Collective Memory and the Holocaust | The Nation


Collective Memory and the Holocaust

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On May 10 New York architect Peter Eisenman officially unveiled his Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin: 2,711 concrete pillars, ranging in height from three to sixteen feet, rise up at subtly varying angles in a vast field in the city center. A grid of narrow alleys weaves through the pillars, undulating at times gently, at times steeply. Ever since the space was first chosen for a Holocaust memorial in 1992--when it was a vacant expanse between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, part of the no-man's-land once occupied by Hitler's bunker and traversed by the Berlin wall--it has served as a kind of projection screen or free-fire zone for German controversies about the politics of collective memory: Should there be a reminder of Nazi atrocities in the center of the German capital? What about the memorial's gargantuan scale: Is it apt given the magnitude of the crime or is it reminiscent of the gigantism of National Socialist urban planning? Doesn't such a huge symbolic gesture risk a kind of monumental closure--"We built a memorial, now let's stop mourning and move on"--of a discussion of unimaginable inhumanity that must remain perpetually open? Could it--as Paul Spiegel, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, fears--"monopolize" memorialization by overshadowing concentration camps and other authentic sites of memory? During the construction of the memorial, Eisenman did not always avoid becoming embroiled in German public debates, and it was not always pretty. Upon his return to the US after a tour of Europe, he talked to The Nation about the memorial and the reactions it has inspired.

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Ross Benjamin
Ross Benjamin, a former Nation intern, is a writer and a translator of German literature living in Brooklyn. His work...

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On October 10, the New York Times published a front-page obituary for French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

In an article in the German newspaper Die Zeit called "Two Kinds of Memory," the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben offers an interpretation of the memorial as a "book of memory" in which there is "nothing to read." He says that the visitor who enters the memorial "leaves behind the memory that can be recorded and archived in order to enter the unforgettable." According to his article, the memorial's underground information center [which documents the Holocaust and its Jewish victims] embodies the "memorable," whereas the pillars above manifest the "unforgettable." Do you find this way of looking at it compelling?

I think it's the most compelling piece that I've found. He caught what the monument does in a very poetic way. He said there are two kinds of memory. There's the unforgettable, and the unforgettable can never be catalogued, archived. It can only be silent. Then there is the memorable, which must be catalogued and archived. And he said the memorial does both, and it is the edge between both that makes this monument so important.

In other words, the true memorial space is between the pillars and the information center.

I think that's a really beautiful reading of it. It's not just the columns and it's not just the archive--it's the fact that they stand together, and you have to see them apart and together and understand that edge between the two.

You have spoken about the openness of the memorial as a public space. How do you feel about young Germans who are climbing the pillars and springing from one to the other, using it more like a playground than a space of mournful contemplation?

I think it's great. There's a great photograph on the Internet that has four columns and a person in flight with their arms akimbo and their legs out between the four columns.

Speaking of the openness of public space and its quandaries, there have been lots of concerns and debates about graffiti and vandalism. When the issue comes up that a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust unintentionally but perhaps inevitably provides anti-Semites with a space to spray hateful graffiti or pro-Nazi slogans, I always think about the East Side Gallery [a former section of the Berlin wall covered with murals by a group of international artists commissioned after the reunification]. The first panel of it is an image of the Israeli flag in German national colors with an inscription about German-Jewish reconciliation vowing to combat all forms of fascism and anti-Semitism. But this panel is constantly covered with graffiti that is usually anti-Semitic. To me there is an irony there: The image invokes a resolution, and yet the graffiti incessantly reminds you of persisting anti-Semitism.

I recently got a really violent anti-Semitic e-mail from Oregon. These people are coming out of the closet. This memorial has really stirred things up. There was a big debate between Gianni Vattimo and someone in Italy about anti-Semitism concerning this project. Martin Walser has spoken about this in Germany. This is going to focus the debate onto the memorial. Anti-Semitic feelings are going to come out, being projected on this memorial.

The blankness of the pillars that Agamben talks about--the openness of the memorial to whatever the visitors bring to it--also allows for this danger.

But I think it's a danger worth taking, because it's there.

So you are saying the memorial would serve as a kind of palimpsest or witness to the present in which free speech and expression reign. In Germany, this debate is often argued from the other side: There is a lot of controversy about what is permissible and impermissible expression. In Germany there are prohibitions of certain forms of anti-Semitic or National Socialist expression.

Look, in certain conditions you have to prohibit. I was with Joschka Fischer the other night, and he said, "We can't just have the same situation as you have in America. Certain things are not allowed. That's it."

For instance, the prohibition that was recently ratified of neo-Nazi demonstrations in the vicinity of the memorial: Do you feel that that restricts the sort of absolute openness that you intended for the space?

There's no such thing as an absolute openness. Openness is relative, I think, in all societies. We are a society of law. They passed a law. The intentions of demonstrating at a certain point go beyond the intentions of a memorial. Look, there's no reason to send me an anti-Semitic letter. But there it was. These guys are coming out of the closet. No question. And it is going to be really interesting to see what happens with this memorial.

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