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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Updated: Jun 10, 2023


Photo of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin

The Location and Background


In 1988 - 50 years after Kristallnacht or the "night of broken glass" - a design competition was announced for what would be a Jewish Museum to be constructed in West Berlin. The momentum had been building up for such a museum and this gave way for larger discussions of a memorial to the genocide of European Jews.


On August 25th 1989 thanks to the efforts of Lea Rosh and other prominent authors and tv personalities the organization for the Mahnmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe) was founded. Roughly 3 years later in March 1992 the government approved for the construction of such a memorial and 1 month later decided on the location in the former “Death-Strip” near the Brandenburg Gate.


Thus these 5 acres of prime real-estate next to the Gate, would be reserved for a yet unknown memorial. In 1994 an international design competition was organized which had roughly 528 entries and ranged widely in creativity. One of these for example was from Horst Hoheisel, who proposed blowing up the Brandenburg Gate in a kind of ceremony to make Germans suffer. Another was from Berlin based Stih and Schnock who proposed constructing bus-stops that would in fact be functional and bring visitors to WWII related sights across Germany and Europe.


First Design in 1994


In the end though a design by Berlin Christine Jacob-Marks and by Simon Ungers was chosen with mostly Marks' design in place.


It was to be a gigantic gravestone about 92-metre across and 7-metre-thick , tilted at an angle from 2 meters on one end to 7.5 meters at its highest on the other. The memorial would be engraved with the roughly 4.5 million known names of Holocaust victims, be scattered with stones as per Jewish tradition (markers left by visitors), and have 18 boulders from Masada placed inside. The 15-member committee - of only Germans with none having Jewish backgrounds - decided on the design that was within hours so severely critiqued that it took only days for Chancellor Kohl and the Bundestag to publicly reject it, himself claiming it “too big and undignified.”


Critiques came from many sides and groups. One was the use of boulders from Masada, a site where Jews committed suicide rather than be captured by Romans in 73 C.E. Another was excluding the unknown names of victims and another was a memorial having Jewish cemetery traditions at a location that is not a cemetery or even relevant to the Holocaust. In reaction to this, between 1994 and 1996 several debates took place which attempted to solidify the purpose of the project and set goals in place. Eventually a small Findungskommission ("finding's commission") was created which would at its outset set a conceptual plan for the memorial.


James E. Young - the only foreigner with a Jewish background in the commission had this to say of the commission's task:

...this would not be an aesthetic debate over how to depict horror. The Holocaust, after all, was not merely the annihilation of nearly 6 million Jews [...] but also the extirpation of a thousand-year-old civilization from the heart of Europe. Any conception of the Holocaust that reduced it to the '38 horror of destruction alone ignored the stupendous loss and void left behind. The tragedy of the Holocaust is not merely that people died so terribly but that so much was irreplaceably lost. An appropriate memorial design would acknowledge the void left behind and not concentrate on the memory of terror and destruction alone. What was lost needs to be remembered as much as how it was lost.

Peter Eisenman and Richard Serra's Design


After opening the memorial to new design, in November 1997 a new design from Richard Serra and Peter Eisenman’s was chosen by the commission. This memorial, to quote James E. Young again:


...rather than pretending to answer Germany's memorial problem in a single, reassuring form, this design proposed multiple, collected forms arranged so that visitors have to find their own path to the memory of Europe’s murdered Jews. As such, this memorial provided not an answer to memory but an ongoing process, a continuing question without a certain solution. Part of what Eisenman called Unhemlichkeit [...] derived precisely from the sense of danger generated in such a field, the demand that we now find our own way into and out of such memory. [...] it demanded that visitors enter the memorial space and not try to vicariously through their snapshots. What would be remembered here are not the photographic images but the visitor’s actual experiences and what they remembered in situ.

Practical discussions on the design began shortly thereafter and in 1998 Serra and Eisenman were asked to make a handful of changes to make the memorial more accommodating to visitors and also pedagogically inclined. Serra, although he never publicly stated this, backed out of the project and Eisenman carried through with the remainder of the changes. Later in the year the Bundestag approved of the redesigned field of Stelae and “Ort der Information” underground and in 2000 the project had a budget and projection date for completion, though construction wouldn’t begin until April 2003.


On May 10th 2005 a ceremony including the Chancellor, President, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, among others opened the Memorial which on the following day opened to the public. Then as now the memorial was made up of 2,711 concrete slabs, or "stelae," arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. The stelae are of different heights, with the tallest being a little over 4 meters and the shortest being just a few centimeters tall. There are no fences, no large signs, and although rules are posted they are entirely inconspicuous.


Visitors are welcomed to explore the space of the memorial at their own pace, from end to end unobstructed and undisturbed from any influences that may push an interpretation.


Final Thoughts


Most of the guiding community and myself, who have visited the memorial thousands of times, are advocates of the design and the abruptness it brings to the center of town. And irrespective of that, the location and size alone mean it will forever tear into the German capital and prevent any future generations or governments from revisionism.


Surrounded by new and modern buildings all constructed after the fall of the Wall, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe stands as a bulwark to the inevitably of what the present and future always condition us to do: forget.








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