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Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

December 19, 2007

Photo by Joe Puglisi

After wandering around Berlin all day my three travel partners and I were mentally and physically exhausted. Our bus from Prague left at midnight and dropped us off on the outer periphery of West Berlin at 5 am at the beginning of a cold November day.

We saw many things that day. We watched the sun rise over the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, spent a few hours at the Checkpoint Charlie museum, and drank hot chocolate at an outdoor Christmas market at Potzdamer Platz. Through our whirlwind tour of the city I could feel that Berlin’s history was a troubled one that weighed down heavily upon its present. Despite its distressed past, I noticed that Berlin was turning into a bright and modern European city with construction and development happening on nearly every block.

By the time we could check in to our hostel at 2 pm we were worn out and wanted to do nothing but sleep. As we wandered wearily back to our hostel’s neighborhood with visions of soft beds dancing in our heads we happened upon a great open field of stone that took over an entire square block in the center of Berlin just south of the Brandenburg Gate.

Even though my tired mind just told me to keep walking, something drew me closer to find out what these large rectangles made of what looked like granite were exactly. My friends protested, but I insisted that we explore this curious field.

I watched a television special about traveling in Berlin this summer before I left on my own adventures. In the back of my mind I vaguely remembered that Berlin had a very unique Holocaust memorial and something told me that I had wandered upon it here just by chance even though I could not see any visible markers describing what these stones represented.

From the street level this memorial looks like it is built upon a flat surface with thousands of rectangular slabs of black glassy granite spaced closely next to each other. One of the first thoughts that struck me about it was that it looked like a large cemetery because the stones were shaped eerily like coffins. From far away it looks like most of the slabs are no taller than three feet tall.

But this was all a visual illusion.

As I wandered into the field of stone I realized that the ground dipped down and the slabs were all stood at a variety of heights. The stones were spaced only about two to three feet apart so it was necessary to walk in a single file line through the labyrinthine. The first few rows of rock were no taller than me, yet the ground headed downhill more and the stones grew higher and higher until they were three times my height.

As I turned each corner I feared that I would run into another curious explorer of this maze because the stones were so close together and seeing over them was impossible because they were at least 15 feet tall at certain points.

I had never seen a memorial quite like this before. The only other monument that I had visited that vaguely reminded me of this one is the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C. While they are not terribly similar in design, the Berlin memorial reminded me of the D.C. memorial because they are both made of cool, dark stone that is built upon a sloped piece of ground. Also a generally somber atmosphere pervades both of them.

Many other people were inside adventuring around the maze but I felt if I was alone. Everyone I passed was very quiet and contemplative. I was shocked into silence because I was still trying to figure out what this was and was surprised by what I had wandered into. I was enthralled with the height of the stones that I had assumed were no taller than me.

The day was cold and cloudy and the stones had accumulated enough condensation that beads of dew clung to the sides of each tall stone we passed. People had taken the time to draw their names and designs with their fingers on the dewy walls. Our coats got wet as we brushed into the stones as we made our way through the narrow spaces between each slab of rock.

Within the memorial the ground undulated up and down as if an earthquake had caused a rippling of the pavement we walked upon. As we neared the street the ground headed uphill and the stones got shorter again until there was just once slab at the very corner that was no more than a few centimeters tall.

The rest of our walk to our hostel that day revolved around what this maze of stone was. We had seen quite a few important monuments that day, but this memorial stuck in our minds the most because of the incredible surprise it held in its center, as well as its sheer size and the wonder it instilled in us.

An architect from New York named Peter Eisenmann designed this vast grid of 2711 rectangular blocks made of concrete to commemorate the six million victims of the Nazi genocide of European Jews during World War II.

The field of rectangles is officially called the Field of Stelae, but most people just call this place the Holocaust Memorial.

The Holocaust Memorial took 17 years of discussion, planning and construction to complete. It finally opened in May 2005 after construction began in 2003. The slabs rest on a sloping and undulating field that is 19,000 square meters (about the size of an American football field) large.

It was created to emulate a giant cemetery like I had thought. It was conceived to be this way so that people could make their own journey through the blocks on their own time to contemplate the design, touch the stone, and watch how light and shadow played between the stones.

My journey through the blocks began at the south-western corner and ended at the north-eastern corner. I didn’t see this, but according to the website, 41 trees (including pine, linden, and Kentucky coffee trees) were planted in various spots along the western side of the memorial to create a smooth transition from the stone memorial into the Tiergarten Park that is across the street from the memorial.

Although I assumed the blocks were granite, they are in fact just simple concrete. Each slab is 0.95 cm deep and 2.38 m wide. The only variation is each of the stone’s height. According to the memorial’s website the field “represents a radical confrontation with the traditional concept of a memorial.”

The architect said in a 1998 interview about the memorial that, “The enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate … We can only know the past today through a manifestation in the present.” I believe that he was successful in achieving this with his wholly unique and modern memorial.

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