Germany’s Holocaust Memorial Problem—and Mine Author(s): James E. Young Source: The Public Historian, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Fall 2002), pp. 65-80

“The perfect is the enemy of the good”


pg 65 –  In June 1999, after ten years of tortured debate, the German Bundestag voted to build a national “Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe” on a prime, five-acre piece of real estate between the Brandenburger Tor and Potsdamer Platz, a stone’s throw from Hitler’s bunker. In their vote, the Bundestag also accepted the design—a waving field of pillars—by American architect, Peter Eisenman, which had been recommended by a five-member Findungskommission, for which I served as spokesman

pg 66 – 67 [jewish memorial eissmann) Submissions ran the gamut of taste and aesthetic sensibilities, from the beautiful to the grotesque, from high modern to low kitsch, from the architectural to the conceptual. There was, for example, Horst Hoheisel’s proposal to blow up the Brandenburger Tor, as well as Dani Caravan’s proposed field of yellow flowers in the shape of a Jewish Star. Berlin artists Stih and Schnock proposed a series of bus-stops whence coaches would take visitors to the sites of actual destruction throughout Berlin, Germany, and Europe. Other designs included numer- ous variations on gardens of stone, broken hearts, and rent Stars of David. Round, square, and triangular obelisks were proposed, as well as a gigantic 67 empty vat (130 feet tall), an empty vessel for the blood of the murdered. One artist proposed a ferris wheel composed of cattle-cars instead of carriages, rotating between “the carnivalesque and the genocidal.”

pg 67 – “This is not a playground for artists and their self-absorbed fantasies,” Leah Rosh is reported to have reminded her colleagues on the jury.

pg 67 – Jacob-Marks’s winning design consisted of a gargantuan, 23-foot thick concrete gravestone, in the shape of a 300-foot square, tilted at an angle running from six feet high at one end to 25 feet high at the other. It was to be engraved with the recoverable names of 4.5 million murdered Jews, and in the Jewish tradition of leaving small stones at a gravesite to mark the mourner’s visit, it was to have some 18 boulders from Masada in Israel scattered over its surface.

pg 67 – “A German national Holocaust memorial with Jewish self-sacrifice as part of its theme? Within hours of the winner’s announcement, the monument’s mixed me- morial message of Jewish naming tradition and self-sacrifice generated an avalanche of artistic, intellectual, and editorial criticism decrying this “tilted gravestone” as too big, too heavy-handed, too divisive, and finally just too German. Even the leader of Germany’s Jewish community, Ignatz Bubis”

pg 68 – “Between the announcement of the winner and its subsequent rejection, the organizers showed all 528 designs in a grand memorial exhibition at Berlin’s Stadtratshaus. Good, I wrote at the time. Better a thousand years of Holocaust memorial competitions and exhibitions in Germany than any single “final solution” to Germany’s memorial problem. This way, I reasoned, instead of a fixed icon for Holocaust memory in Germany, the debate itself—perpetually unresolved amid ever-changing conditions—might now be enshrined. Of course, this was also a position that only an academic bystander could afford to take”

pg 69 – “Other critics focussed more narrowly on the first colloquium’s theme: “Why There Should Be a Holocaust Memorial in Berlin,” concluding that with the authentic sites of destruction and memory scattered throughout Berlin, there shouldn’t be a central memorial at all.”

pg 70 –  2 I began by trying to reassure the audience: decorum is never a part of the memorial-building process, not even for a Holocaust memorial. “You may have failed to produce a monument,”I said, “but if you count the sheer number of design-hours that 528 teams of artists and architects have already devoted to the memorial, it’s clear that your process has already generated more individual memory-work than a finished monument will inspire in its first ten years.”

PG 71 – if the aim is to remember for perpetuity that this great nation once murdered nearly six million human beings solely for having been Jews, then this monument must  also embody the intractable questions at the heart of German Holocaust memory rather than claiming to answer them.

PG 73 –  Instead of providing answers, we asked questions: What are the national reasons for remembrance? Are they redemptory, part of a mourning process, pedagogical, self-aggrandizing, or inspiration against contemporary xenophobia? To what national and social ends will this memorial be built? Just how compensatory a gesture will it be? How anti-redemptory can it be? Will it be a place for Jews to mourn lost Jews, a place for Germans to mourn lost Jews, or a place for Jews to remember what Germans once did to them?

pg 74 –  As other nations have remembered the Holocaust according to their founding myths and ideals, their experiences as liberators, victims, or fighters, Germany will also remember according to its own complex and self-abnegating motives, whether we like them or not. Let Germany’s official memorial reflect its suitably tortured relationship to the genocide of Europe’s Jews, I said.

pg 76 – Rather than pretending to answer Germany’s memorial problem in a single, reassuring form, this design proposed multiple, collected forms arranged so that visitors have to find their own path to the memory of Europe’s murdered Jews. As such, this memorial provided not an answer to memory but an ongoing process, a continuing question without a certain solution.



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