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It was just 60 years ago that World War II ended in Europe - shortly after midnight on May 9, 1945.

July 14, 2005 By:
Ralph Collier, JE Feature
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A visitor meanders through Berlin's new Holocaust memorial

It was just 60 years ago that World War II ended in Europe - shortly after midnight on May 9, 1945.

In a sense, it's taken that long for parts of Germany to come to terms with its brutal past, but there are glimmers - in this case, via an exceptional new monument that grapples with history and the Holocaust.

To be sure, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe project had been the subject of a fundamental debate about the historic self-awareness of the Germans at the end of the last century, and from the outset, the process of self-understanding had been fraught with vigorous criticism and conflicting feelings.

The memorial finally opened recently with Peter Eisenman, a New Yorker, as its architect. And it opened in the center of Berlin, the German capital - not on the outskirts, but close to the Brandenburger Gate and the Reichstag Building.

Das Denkmal fur die ermordeten Juden Europa's - "The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" - is deeply impressed with the enormity of the site. It's good to report that remembrance of Nazi crimes is central to the Federal Republic of Germany's self-understanding.

Eisenman, the architect, said in a recent interview that "the enormity and horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate," and that "our memorial attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia."

A Startling Design

The final design is breath-taking - more than 2,000 snow-covered slabs of concrete arranged in a grid pattern; the slabs vary only in height and stand silently, gently, and unevenly on slightly sloping ground.

Tourists are able to enter the site from all four sides and submerge themselves in it, experiencing the wave-like forms differently from each contrasting position.

Berlin today is a live, pulsating destination, and it's fitting that this stark memorial should be part of the cityscape.

Created underneath the memorial, quite appropriately, is an information center to back up the abstract form of remembrance with concrete facts and information about individual victims, and about the precise process by which the Jews of Europe were murdered.

There is a quartet of rooms and different foyer areas. The entrance offers essential information about the murder of Jews in Europe.

In the first room, personal testimonies of the victims are presented in what the architect calls a "contemplative atmosphere."

The second room focuses on the stories of Jewish men and women, of families and communities, and documents the shocking annihilation of the diverse Jewish worlds throughout the continent.

In the third room, known victims are named and essential information about their fate made available. Israel's central Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, has offered its comprehensive collection of names of murdered Jews. The database is accessible for visitors in the adjacent foyer.

The fourth room is concerned primarily with showing how genocide spread beyond the borders of Germany to the rest of the continent. Films and databases provide information about varying degrees of persecution and annihilation and take individual experiences of victims into account.

On exiting, information is available about sites of persecution and commemoration in Germany and abroad.

It may well be a catharsis of the pent-up emotions even now - of millions of people who provided a record of what took place 60 years ago, to be used by future generations.

Ralph Collier is a syndicated broadcaster and columnist who was born in Berlin.

 

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