I walked deep into the middle and with each uneven step I seemed to descend from where I had started at street level. I could no longer see the horizon; all I could see were gray stones surrounding me, towering over me. Under my feet was a grid pattern which seemed to simulate the larger grid I was lost in. I looked up to the sky for some orientation, but the indistinct, overcast sky provided no texture for me. From the screams and laughter in the distance I knew I wasn’t alone, but for that moment I felt alone, completely and utterly alone.
Worldviews are often muddled – we each have our own perspective based on our experiences. Much like the varied ways we look at the world, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is also a kaleidoscope of views and opinions. It has been a center of controversy in Berlin since it’s opening in 2005. Memorials are something that is seldom agreed upon – have you ever seen or heard of a memorial that everyone agreed upon? One where everyone stood there and said, “That’s an absolute perfect depiction of the pain and loss each person felt.” No, because pain and loss is personal – very personal. The American born architect, Peter Eisenman, had a vision and continued forward with it despite the controversies – and his vision was far from straightforward. And it’s the abstractness of the site that tends to throw people – however for me, it’s what I loved about the site.
For some, the memorial and the pillars evoke no correlation to the murdered Jews of WWII – there are no names, plaques, or religious markings at all on the site. However if you free your mind you can see and feel all sorts of meaning and linking to the Jewish history. Novelist Sara Quigley wrote,
“Standing on an uneven piece of land, the stelae almost fall into the centre of the site, rising up again towards the edge, forming a myriad of uneven stone corridors. Walking down one of these passages is disorientating, and scary; you can’t see who is approaching you, nor who is behind. The tilting ground and lack of vision offers some small idea of the Jewish experience from WWII: your past snatched away, your future insecure, little hope of escape.”
From the first moment I saw pictures of the memorial in a magazine back in 2005, it has always looked like modern, scattered graves to me. It evokes a feeling of simple yet chaotic. The Landscape of 2,711 pillars called stelae are open 24 hours a day but are closely guarded by security personnel who have one rule – you cannot sit, stand, or climb on the stelae. However running, laughing, playing are all ok. This is what surprised me the most about seeing the memorial in person – the magazine photo was enough to get me to travel to Berlin to see it, but the life and noise coming from the memorial can only be experienced in person. And this is what makes the memorial unique to me. I’ve never ever been to a memorial that is so full of laughter and joy.
As I walked through the undulating maze of pillars I heard hushed tones of serious talking mixed with the sounds of footsteps running around me accompanied with laughter and often screams of excitement. The kids looked at the memorial as a huge playground, a maze to get lost in and run around. They would hide around pillars and scare their friends or challenge their parents to find them. Some feel that the memorial should be a serious place, a place where laughter and joy is not allowed, but I think the beauty of the memorial is this diversity of experience. As I watched the children running around enjoying themselves it reminded me that this generation has not felt the pain that their grandparents felt – they don’t have memories of the war – reminding me that the only for sure thing in life is that time marches on. After all, memorials are for remembering, but they are also for living.
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Walking tours are available, however it’s nice to just wander through the maze.
It is located one block south of the Brandenburg Gate, in the Friedrichstadt neighborhood.
Visitors center (located underneath the memorial) is free but lines can be long. Apr-Sept: Tue-Sun, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (last admission 7.15 p.m.) Oct-Mar: Tue-Sun, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (last admission 6.15 p.m.); Closing days 1 Jan., 12 to 26 Nov., 24 to 26 Dec.; free of charge; Field of Stelae: accessible 24h a day
More information on the free museum below the memorial via Oh-Berlin.com- The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin