If one was not aware of what The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe symbolized, it would be entirely possible to walk past the memorial without giving it more than a puzzled glance. Peter Eisenman’s creation is a series of plain gray blocks, set on a plain gray brick path – a memorial in name rather than content. However, if one is burdened with the knowledge of what this memorial stands for, it becomes extraordinarily haunting. The children hopping around on the blocks, playing and screeching, becomes almost grotesque. People of all ages assuming silly poses on the tops of the gray cubes become almost sickening.
I descended into the memorial knowing exactly what it stood for, and in this, I was left with an impression that made my hair stand on end. I started on one side, moving forward into the memorial. As I walked, the blocks rose higher and higher, until they reached far over my head. It was almost as if I was drowning, as if the tops of the blocks were the surface level of water. As I walked further, the water reached over my head until I was completely engulfed. The lanes were narrow and undulating, crisscrossing in a grid-like pattern throughout the memorial. This feature, especially, left the most intense impression. As I walked through the memorial, people appeared suddenly in my lane, almost out of nowhere; and before I could speak or move, they would disappear again. They were ghosts, drifting through the memorial. To me, it seemed as though the architect were designing a little glimpse of the concentration camp. One was confined in the blocks as the prisoners were confined to a camp. Others would sometimes appear in the camp, but they soon enough disappeared without a trace.
Off to my left, suddenly, I heard children scream. Their laughter and the following voices told me they were playing hide-and-seek with their father, who found them amidst the blocks. I felt a shiver run down my spine at the screams; I knew it was all in good fun, but in the setting, the screams were distorted into the screams of Jews caught by the SS, of those suffering in the concentration camps. My blindness to their game, trapped as I was inside my own little narrow lane, only strengthened that impression.
Disturbing as the memorial was, Eisenman’s architectural design left room for hope. As he designed the blocks on a gridded scale, one could gaze down their lane and see the outside world far, far outside. It was a light at the end of the tunnel, a hope that if one persevered, the outside world was there, waiting. A hope that one day, the water would recede, the walls would come down, and one would once again be free.
Eisenman’s design for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews was puzzling, to say the least. It bore no adornments, no haunting pictures of mass graves or gas chambers. Yet, in its simplicity, it was more haunting than any photograph or inscription. One walked into the memorial and faced nearly nothing, and in that, one was forced to confront the bleak reality of persecution against the Jews; for even if it is viewed on the most superficial level, Eisenman’s memorial leaves an eerie impression that the viewer carries with them long after leaving. Even as I emerged from the blocks and met once again with my group, I carried a new heaviness with me that, even now, has not yet left.
Last week while I was in Paris, I visited two separate memorials that honor the survivors and victims of the Holocaust. The first was inaugurated in 1962 and the second was created in 2005. Thus, the memorials are quite different in their tribute to and presentation of the atrocities associated with the concentration camps. Yet, I found that these differences are symbolic of France’s continual attempts to reconcile the deeds of their past with the attitudes of the modern Frenchman.
The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation commemorates the 200,000 French citizens who were deported by the Vichy government to German concentrations camps during the Second World War. Located on the site of a former morgue and situated just behind Notre Dame, Charles De Gaulle inaugurated the memorial in 1962 as a dedication to the French deportees. Although the memorial was keenly designed to symbolically represent and pay homage to the atrocities that occurred within the camps, the site is criticized for its refusal to award the French Jewish deportees special status even though they comprised the majority of the deportees. Instead, the only reference to the Jewish population appears in the shape of the ceiling of the crypt which represents the six points of the Star of David. However, this slight against the French Jewish population is emblematic of the 1960 French attitude concerning France’s role in the mistreatment of Europe’s Jewish population. At this time, the French government, especially De Gaulle placed greater emphasis on French forces of resistance than collaboration even though he knew that such resistance was in fact a myth. In the end, it took half a century for the French government and people to acknowledge and come to terms with France’s anti-Semitic practices during the Second World War.
In contrast, the Mémorial de la Shoah is an apt representation of the change in French thinking that occurred after President Jacques Chirac publically apologized for France’s role in the deportations on July 16, 1995. Accordingly, the memorial overtly recognizes and pays tribute to the victims of France’s deportations during the Second World War. Created in 2005, the memorial is the largest Holocaust information center in Europe and was created with the hope that the presentation of this information will continue the fight against racism and intolerance. From the start, the memorial acknowledges the deportees through the Memorial of the Wall of Names which honors the 76,000 Jewish men, women, and children deported from France between the years 1942 and 1944. As I continued through the memorial, I was particularly touched by the memorial’s balance in presenting the collective history of the Holocaust and the individual stories as well. Such an approach presents a unique presentation of the Holocaust in that it does not downplay the uniformity associated with the mass slaughter of the European Jewish population, but also recognizes that each prisoner’s chance for survival was uniquely his or her own.
Today our group travelled about 35 minutes out of Berlin to Wannsee. Driving down the road I could tell the area was a popular vacation spot from the multiple marinas dotting the roadside and the overall beauty of the area. Our bus pulled up in front of an iron gate that guarded the classic turn of the century former vacation home of a prominent German businessman. The house was later sold and purchased by the SS as a retreat for the officers. SS members would come to the house during the war to relax and toast to their accomplishments in cleansing the society. It was very beautiful house with a very dark past.
In January of 1942, the serene vacation home overlooking the lake and surrounded by purple flowered bushes held a meeting of top Nazi officials. Inside the walls of the home, these men of terror plotted the systematic murder of millions of Jews, Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, and political opponents. The Wannsee Conference outlined the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Some of the attendees of the conference included Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann, Erich Neumann, and Martin Luther. Heydrich outlined his plan for the deportation of the Jews to Poland and how to murder them in the most efficient fashion.
There were conflicting feelings surrounding the house because it was in such a beautiful area and overlooked an amazing landscape and yet such a dark and ugly event took place there. I could hear their leather boots march against the wooden floors as the Nazi officials walked into their proceedings. It was definitely an area where I could feel the history alive in the building.
After the tour guide took us through the whole house, Becky Calvin gave her talk about the Final Solution and the Wannsee Conference. At the end, she read a poem written by a Jew living in a polish ghetto. It was such a moving piece of writing that she began crying. At that moment, I saw how the evil of these men could still effect people today. The horrors that happened during the holocaust shock any person, either Jew or Gentile.
However, today the flowers continued to bloom, the sun still shined, the birds kept chirping, and the world still turned. Life has continued on since the Nazi regime and WWII and yet we all as a human race must face the open wounds of mass genocide.
The Holocaust is easily one of the worst atrocities committed in world history. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party promoted and encouraged severe racism against people who did not belong to the Aryan race. Large concentrations camps worked people to death and death camps such as Auschwitz murdered people immediately upon arrival. Around six million Jews suffered and died under the Nazi regime along with millions of Poles, Romani, and Russians. Homosexuals, the handicapped, and Communists also suffered from targeted violence by the Nazis. Overall, scholars estimate that around eleven million people died during the Holocaust. While the Holocaust is a revolting and terrible part of History to learn about, it is also intriguing to discover how different countries treat the Holocaust.
I never realized the role the Vichy government played in the Holocaust until I visited the Memorial de la Shoah. I knew that the Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis, but I believed that only the Nazis participated in the Holocaust. Various displays proved me wrong and explained that the Vichy regime willingly participated in the German attack against Jews. In fact, Vichy authorities rounded up Jewish children to send to concentration camps when the Germans did not ask for children. The Memorial de la Shoah is very honest about France’s role in the persecution of Jews and it does not try to hide the facts. A sign at the entrance to the museum part of the memorial explains that the French need to acknowledge and realize the terrible atrocity the French committed by helping the Nazis with what Hitler called the “Final Solution.” It also states that the French apologize for their actions and that they will never forget the lives of those who were lost in order to make sure such a travesty never occurs again.
In the room next to this sign is the memorial with a large black Star of David. In the middle of the Star of David is an eternal flame to commemorate those who were murdered. I truly felt like the memorial showed how ashamed the French are to have participated in the Holocaust. It is a dark chapter in French history, but the Memorial de la Shoah ensures that this chapter is not forgotten. I felt like the apology to those who suffered during the Holocaust was sincere and heartfelt. I cannot say whether all French people acknowledge the Vichy government’s role in the persecution of Jews during World War II, but the Memorial de la Shoah does a wonderful job showing that there are some French people who realize France’s participation in the Holocaust and that they want to apologize for the actions of the Vichy government.
Pictures were not allowed at the Memorial de la Shoah so I have included pictures of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Today was one of the rare days when I woke up and it wasn’t raining outside….yet. I missed breakfast and arrived downstairs just in time to get coffee (which was my number one priority because I was extremely tired). The first coffee machine that I tried to use was broken so I moved onto the one next to it. An elderly German man came up next to me and tried to use the broken machine so I explained to him in my best attempt at German that the machine was broken. He smiled, thanked me, and of course realizing immediately that I was American, told me in English that he hoped I had a beautiful day in Berlin.
I returned the smile, wished him the same, and walked away knowing that I was actually about to experience my hardest day in Berlin because today was our planned visit to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
Sachsenhausen was established in 1936 and was in operation until 1945 when it was liberated by the Allies. It was initially a labor camp, not a death camp, but gas chambers were added to the camp in 1943 to facilitate the extermination of the ‘inferior races’ that were conquered by the Germans. The site is now a memorial and museum and is used to educate visitors on the concentration camp system.
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is about a 20 minute walk from the Oranienburg train station. To get to the camp, we took the same walk as the inmates when they first arrived at the camp. After walking through the modest SS quarters, visitors enter the walled-in camp compound through gates that read “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The compound is expansive and still has many of features of the camp that remained seemingly untouched including several barracks, guard towers, portions of the barbed wire fences surrounding the complex, the infirmary, a prison, and the latrine. The entire compound gave off a very haunting feel. It was very easy to imagine the emaciated inmates standing unmoving in the roll call area or waiting in line to get into the ghastly and insufficient infirmary. All of these elements together made me feel very uneasy, which is to be expected in a place with such a horrible history.
Many of the buildings in the camp have been converted into museums on the inside. I’m not sure if this feature enhanced or hindered my experience. Part of me thinks the camp should have been left as it was to preserve the real camp experience, rather than an experience shaped around the items and stories that were chosen for the museum. The site should be allowed to speak for itself.
The one modification that I approved of without question was the massive memorial to the murdered inmates that rises above the expanse of flat land that makes up the compound. The dead deserved something impressive, and that is what they got. The memorial insures that those who were tortured and killed at Sachsenhausen will not be forgotten.
This last Tumblr post is a somber post, but a necessary one to write. On Monday the group took a bus ride to the Wannsee Conference house, and had a guided tour. The German historian giving the tour was very knowledgable and engaging. He stressed that anti-semitism was common in Germany during the Weimar Republic, and that it was not unique to the Nazi Party. He told the group that the “Final Solution” was only planned at the Wannsee Conference, and that the idea of mass extermination was always the Nazi’s plan. The Wannsee Conference was held at a beautiful lakeside villa. It seemed strange to think that such an evil deed was planned in such a beautiful location. The next day the group went to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. It was intense to walk the grounds of such an evil place. The audio guide for the Sachsenhausen tour went into great detail about the daily lives of the prisoners, and the treatment they received. Stepping into the camp, and seeing the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” on the gate was chilling. The audio guide explained the importance of roll call, and revealed the harsh treatment the prisoners would receive if one of them was not present. The barracks that housed the prisoners revealed the wooden “bunk beds” that would sleep five to ten men on one wooden slab. I have read and seen pictures of these barracks, but seeing them first hand did not compare to the photographs. The camp prison was very harsh particularly the description of solitary confinement. The gallows were in the middle of camp, and the hangings of prisoners occurred during roll call. This was to dissuade the prisoners from escape attempts or internal resistance movements. The audio guide revealed one daring escape of a prisoner who managed to convince a guard to escape with him. They both made it to France, and surrendered to the Allies. Sadly, stories like this were one in ten thousands. The gas chamber and execution wing of the camp were difficult to see, and even harder to comprehend. I could not grasp that people would do this to others, and I do not think I ever will. The camp was upsetting, but learning the role of the townspeople shocked me. The townspeople knew what Sachsenhausen was, and often saw the men march to the camp through the center of town. They were encouraged to throw things at them, and yell slurs at them. I feel that was the most heartbreaking realization of the trip. The support of the German people I still can not accept. Many Germans used
the excuse, “I wasn’t aware of what was going on.” I do not accept this. There were tens of thousands of people marched into Sachenhausen that never came out. Over 500,000 forced labor workers entered Berlin in 1941, and no one knew what was going on? It is a hard realization to learn, but a necessary one to ensure atrocities like these do not happen again.
Well, my time abroad is nearing it’s end. It seems like the days have really flown by and blended together. It’s hard to believe that’s almost over. Over the past month, I have been able to take in and be a part of several different cultures and lifestyles. Along with that, I have also seen how the three respective countries I’ve visited (England, France, and Germany) have dealt with their history and how each has presented it in a slightly different way.
The British seemed to embrace a more global approach to World War Two. They are certainly proud of their accomplishments and what they did during the war, but at the same time, they seemed to acknowledge more than any other nation the role that the Allies as a collective played in defeating the Axis. This perspective was a refreshing one, given the usual focus a nation puts squarely on itself and the achievements its people accomplished during the war.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the French take on their history might be one of the most nation-focused viewpoints I’ve ever seen, specifically in Paris. To me, it seemed that in just about every French museum I visited the French were over-playing what they had accomplished during World War Two. Throughout the different exhibits, the French tried to talk as much as they could about the resistance movements that supposedly took place all throughout the war and were taken part in by thousands of French citizens. While the French did acknowledge their involvement with the Nazi’s through the formation of the Vichy regime, it didn’t seem like they focused on that as much as they maybe should have, given how prevalent an event it was in their history. From my perspective, the French did not really do that much in World War Two, so it was a bit surprising to see them touting their achievements like they did. There was very little mention of the American soldiers who helped to liberate Paris. The focus instead was almost entirely on the French Second Armored Division and their role in the liberation. Even though I’m naturally biased, it still felt a little disrespectful to see almost no mention of the American contributions to the liberation. While their were certainly memorials and museums in Paris that did acknowledge French shortcomings, (the Memorial to the Martyrs of Deportation comes to mind), the overall approach to their history by the French left me wanting more.
The last view on history that I encountered was the German’s view on their history. Out of all of the countries, I feel like I appreciate Germany’s approach the most of the three. What really struck me when visiting German memorials and museums, like the Topography of Terror Museum, was the bluntness of how they approached the topic. The Germans are trying very hard to recognize their past, and it shows in their museums. The displays discuss nearly every facet of the Nazis, no matter how gruesome or horrible they might be. It is nice to see a country truly embrace their past and try to learn from it as best they can, a practice that should be used by more countries elsewhere around the world. This trip has been an incredible experience, and has really opened my eyes to the world around and the viewpoints of different societies.