HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL BERLIN
A personal perspective by Bonnie M. Harris
As a PhD candidate in Public History
at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I recently completed
a month-long tour of Holocaust sites in Poland, The Czech Republic,
Austria, and Germany while performing archival research into
the Polenaktion of October 28, 1938. During my research trip
to Berlin, I took the occasion to visit the new Holocaust Memorial
in the center of the city.
I had read several reviews about the
memorial just after it had been constructed in 2005, so I was
prepared to see a massive field of stone pillars meant to convey
and incite emotions in the viewers about the Holocaust through
an abstract artistic approach. As I came upon the memorial from
the corner of Ebertstrasse and Hannah-Arendtstrasse, my initial
reaction as I looked across the entire area was one of disappointment.
The field of stele first appeared small
and insignificant and I did not see how this city block of rectangular
concrete slabs could possibly impress me. But as I entered the
memorial my perception began to change. At first, the stele were
barely inches in height, but as I continued to walk the concrete
paths between the slabs, suddenly the ground plunged down and
the steles were soon well over my head a fact I could not
know or see from where I first stood when I looked over the site.
As I continued to walk paths without any forethought as to where
I would end up, the ground rose and fell in a random undulation,
and the stele towered above me and cut off my vision of the horizon
and the sounds of life in the city.
One path looked very much like another
and a sense of direction was impossible to maintain. Even as
I saw other people pass in and out of my vision as they trespassed
the paths of the memorial just as I did, I had this unnatural
feeling of being alone and disconnected from all others. I emerged
from the forest of concrete on the opposite side of where I had
entered and as I looked back on the field of stele, I saw a completely
different visual portrayal of the site. I now saw shadows that
demarcated height and depth to the field, with variations in
angles and slopes. And I could barely see those who still wandered
among the stone giants, only catching glimpses as they walked
in and out of my field of sight. I realized that what I had just
experienced taught me an important lesson about the Holocaust.
Those of us, who only approach the experience
of the Holocaust from the peripheral historical facts, will never
be able to fully understand the perceptions and sufferings of
those who actually lived through it who actually walked
its paths. And even those of us who do all that we can to try
to learn about the Holocaust through the testimonies of those
who survived, we will never be able to walk the same path and
feel exactly what they felt, because each experience is as individual
as each stone slab in the field of 2711.
Even though they may appear the same
from the outside, as the Nazis tried to strip all individuality
from their victims, the stones are of varying heights, with varying
degrees of slant, shading, color, and reflection. Individualities
still existed among the Holocaust victims and to a great degree
it was the randomness of individuality that allowed some to survive
and a great many to die.
I also learned that once you have immersed
yourself in Holocaust education by trying to internalize the
testimonies of the witnesses and by becoming a witness yourself
by seeing the camps, the gas chambers, the ovens, the burial
sites and other places of death and torture that can now only
be memorialized, your perception forever changes and you now
have a clearer understanding of what the Holocaust really was
and how it impacted personal lives and family dynamics, as well
as an entire culture's identity and international societal ethics.