure that you take time to go in there. It’s free but there are the necessary security checks.
As if the site, cost and necessity of the monument wasn’t controversial enough, there was something else that really upset people. The concrete slabs were given an anti-graffiti coating manufactured by Degussa, a company that had, in various ways been involved with the persecution of the Jews. A subsidiary company, Degesch, had even been the producer of Zyklon B gas which was used in the Death Camps!
Nevertheless, the memorial was officially opened on May 10th 2005 and has been visited by millions of people since.This free open-air museum prohibits smoking, drinking and noisy behaviour – but you try telling that to the coach loads of school kids who use it for playing ‘hide and seek’ – and if you wander through the blocks in the hours of darkness make sure your heart’s in good condition.
As you can probably gather, I don’t regard this memorial as one of Berlin’s highlights, but I can fully understand how Berliners want to heal old wounds the best way they can. For me though, I’m not happy with the design, and I think it might have been better for a memorial of this kind to be in a different location – and to use a company that had associations with the holocaust, the least said about that the better.
In the end though it doesn’t matter what I think, because if you’re in Berlin you’ll inevitably come across it as it’s situated between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz and you’ll be able to make up your own mind, and if you do, please let me know what you think.