Monday, May 09, 2005

A Forest of Pillars, Recalling the Unimaginable

The New York Times
May 9, 2005
A Forest of Pillars, Recalling the Unimaginable

BERLIN - In the 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the nation has struggled - painfully and sometimes defensively - to come to terms with its Nazi past. Nowhere has that been more evident than in Berlin, the restored capital, where a vast rebuilding effort has transformed the once-ravaged city center.

The new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenman, is the apotheosis of this soul-searching. A vast grid of 2,711 concrete pillars whose jostling forms seem to be sinking into the earth, it is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust's horrors without stooping to sentimentality - showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion.

The memorial's power lies in its willingness to grapple with the moral ambiguities arising in the Holocaust's shadow. Its focus is on the delicate, almost imperceptible line that separates good and evil, life and death, guilt and innocence.

The location could not be more apt. During the war, this was the administrative locus of Hitler's killing machine. His chancellery building, designed by Albert Speer and since demolished, was a few hundred yards away just to the south; his bunker lies beneath a nearby parking lot.

Covering five and a half acres in the center of Berlin, the memorial, which opens May 10, will be an unavoidable fixture of the city's life - reassuring those who see the Holocaust as a singular marker of human evil while upsetting those who feel that Germany has already spent too much time wallowing in guilt.

By putting to rest the fantasy that the Holocaust can be conveniently relegated to the past, Mr. Eisenman is clearly exploring these tensions. The memorial's grid, for example, can be read as both an extension of the streets that surround the site and an unnerving evocation of the rigid discipline and bureaucratic order that kept the killing machine grinding along. The pillars, meanwhile, are an obvious reference to tombstones.

But the memorial's central theme is the process that allows human beings to accept such evil as part of the normal world - the incremental decisions that collectively lead to the most murderous acts.

There is no way to glean this from photographs; it can be understood only by experiencing the memorial as a physical space. No clear line, for example, divides the site from the city around it. The pillars along its periphery are roughly the height of park benches. A few scattered linden trees sprout between the pillars along the memorial's western edge; at other points, outlines of pillars are etched onto the sidewalk, so that pedestrians can actually step on them as they walk by.

The sense of ambiguity - the concerns of everyday life, a world of unspeakable evil - will only be amplified once the memorial opens to the public. It is not hard to imagine Berliners sitting on the pillars at the memorial's edges, reading books or sunning themselves on a spring afternoon. The day I visited the site, a 2-year-old boy was playing atop the pillars - trying to climb from one to the next as his mother calmly gripped his hand.

These moments speak to one of the Holocaust's most tragic lessons, the ability of human beings to numb themselves to all sorts of suffering - a feeling that only intensifies as you descend into the site. Paved in uneven cobblestones, the ground between the pillars slopes down as you move deeper in.

At first, you retain glimpses of the city. The rows of pillars frame a distant view of the Reichstag's skeletal glass dome. To the west, you can glimpse the canopy of trees in the Tiergarten. Then as you descend further, the views begin to disappear. The sound of gravel crunching under your feet gets more perceptible; the gray pillars, their towering forms tilting unsteadily, become more menacing and oppressive. The effect is intentionally disorienting. You are left alone with memories of life outside - the cheerful child, for example, balanced on the concrete platform.

This is a chilling moment. For me, it evoked Primo Levi's description of the death camps. "To sink is the easiest of matters," he wrote in "Survival in Auschwitz." "It is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp." Only through constant struggle and arbitrary luck was survival possible.

But it is only as you re-emerge from the memorial, rejoining the everyday world, that what you have experienced becomes clear. Mr. Eisenman, the architect, has said that his greatest fear was to sentimentalize the Holocaust. "I don't want people to weep and then walk away with a clear conscience," he explained.

Instead, he leaves you standing on the edge of the abyss. In so doing, he suggests that the parameters of guilt are not so easily defined: it includes those who looked the other way, continued with their work, refused to bear witness. It is true of Americans as well as Germans, Roman Catholic clerics as well as Nazi secretaries.

Our collective responsibility cannot be neatly ignored or packed away. The threat of genocide continues to be a reality in many parts of the world; there are those who still deny the Holocaust or seek to justify Hitler's actions. Despite Mr. Eisenman's objections, for example, the pillars are protected by a graffiti-resistant coating because the government worried that neo-Nazis would try to spray paint them with swastikas. For Mr. Eisenman, graffiti would simply have testified to the memorial's impact. Similarly, Mr. Eisenman's proposal to locate the memorial's information center in Joseph Goebbels's bunker, buried beneath a corner of the memorial, was rejected for fear that it could become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis.

Such anxieties reverberate throughout the memorial. While the memorial is open to myriad interpretations, the information center, which ended up in a more discreet location at the site's eastern edge, is not. It begins with a timeline that lays out the history of the so-called Final Solution, from when the National Socialists took power in 1933 through the murder of 500,000 Soviet Jews in 1941 - numbers, the exhibition text says, that mark the transition to genocide.

The rest of the exhibition is divided into four rooms dedicated to personal aspects of the tragedy - the individual families, the letters thrown from the trains that transported them to the death camps.

Architecturally, the information center's strongest feature is its coffered concrete ceilings, whose undulating surfaces echo the pattern of the pillars and pathways above, so that at moments you feel as if you have entered the graves. But the exhibitions seem literal-minded, as if they were directed at people who cannot find the capacity to believe that the Holocaust occurred.

During the design process, Mr. Eisenman worried that such compromises would detract from the power of his design. But they don't; they only underline it. The quiet abstraction of the memorial - its haunting silence and stark physical presence - psychically weave the Holocaust into our daily existence in a way that the painstaking lists at the information center cannot. It memorializes past sufferings but also forces us to acknowledge that history's relevance today.