Monday, 18 July 2016

'Re-living' Holocaust horrors

I find Berlin a very compelling city. A city of contrasts, hundreds of years old bombed out cathedrals juxtaposed against new shopping malls, busy streets with fast cyclists ringing bells to pedestrians who would have strayed into the cyclists lane against the slow sluggish Spree  River with tourists taking a lazy boat ride and some Berliners sun-basking on the banks.

One very striking feature or features, are reminders all over the city, of the war that ended over 70 years ago. There are memorials dotted across the city, to remember the war and to commemorate those who lost their lives during these really tumultuous times.

One of these features which stood out for me was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; or simply The Holocaust Memorial, located one block south of the Brandenburg Gate in the Friedrich Stadt neighborhood.

The memorial, by Architect Peter Eisenman and Engineer Buro Happold is covered with 2 711 concrete slabs or stelae arranged in a grid pattern on slanting ground, with 54 rows going to the north south whilst 87 go to the east west, at right angles but  slightly askew.

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 I remember sending a video I took whilst going past the memorial to someone back home and they said that the place was creepy.

I was not ready for the emotions I experienced as I went into the memorial after a brief history session by our guide from Israel.

From a distance, to me, the place resembled a cemetery, with the grey concrete slabs looking like graves. The differences in the heights oft he blocks also symbolised the different people killed during the Holocaust.

Though the concrete blocks are the same length and width, at 2.3 metres long and 0.95 metres wide, the height varies, from 0.2 to 4.7 metres. This, according to Eisenman, evokes a sense of isolation and disorientation, symbolic of the events that took place during the Holocaust.

The American architect said the magnitude and scale of the horror of the Holocaust was such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means was inevitably inadequate.

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´´ Our memorial attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia . We can only know the past today through a manifestation in the present."

In this sepulchral maze, I realised that as I went further from the starting point, the hubbub of the busy city began to fade and my field of vision was getting restricted despite the squares of light appearing at the end of each long path. There was an uneasy and confusing atmosphere and was always startled if some other person showed up from anywhere.

Already feeling chilled from the sombre atmosphere in the maze created by the stelae, we walked into the underground ´Place of information´, also designed by Eisenman, holding the names of the Jewish Holocaust victims.

This permanent exhibition which tells the savagery of the holocaust from different people’s points of view, pushed me into a reflection on one of history's grim acts of inhumanity and the quote by Italian writer Primo Levi;

“It happened, and therefore it could happen again; this is the core of what we have to say.” 

written in large letters on the wall in the main entrance immediately forced this brooding on me.

The exhibition began with an overall view of the national socialist policies that spanned the years from 1933 – 1945 and was followed by The Rooms.

The Room of Dimensions which houses diaries, letters, postcards and any  last source of news received from the victims was harrowing.

´´My dear
Don't separate from Michel. Don't let yourselves be taken tot he children’s home. Write to Papa, maybe he can help you, and write to Paulette. Ask the furrier across the way for advice. Maybe God will pity you. We are leaving tomorrow for God knows where. I'm hugging you, in tears. I would so much have loved to hug you again, my poor children, I will never see you again.´´

Letters like this one broke me.

After the room of Dimensions, I started rushing through the other rooms, overwhelmed by a sadness so profound and disgust that human beings could go to those lengths to do such to other human beings.

 In the next room, the Room of Families, 15 Jewish families were presented with photos and documentation depicting their  way of life before the Holocaust and with information on the expulsion and murder of the families.

 The Room of Names had names of the Holocaust victims are projected onto the walls with her speaker announcing the end of each victim whilst the Room of Places had a large map of Europe showing  the location of the different concentration and work camps.

I was startled as I stumbled out of the exhibition to realise that the sun was out and bright in the city after moments of being transported to a dark and horrific period underground. I left the memorial a different person that the one who had walked in.

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