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Germany: Berlin To Begin Work On National Holocaust Memorial

  • Roland Eggleston

Some 60 years after the end of World War II, Germany has begun work in Berlin on a memorial to the 6 million European Jews killed by the Nazis. The site was once part of the "no-man's-land" along the Berlin Wall. The memorial is expected to open in May 2005 and mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the war.

Munich, 14 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The start of work on what is officially called the "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe," in the German capital Berlin, was preceded by one of the most emotional debates in Germany since the end of World War II.

Some critics argued that creating a memorial to the victims of Nazism would revive ghosts from Germany's past and was inappropriate in a country that has changed into a peaceful democracy.

Others said no memorial could do justice to the horror and cruelty of the Holocaust.

Nobel Prize-winning writer Guenter Grass was among scores of authors, artists, historians, and public figures who argued in a national debate in 1998 that the real memorials were the photographs and relics on display in the concentration camps at Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, and elsewhere.

A Jewish critic, Michael Naumann, said, "A simple visit to Bergen-Belsen tells more about the horrors of what the Nazis did than any memorial of stone and concrete."

Others feared that a national memorial would allow Germans to consider the Holocaust as simply part of the past, with only limited significance to the present day.

A supporter of the Berlin project, Ruth Elster, said the memorial is not intended to remind Germans of national guilt but to warn of the evil of which mankind is capable. "We have an obligation to keep alive the memory of what crimes mankind is capable of -- not to spread a guilt complex but to encourage responsibility," Elster said.

The memorial will consist of about 2,700 dark concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern. It is the work of the New York architect Peter Eisenman. According to him, "the precise, ordered pattern is intended to evoke the relentless order with which the Nazis set about trying to destroy European Jewry."

The slabs are about 2.4 meters wide but vary in height. Wolfgang Thierse, the president of the national parliament, the Bundestag, said the first slabs should be put in the ground in August or September. All of them should be in place by the end of 2004 but the memorial will not be opened until May 2005 --- on the 60th anniversary of the end of the war.

The memorial includes an underground documentation center. It was added at the insistence of p arliament that argued the slabs of concrete were insufficient to inform future generations about the purpose of the memorial. The documentation center emphasizes that the Nazi campaign was aimed at exterminating not just German Jews but Jews across Europe.

The cost of the memorial is estimated at 28 million euros ($30.2 million). The concrete slabs alone will cost 10 million euros.

The memorial site covers two hectares of land near the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building -- home of the Bundestag. The site was once part of the no-man's-land along the Berlin Wall. Nearby are ruins of some of the landmarks of the Third Reich, including the bunker where Nazi leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide.

The former mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, is one of the sharpest critics of the design. Diepgen said he considers it too big, too impersonal, and "too modern." He has said on several occasions that, in his view, the plain design reflects postwar architectural fashion rather than what he calls a "monument from the heart".

The memorial was first proposed in 1988. An initial competition in 1995 was won by a plan for a huge gravestone-shaped slab bearing the names of millions of Holocaust victims. That idea was rejected by then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl as overly gigantic. The present design was approved by the Bundestag in 1999.

Elster said the memorials in former concentration camps, synagogues, and other places serve as local reminders of the persecution of European Jews, but there was need for a national place of remembrance. "There are many other monuments around Germany to what happened during the Holocaust. But Germany needs a central monument for the nation as a whole. And that will be here in Berlin," she said.

Many other commentators see the memorial as a means of making future generations aware of what can happen if democracy is not defended.

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