Memory is not the same as history. --Peter Eisenman
On a recent trip to Germany, I came across a number of small brass memorial markers, set into the pavement in front of a house on the Richard Wagner Strasse, just around the corner from my hotel in Cologne. There were twenty-two in all, each with the name of a person who had lived in the house and been deported in 1941 to Riga, to die in a concentration camp. "Hier wohnte," each one said--"Here lived"--followed by the name and birth date of the deportee. The memorials to Eva, Ludwig, Kurt and Louis Meyer formed a square, set apart. Else Meyerhof and her sister--or daughter--Eva were together in a cluster of their neighbors. I wondered why I had not noticed the markers before, since I had walked past that house several times, and concluded that I may have been sensitized by the total anonymity of Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which I had visited over the weekend in Berlin. Once I noticed them, though, I began to find others, all over the quarter where I was staying, one of the few to have survived the bombings in World War II.
It was perhaps the expression Hier wohnte, identifying the building as a Wohnung, or home, that imbued the markers with an aura of loss and desolation. Each tells the same story: a dweller hauled from his or her home and carted away to die. That specificity of location would be diluted if the immense plaza where Eisenman's memorial is installed were instead paved with 6 million brass markers, like the ones in Cologne, each with the name of an individual Jew known to have been evicted, deported and murdered. Hier would instead acquire a wider, more diffuse reference, applying not to the Jews of Berlin and even Germany but throughout Europe. One can imagine such a monument being almost blindingly bright on sunny days, polished by the incessant shuffle of tourists' feet. Survivors could be escorted to the name of someone killed, as they are led to the name of the person they have come to grieve over at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. There is something achingly moving about the simple markers in Cologne, reminiscent of the vernacular shrines that appeared like wildflowers all over New York after 9/11, often with a photograph of a victim.
The ground where the memorial stands, not long ago a no man's land, could not be more central--it is the heart of the heart of the country, to use William Gass's expression. It is separated by a single row of official buildings from the Brandenburg Gate, the symbolic entryway into the city, and the western boundary of Unter den Linden, like the Champs-Elysées or Fifth Avenue the parade route of the nation. Sir Norman Foster's dome for the Reichstag can be seen nearby, as well as the newly constructed chancellor's office. In the opposite direction rises Potsdamer Platz, symbol of contemporary Berlin and a unified Germany, with its malls and jubilant glass towers. Across some undistinguished ground, not so long ago patrolled by police dogs and tripwires for machine gun emplacements, rise some very imposing "slab" housing in the dreary style of the former Communist East Germany. The southern edge of the memorial is bounded by a street named after Hannah Arendt. This is real estate drenched in symbolism, and since unification it has become very valuable property as well. That the German Parliament held the developers at bay while debating the installation of a memorial to the victims of an acknowledged national crime is little short of astonishing.
Debate on the principle of such a monument began before the site itself was available. After two competitions, one open and the other between invited contenders of considerable prominence, the commission went in 1998 to the team of architect Peter Eisenman and Richard Serra. Serra quit the project early on, unwilling to accept the kinds of compromises that architects are accustomed to making.
The designated area is sometimes said to be the size of two football fields--a better guide to visualizing its scale than measurements in square feet or meters. It is not an even playing field, to continue with the image--it dips down to a considerable depth in one direction, and then rises up. A grid of regular walkways is imposed on this irregular surface, not quite wide enough to accommodate two people. Between the walkways are more than 2,000 rectangular steles, in gray concrete, each just under a meter wide by 2.38 meters in length. A mapping of the field, drawn from above, would be a grid of rectangles, separated from one another by the walkways. Each walkway is an entrance and an exit--one can enter the memorial anywhere, follow any path and exit wherever one wishes. There is no fence. The memorial is entirely open to the city. You can use any of its paths as a shortcut to get to the other side. Nothing especially distinguishes one stele from another, so there is no special reason to head for one stele in particular. With two exceptions, the steles are all alike. They differ in height, and they differ in the degree to which the upper surface slants.