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.