The night I arrived in Berlin was full of color and light: the annual Festival of Lights was underway. A light show projected onto the Brandenburg Gate kept the crowds entertained in the cold autumn air. Walking the short distance from the Brandenburg Gate to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe meant, both literally and figuratively, walking from the light into the darkness.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a full city block in size, filled with smooth concrete blocks in neat rows. All are the size around of a grave, but instead of extending down into the earth, they rise up from it. Ranging from knee-high to perhaps three meters, they grow taller toward the middle of the block. At the same time, the uneven ground descends.
Nighttime at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews
The memorial was completely unlit. Knowing from photographs what it looks like in the daytime, I was nevertheless taken aback at this hole of darkness surrounded by the bright city.
As I approached, I saw that people had entered the memorial, though most stayed at the edges, where the concrete blocks are low.
Moving closer, I realized that people – mostly children, but also some young adults – were climbing on the concrete blocks, laughing, jumping from block to block in the dimness.
The wave of anger that came upon me – warming my face, churning my stomach – took me by surprise. I froze and stared at the nearest family, whose son was happily jumping between stones. I don’t understand much German, but they did not order him down. It was perfectly all right with them.
I think they felt my stare; they called him down from the stones and walked away. But there were so many more, doing the same thing.
I stood there on the edge of the memorial, tense and still, just watching, pushing back the angry tears that threatened.
Memorials are meant to preserve a memory. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe should serve as a reminder of what they, the Nazis, did to us, the Jews, with the acquiescence of the German people.
Seeing Germans literally trampling on that memory … the thoughtlessness, the lack of respect, just appalled me.
I tried to fathom why they were treating the memorial this way. A memorial is a place of remembrance. Didn’t they remember? An even worse thought occurred to me: what if they do remember, but just don’t care?
People are sometimes just thoughtless; I know that. They choose expedience over principle. After the light show down the block, maybe their children were all wound up, and letting them climb the stones would help tire them out before bed. I understood that.
I also understood that it wasn’t them who perpetrated the crime; it was more likely their grandparents.
Nevertheless, it still hurt.
I wanted to go up to each and every one of them and point out what they were doing: “This is a memorial for the Jews whom your people killed because we are different from you. Treat it – treat us – with the respect we deserve.”
Gradually, I gave in to the futility of saying anything or confronting anyone. I felt defeated and deflated, but I felt my body come unglued from that spot, and I could walk again.
I ventured further into the memorial, downhill between two rows of stones. I didn’t go very far, since this place of darkness where it would be so easy to hide seemed a perfect place for a nighttime mugging.
Stopping a few rows in from the edge, what I could hear but not see was what sounded like groups of teenagers: flirting, shouting, girls play-screaming.
Complete disregard for the meaning of the memorial.
You might also want to read my article about lots of World War II and Cold War sites in Berlin that you can visit.
Daytime at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews
The next morning I went there again, curious to see if things were different in daylight. I wondered if, in the light of day, people were more likely to be respectful.
They weren’t. During the day, more children jumped from stone to stone, and the adults sat or stood on the stones, taking selfies. I went further into the block in the daylight, noticing the unevenness of the brick-paved ground as it descended into the canyon of concrete. Children played vigorous games of hide and seek, running among the tall stones, calling, laughing, falling, sometimes crying. It sounded like a playground.
I spotted a security guard. I don’t know if a guard was there at night. It didn’t make any difference, though. He didn’t shoo people off the stones, or remind them of the meaning of the place. He just stood there. Apparently using this memorial as a playground is perfectly acceptable.
There is an underground “place of information” at the memorial. I didn’t go in, so I don’t know if it cautions visitors to treat the memorial with respect. It’s ineffective in any case, since people can enter from any side of the block.
I visited two other memorials that day, partly because I’d heard they were interesting, and partly to see how they compared.
Right across the street from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime. A smaller monument, it consists of a huge concrete block, set with one small window. Peering in, you can see a black and white film of two men in a loving moment: one kisses the other sweetly.
The huge box represents the closeting and the fear of being caught that they carried with them, as well as the capture and suffering and deaths of so many by the Nazi extermination system. I thought it an effective, understated memorial.
A group of Germans looked in the window right after me. One made a comment I didn’t understand, and they walked away, laughing.
The Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime is also nearby, just opposite the Brandenburg Gate. This is a quieter, less confrontational monument. A long wall inscribed in German and English tells the story of their persecution and extermination.
Passing through the metal entrance doorway, visitors step onto a grassy lawn set with paving stones. Some of the stones are carved with the names of the various camps the Roma, Sinti and other groups were sent to.
In the middle of the memorial is a low flat circular fountain, but designed so that the water looks dark and flows quietly over all the edges. It appears to be a still pond, and the surface of the water reflects the sky. The tiny triangular island in the middle, representing the symbol the Roma and Sinti wore, akin to the Jews’ yellow star, held one white flower.
At the entrance to the Roma and Sinti memorial is a sign reading:
You are entering a place of remembrance. Please respect the purpose and the people for whom this memorial site was created.
This makes sense. Why aren’t similar signs posted around the Memorial to the Murdered Jews?