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186 | ecotone The Unmurdered Janna Malamud Smith nonfiction At first it seemed inappropriate, even incorrect, that we hurriedly fit in a visit to the holocaust memorial in Berlin on our way to lunch. Not just any lunch, but one in an elegant restaurant set in a large, windowed room atop the Reichstag, the recently restored home of the German Parliament . While the contrast between our casual tourists’ indulgence and the suffering of those memorialized was obvious , my own discomfort had primarily to do with rushing through an experience which deserved to be given more time. I wanted to look around; and possibly to linger. The memorial, called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is the only one in Germany that commemorates solely the Jewish dead. It was designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman and opened in 2005. Not surprisingly , every detail of its conception and construction unleashed discord, and dozens of controversies had somehow to be addressed ahead of the bulldozers. Some were moral and artistic: How, for instance, does the city of the perpetrators dare (how dare anyone?) even try to create a monument that claims to speak to something as massive, dumbfounding , and agonizing as these murders? (Unstated but key: murders which, as a Berliner, your parents and grandparents may have sanctioned, or even committed .) Then again, why commemorate | 187 only the Jews when so many others were also murdered? Other concerns were more practical : How does a country that systematically eliminated its Jewish population find enough people who are Jewish and German, knowledgeable, and familiar with the city to oversee an appropriate design for the memorial? Conversely, with so many “dirty hands,” whom do you employ to construct the concrete blocks and prepare the site since the companies competent enough to do the work are deeply compromised? (Most famously, Degussa, the corporation that eventually manufactured the antigraffiti coating for the concrete, owns, as a subsidiary, Degesch, the company that produced the Zyklon B gas used to exterminate people in concentration camps.) Essentially the process of creating the memorial made manifest the plight of contemporary Berlin: the conundrum of living with its Nazi history. What must you remember? How must you remember it? What is permissible to forget as time passes? They are thorny questions, and perhaps ultimately unanswerable . Suffice to say, where the discussion of the memorial was concerned , every bit of the past woke up and elbowed through the door, dressed up, jittery, loud, and wound tight, which seems not only inevitable, but necessary. How could the process not wrestle with all the reawakened pain? Still, you have to wonder who would have “won” had these furious disagreements resulted in nothing ever getting built, which at moments along the way looked like a likely outcome. Eventually, the work did go forward. The finished monument is a collection of 2,711 concrete slabs, sharpedged rectangles—each one seven feet ten inches long and three feet one inch wide—of varying heights, set close together on the ground in more or less straight lines. The ground between the crisscrossing rows is covered by paving stones that resemble cobblestone. According to me, you could spend a good hour walking along the narrow pathways, exploring your responses and watching other people do the same. Or, I initially imagined, you could, and really ought to, return at dawn when it likely would be empty and your thoughts could wander fully over this 4.7-acre response to genocide. But the site and our hurry defied my urge for a proper visit. I have realized since that one strand of the genius of the place is exactly in the contradiction between what might be and what is— the way that distance initially distracts you so that you end up feeling more than you intend. To put it another way, the solemn history suggests awe, but the buses and sidewalks bring people— school children, university students, older folks—with their loud voices, suppressed giggles, shushing, playful shrieks, and irreverent games of hideand -seek or tag. Visitors of all ages snap photos and film video of each other darting in and out behind the columns. Traffic buzzes about nearby. Horns honk...


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pp. 186-189
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