Berlin Struggles to Pick A Memorial to Holocaust

Decision is expected next month on design for a monument meant to remember the past.

Peter Eisenman is an architect, Richard Serra a sculptor. Both are heavyweights in their professions, both are confident, both have spoken to large crowds, and both are New Yorkers.

But on a recent night, in front of about 400 Berliners packed into a small lecture hall, both admitted to being nervous.

"This is the most serious talk I've ever had to give," Mr. Serra told the crowd.

Mr. Eisenman and Serra were flown here to explain how and why their design for a memorial in Berlin is capable of commemorating the Holocaust.

The task is like nothing Serra has ever done before. "My work isn't content driven, and it's not about evoking feeling," he says. "Here, it's of a whole different order. We're starting with 6 million Jews that have been murdered. You can't deny that that fact is part of the content."

The Eisenman-Serra team is one of four finalists in a competition to design the memorial, for Berlin's city center.

The other three projects, by Berlin-based finalists Daniel Libeskind and Gesine Weinmiller, and Paris-based Jochen Gerz, also inspired intense debate during their public forum presentations.

Decision expected soon

The winner could be announced as early as February, with groundbreaking scheduled for January 1999 - the anniversary of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where Nazi officials approved the "final solution."

This is Berlin's second attempt at approving a design for a Holocaust memorial. The winner of the first competition was vetoed in 1995 by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. That proposal, for a football-field-sized stone plate inscribed with the names of 4.2 million Jews identified by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, was criticized by some as too grandiose, and by others as threatening the 2 million unidentified Jews with anonymity.

Now, some wonder if the main point of the memorial hasn't been lost. "If they want to build a memorial, then they should," says Eva Nickel, who works in the social office of Berlin's Jewish community. "But what gets me is the argument over it, 'Should it be this kind or that kind of memorial?' It reduces the enormity of the Holocaust."

A daunting question throughout the search has been, can a physical structure do justice to the memory of the murdered, and more, can it do the job over time? Even the architects have doubts.

"That's what we're attempting to do. Whether or not we're successful, I can't tell you," says Serra.

A 'field of memory'

Eisenman and Serra describe their design plan as a "field of memory."

It is to be made of some 4,000 concrete pylons of varying sizes, laid out like a field of wheat and progressively sinking below ground level. The hope is that the visitor will become "lost in space and time," and be able to reflect.

"We don't want to tell people how to feel," says Serra, but "to ask, 'what's your meaning in this place?' "

Jens Hommel of the Heinrich Boll Institute in Dresden and coordinator for an exhibition about German war crimes during World War II, worries that monuments allow people to unburden themselves of the responsibility of confronting past crimes and, in turn, today's racism.

"People come to a memorial and say, 'OK, I've visited the memorial, now I don't have to deal with it anymore,' " he says. "That's dangerous."

Hermann Simon, director of the Jewish Center in Berlin, says that a Holocaust memorial is an important project, but continuing education and discussion about the Holocaust is just as vital.

One of his biggest concerns is Germany's youths, and the possibility that some are vulnerable to the propaganda of neo-Nazi organizations, especially given Germany's 11.8 percent unemployment rate as of December.

"The past must still be reported to be understood," Dr. Simon says.

Germany has made the Holocaust required study in high schools, and classes routinely visit the sites of former Nazi concentration camps. Some sites, however, have seen their budgets cut and camp buildings have begun to decay.

"You have to support the concentration camps and the memorial," says Simon, "both are important to remembering."

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