Dear fellow travellers
Walk, don't run. And stay together" said the children's mother. Then the girl took her younger brother by the hand and the two entered the great undulating forest of stone plinths. For the first minute I followed them. The two children took a right, and then a left turn and before long I lost them.
As I walked deeper into the complex, surrounded on all sides by the chunky columns, I heard the animated chatter of those two kids from time to time - two young English voices in a forest of memories in the very middle of Berlin. I met some Spanish children playing hide-and-seek. Soon I was alone, quite alone, in the dark heart of the memorial.
The extraordinary thing about Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is that many visitors don't quite know at first how to behave there. Not that there is really a 'proper' way to behave anyway. The beauty of this memorial is its ambiguity. Over the years I have seen tourists having picnics on some of the lower stelae at the very edge of the complex. On bright sunny days, it's not unusual to see students sunbathing at the memorial. But such profane activities are most definitely reserved for the margins.
This is an urban space which relies on an intuitive understanding of sacredness. Moving from the main road into the field of plinths, modern Berlin recedes to nothingness. The walkway ahead dips into shade and uncertainty, inducing a real sense of unease. Time and distance are distorted, voices fall silent and the visitor merges into the memorial.
This is an urban space which relies on an intuitive understanding of sacredness. Moving from the main road into the field of plinths, modern Berlin recedes to nothingness.
Some who come to Berlin set out very purposefully to visit this Holocaust memorial, which opened to the public nine years ago. Others stumble upon it entirely by accident. Just as everyone in the city, visitors and residents alike, stumble quite by chance upon Stolpersteine, those little brass plaques set into pavements or cobblestones outside the former homes of victims of the Nazi terror regime. It suddenly feels wrong to be eating an ice cream or chatting on the phone about tonight's supper menu as you tread lightly over a Stolperstein. It is as if history has somehow failed to give you due notice that it's about to throw a mighty shadow across your path.
Visitors' reactions to Stolpersteine are interesting. And the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the greatest Stolperstein imaginable. For many who stumble upon it, there is evidently some uncertainty as to exactly what this vast field with over 2700 plinths is meant to represent. And yet somehow, as you start to explore, the significance of the spot is revealed, even though visitors often continue to ponder its precise meaning. Tucked away at one edge of the memorial is an underground information centre, though I suspect that only a small percentage of visitors ever make it to the centre. Those who do can explore the timeline of Nazi terror and are left in no doubt about the intent of the memorial.
Just as there is quiet drama in the field of stelae, so there is a touch of theatre in the information centre. The visit culminates in the "Room of Names" where the names of the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis are read aloud. Here there is no scope for misunderstanding, no place for hide-and-seek or anything remotely profane. This is marked space, sacred space.
But isn't it interesting that Holocaust commemoration relies so very much on lists? The making of lists was an art at which the Nazis were all too diligent.
(co-editor, hidden europe magazine)