Political Culture

Steles in the Heart of Berlin – Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

In May 2005 a memorial was dedicated in Berlin to honor the Jews of Europe murdered in the Holocaust. It takes the form of an open-air field of 2,711 gray concrete steles that visitors can walk amongst. It is a memorial that quite intentionally refrains from imposing a clearly ‘readable’ symbolic statement. Those who come here are given space for their own personal reflections; the sculptural monument invites these mediations day and night – it is always open.

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Author: Andreas Hewel
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According to public affairs journalist Lea Rosh, it was a visit to Yad Vashem the Holocaust memorial in Israel, that provided the impetus for the idea, developed together with historian Eberhard Jäckel, of creating a memorial in Germany to Europe’s murdered Jews. There were already museums and memorial sites at some of the scenes of the atrocities, former concentration camps such as Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Dachau.

But a public memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe in its own right did not exist. That was 1988. From then on Lea Rosh fought to see the project realized. In August 1988 she first publicly stated her demand during a panel discussion. This was followed in January 1989 by a public appeal for the erection of a central Holocaust memorial. Rosh received support from such prominent citizens as former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, author Günter Grass and playwright Heiner Müller. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the reunification of the two German states a year later overshadowed the project temporarily, but also opened up an unexpected opportunity.

In the center of Berlin, where the no-man’s land of the Wall had snaked through, the federal government designated a public space to be used for the planned memorial. The site is located right where the Nazi dictatorship’s hub of power had been, in direct proximity to Hitler’s former Chancellery of the Reich. Although the location was now decided, opinion was sharply divided over the form the memorial should take. How could one find an adequate representation in the face of six million murdered Jews? The creation of such a memorial seemed a prohibitively daunting undertaking. An initial international call for tenders drew 528 submissions, but none of the proposals found consensus acceptance. So, in 1997, a second call went out for design proposals, and this time the submission of New York architect Peter Eisenman prevailed. On June 25th 1999, after more than ten years of discussion, the Bundestag finally settled on Eisenman’s field of steles, with one small proviso: The abstract sculptural memorial would be joined by an accompanying space for information; a Holocaust exhibition.

After a long test phase in which the design of the steles was refined, construction finally started in August 2003. But just two months later construction was suddenly called to a halt. This was due to the participation of the chemicals company Degussa, suppliers of an anti-graffiti protective coating for the steles. Degussa has a heavy blight on its past: It was a Degussa subsidiary Degesch that during the Third Reich produced Zyklon B, the deadly cyanide gas used in the concentration camp gas chambers to murder Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis. For a time, the entire construction was threatened with demolition, but because Degussa has for decades made substantial efforts to face up to its own past – not least by participating in a compensation fund for Nazi-era slave laborers – it was decided, in November 2003, that construction should be allowed to continue. Thus the memorial had taken the last and most difficult hurdle on its way to construction. On May 10th 2005 the memorial was officially inaugurated.
Goethe-Institut e. V. 2005
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