You are standing in a maze of graves. Fifteen-foot tall steel tombs surround you in every direction and you can no longer find your way out. This sea of industrialized death is 5 acres of ugly anxiety educing confusion. It makes no sense, yet there is something so eerily and unreasonably systematic about this grid of graves. It is almost as if this pattern of destruction was planned.
Am I talking about a horrible nightmare? No, and at the same time an outstanding yes. I have just described the Holocaust Memorial found in Berlin just south of the Brandenburg Gate. This controversial memorial is dedicated by Berlin to the millions of Jewish people who were murdered in the Holocaust.
This memorial might get a lot of criticism from other onlookers, but I thought it was a brilliant and poignant representation of what happened in Germany over 65 years ago. The memorial is literally a giant 5-acre section of the city in which they have constructed a grid of 2,711 steal rectangular slabs of varying height. The architect, Peter Eisenman, didn’t give much of an explanation for the design. Rather, he wanted each person to come up with his or her own interpretation. This is mine.
The slabs of ugly concrete represent loss- unmarked tombs of stolen generations. There are more than you can count, and when you look across the giant block of ugly, impersonal and industrialized nothingness the shear enormity of the memorials makes your blood run cold.
The memorial was built on a slope. This creates the initial illusion that all of the steel graves are the same size. I think this symbolizes how little the world, including many Germans, knew about the monstrosity that was the Holocaust. Most of what was known was only the surface level until it was too late.
When you get closer, the tombs on the perimeter are only an inch high, and as you walk towards the center they gradually get taller and taller. The symbolism here is particularly chilling. A systematized murder of 11 million innocent people did not happen overnight. It was a gradual slope. It started small, with propaganda and indoctrination and the “simple” practice of wearing a golden star. However, once you start going down that path you realize that the death has mounted up around you. What was once at your ankles is now at your knees. You are searching for a way out, but the grotesque train of genocide lead by an insane dictator has started and the powers at large will not be slowed now.
Suddenly you look up and the graves are now taller than you and stretch in every direction. You can no longer see anything other than giant ugly steel slabs of symbolic death and annihilation. A series of screaming questions run across your mind. Why didn’t anyone stop this? How did they let this happen? Why didn’t anyone say anything when the graves were only ankle high? Is not even one death worth standing up for? How did it get to this point?
The death toll was not in the thousands, but the millions. You look across this seemingly endless grid of graves. The magnitude suddenly makes it hard to breath especially when you realize that every single grave represents the death of about 4,000 innocent lives. This gives new meaning to 11 million, a number I cannot truly comprehend. This whole field would have to be multiplied by 4,000 for it to be a true representation of how many suffered and died. I felt a sense of hopelessness when I stood in the middle of this sea of systematized extermination that was so completely detached from any human reason or emotion. I think of the German people who were not evil but did not stand up and fight for their innocent countrymen and I am reminded by a quote from German Albert Einstein,“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”