Story and photos by Leah Packer
In the heart of Berlin’s Brandenberg district, you will inevitably stumble across ‘randomly’ placed stelae that seem to serve solely as public art. These concrete stelae dominate the public space — their maze-like structure an invitation for games of hide-and-seek. Their smooth texture and flat surfaces provide an ideal place for picnics. As you appreciate the minimalist nature of the structure, you overhear a conversation that brings you to a realization:
The 2,711 grey concrete slabs are, in fact, a memorial to the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust during World War II: Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Looking at the slabs of concrete, you raise an eyebrow. You wonder, how could these plain, concrete blocks symbolize six million people?
At first glance, these concrete stelae are nothing more than public art. However, they have a much deeper meaning attached.
Berlin is recognized as one of the most historically charged cities with its role in WWII and the Cold War. More specifically, its name evokes one atrocity: The Holocaust, notable for the six million Jews exterminated at the hands of the Nazi regime. As a result of Germany’s role in the irrevocable damage during the 20th century, it has continued to pay reparations to survivors through today in the form of financial payments.
Berlin’s artistic image flourished in the 90s after the fall of the wall. Its name became synonymous with creativity and freedom, and the city itself became a hub for artists of all forms, such as graffiti and physical installations. While I believe appreciating the artistic influence of these memorials isn’t harmful, it is vital to remember they do not serve that distinct purpose.
In 2019, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Berlin, taking classes on the history of the city as well as delving deeper into the Holocaust and its intricacies. In my Holocaust Studies class, we analyzed the role of memorials, specifically focusing on structures developed by architect Peter Eisenman. As I sat in class, the discussion brought me back to my first time visiting the memorial on a family vacation in 2017 as an unknowing tourist with an appreciative eye for its simplistic nature. We were on a scheduled tour with a guide, a woman whose knowledge of the memorial extended beyond my own. She told us a little about herself, but many of the details escaped my mind. I expected a further explanation of the memorial, but she simply tasked us with walking through the stelae at our own pace and told us to meet her at the edge of the memorial when twenty minutes had passed.
I walked alone, my neck craning up to look at the grey stelae that stood in stark contrast with a hazy blue sky of the summer; some of them loomed over my small figure as I walked closer to the center. My head twisted and turned and so did my body; my feet silently took me through the memorial with the small taps of my feet filling the cold, crisp air. My eyes flitted up, down and sideways, sometimes catching other people weaving in and out of the rows. They would appear and then disappear, some of them quick enough that when I blinked, I thought my mind was tricking me. As I took my time weaving through, my thoughts had started to wander…
The only way I knew this was a memorial is because of my mom informing us on our tour. Concrete blocks? A memorial? If I didn’t know any better, I would think of this as another public art structure. Those people filtered in and out of my eyesight; it would be a perfect playground for a child’s game of tag. An intense reaction of disgust tugged at my brain as my lip curled.
How does this alternative playground mourn six million people?
Two years later, I was in the Kreuzberg district participating in my Holocaust Studies’ class discussion when I found my thoughts to be correct; tourists are captivated by its minimalist aesthetic, pleasing to the eye, yet they are blind to the reality the stelae represent. With no explicit signage, it is easy to assume its minimalism serves to showcase Berlin’s artistic identity. Eisenman’s vision was to create a space for self-reflection and contemplation, rather than scripting out how visitors should feel at the memorial. My experience was not unique; the silence I described allowed me to reflect on the emotions I felt as I walked through the concrete blocks. While I had an idea of what the blocks represented before my tour, I wasn’t prepared for the progression of emotions that arose. I felt admiration at first, but it slowly trickled into harsh cynicism. My train of thought went from praising the memorial for its “cool” presentation to my current thoughts of how education of the Holocaust is needed at this memorial.
It is easy to be wrapped up in appreciating its sleek concrete designed to preserve its minimalist aesthetic, but art cannot express the events of the Holocaust. These memorials are essential to Germany’s history, and in the face of Berlin’s highly progressive art scene, it is important to remember these art installations do not serve to highlight it. They serve to memorialize victims and their memories.