Peter Eisenman

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

It took the Nazis one day in Wannsee to coordinate the Final Solution. Creating a central memorial in Berlin to their victims took considerably longer. Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), which was inaugurated in the capital last May, was first discussed in 1988, when the site near the Brandenburg Gate was still part of a no-man’s land just inside the East German border. Two competitions (in 1994 and 1998) later, Peter Eisenman’s second design was accepted by the Bundestag in 1999. During construction, every element was hotly contested, but these debates seemed only to underscore just how much democracy had failed the Jews.

This history, which attests to the memorial’s collective use even before its completion, goes unrecorded at the site, which consists of 2,711 rectangular concrete blocks of varying height set on an undulating surface and arranged in a grid, cut with narrow paths, over an entire city block. Also missing from these markers, which are as silent as the victims they honor, is any recounting of the history of the Shoah. Names, faces, dates, and deeds can be found in the vast underground information center, whose entrance is hidden among the stelae.

Whatever the theoretical failings of Eisenman’s design, its true impact became apparent when the site was opened to the public, who changed its function from abstract debate to direct contact. Walking into the grid is like stepping into a puddle that rapidly turns out to be as deep as the sea. You are suddenly swallowed up by concrete and left to find your bearings in the open sky. Some people, mostly children, attempted to master the labyrinth through play: lying down on the stelae, jumping between them, playing hide and seek. A set of rules prohibiting everything from running to barbecuing was added later, although the rules raise more questions than they resolve.

What does one do at a memorial that does not demonstrate what it memorializes? In their muteness, the stelae promote individual responsibility over the stately consensus of the historical plaque. It is up to each individual to determine why the blocks are there and to decide how to act around them. This approach, while profoundly American, transforms the ideology of freedom into a state of bodily confusion regarding one’s behavior toward others, above all toward the murdered Jews. Since there is nothing to see apart from visitors, people end up scrutinizing each other. As I took notes sitting on a stela, a dozen came by to see what I was doing. In this shared visual hypersensitivity, even doing nothing becomes something.

Ultimately, visitors experience each other as they might through the eye of a camera lens. Like the Garden of Exile at Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, every corner in the maze is a blind one; yet Eisenman’s massive grid adds tunnel vision. Looking down a long path, one is surprised by other faces that appear in a sharp frame, two, twelve, or twenty yards away. Such zooming effects have nothing to do with Minimalism but much with cinema, an entertainment that satisfies the masses’ desire to examine all things closely from afar. Using film for propaganda, the Nazis also instilled the filmic eye as a pathological ethos: to identify Jews visually and to treat them with the indifference of a camera, whether watching neighbors be deported or ushering people into the gas chamber. Instead of offering a comforting view from behind the lens, Eisenman’s memorial makes the eye into a living camera. We become witnesses of our inability to act upon what we see.

Jennifer Allen