Berlin Holocaust Memorial - Feature

In a Field of Concrete

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photography Pete Heck

I had seen pictures of it before, and never really understood the point. I couldn’t see how a field of organized concrete slabs could in any way stand in worthy memorial of the millions of murdered Jews in Europe.

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Pete and I took separate paths and wound our way through the dense plot. I wandered slowly around the slabs, taking no specific route, stopping to snap photos and savour quiet moments when possible. Most often, I was trying to dodge the field of view of other cameras and the two little boys who ran between the columns, joyously giggling.

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“According to Eisenman’s project text, the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” (Source)

It was disorienting. The landscape of uneven floors and tilted slabs made me stumble at times, unaware of what my feet were doing when I also didn’t know where to focus my sight. Most distracting was the way the veiled sun lit all rows towards the ends –  appearing as a bright ray of hope to an outside world. It made me think of the cruelty of hope in the sight of a doomed fate, the Jews having been stripped of the simple freedom to walk towards the light as I did on that day.

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Tears were at their brim. I was shocked by my own raw emotions from having walked through a seemingly unimpressionable maze. In reality, nothing ever can or will adequately represent such devastation, especially to those of us who are so removed from that past, but this left a sincere mark. For that, I was glad.

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  1. Hi Dalene, I’m a new reader and could not click away without commenting. What a well written post and excellent photographs. I particularly like pic #3 of the uneven ground and accompanying paragraph. Thanks for bringing attention to such an important memorial.

    1. Thank you so much Danielle. Truth is that I don’t think the words and pictures even adequately describe the feeling of being there. It definitely has to be experienced.

  2. I am @ a lose for words. I have never heard of this & it made me nauseous to read what it signifies. “To see the light @ the end of the rows”, gave me an overwhelming feeling of loss but “hope” @ the same time.

    1. Of course Germany has memorials and such scattered all over the country, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. I’m not sure how I’ll handle the rest of them when we finally see them.

  3. Well said and your photos capture the stark intensity of the memorial. I visited there last year and was extremely moved by it. I think it is a brilliant design that makes a statement and leaves a mark on visitors.

  4. Did you visit the museum underneath the memorial? I haven’t been able to withstand more than 20 minutes in the museum at a time…

    Beautiful photos of a very important and very unique memorial.

    1. We didn’t. Honestly, we didn’t even know about it until later. Which is probably a good thing. I have to take this all in small doses, will save that for our next visit.

  5. Dalene, as Adam writes above, the museum underneath is devastating in its own way, but I think the folks have done a good job collecting memories and timelines of people, so that their names still live on. I love how your photographs reveal that unease, underneath the feet, the stelae which rise and undulate, and feelings of claustrophobia.

  6. I didn’t realize there is a museum beneath the memorial. You’re right – words and photos can hardly do it justice. I felt so many things seeing the memorial, but I was especially disheartened to see people climb on top of the slabs. It just felt disrespectful.

    1. That is completely disrespectful, I’m glad I didn’t see that. What I was also glad for, in a city full of graffiti, is that the memorial has been left alone in that regard. That shows some respect!

  7. Two years ago I met a solo German woman traveller in Turkey. We started talking about the second world war and it turned out her grandfather was a member of the SS. Everything she said was really interesting but what stood out was her pure embarrassment. I questioned her on this and she said her generation were embarrassed and upset of the legacy that their ancestors left them.

    They understand that life was different and there was nothing like the internet to educate people but what they could not understand was how that generation could willing participate in mass murder.

    I asked at what point will they feel that they no longer have to apologise for their ancestors?

    Her answer was that whenever someone says “German” , in a word association likeness the first thought that springs to mind is “Jew”. Even if future generations of Germans do manage to stop the feeling of guilt because of their ancestors, the world will never forget what they did and their national identity is firmly connected with the holocaust.

    It was really interesting getting an insight into her life and kind of sad as well.

    1. Thanks for sharing that Nat. On our first trip to Germany, I was surprised when a friend told me about the national embarrassment as well. I guess I just never imagined that people would still deeply feel that way so many years later, it’s not like any of us could expect the generations since to hold responsibility. Our friend even told us that it is the reason you don’t often see the German flag flying.

      I do find it quite sad as well.

      1. It’s for this reason that when black-red-and-gold flags started appearing in droves as Germany hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2006, some were pleasantly and genuinely surprised by the outpouring of feelings and emotions: that it was okay to be patriotic, that it was okay to *be* German. Many of my friends in Germany waved both Germany and Turkey flags rather proudly. 🙂

  8. Beautifully written! I have never visited this memorial while in Berlin but I have visited the Jewish museum which also has a few eerie and though provoking spots. I feel the German’s pay close attention to their history and in teaching others and theirselves about it so it doesn’t get repeated.

    1. Thanks Alexandra! And I think you’re right, they do pay close attention – and that’s all we can really ask of these generations right? I hate to think of them feeling guilty for it, and just appreciate that respect and attention is paid.

  9. Reading about this memorial (and seeing great photos of it) always nearly gives me chills. I’d like to visit it myself at some point this summer, but have a feeling I’ll have a difficult time keeping the tears in check.

  10. I’ve never heard of this one, but it sounds really interesting. I’ve learned a lot more about Germany’s WWII history from living here and in the integration course I had to take, and it’s so emotional to see and hear about.

  11. I also had an overwhelming feeling at the Holocaust when I realized that the steles, which had been about waist high were suddenly towering over my head. It made he think about how real-world circumstances can get out of hand so quickly. I love the gay holocaust memorial right across the street in Tiergarten. And the last time I was there the new Gypsy holocaust memorial was open near the Reichstag. I love what they’ve done with these memorials.

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