On Monuments and Memory

The city of Berlin is filled with history. My native Athens is much the same, though of a different kind. In Athens, walking around one may suddenly encounter ancient ruins, places were the forebears of modern Greece met, spoke, lived. Athens is full of its past lives.

Berlin is full of past deaths.

Walking around, one can encounter stones set in the pavement with the names of people who used to live in the adjacent building, and the date they were taken from their homes. Most also have locations of death well known to most Holocaust students: Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz.

The city is filled with these morbid reminders. Other markers are more modest, simply a name and a date. Were this Athens, one would wonder whether this is the place the named person performed some feat worthy of immortality, or where they died. In Berlin there is little doubt.

The most important of these monuments of remembrance, in my humble opinion, is the Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Spanning an entire city block, it is a forest of concrete monoliths, of a single rectangular shape but a variety of sizes.

I remember visiting and being struck by it. Families and teenagers were there, having picnics and jumping from one monolith to the other. This did not surprise me; it’s the way of the world, the tragedies of the past become the comedies of the future. They are a tale, and told often enough they become routine, commonplace.

I thought that would be my reaction too; the Holocaust is far enough in the past to be a tale, and my family was fortunate not to be affected by it. And yet. A man had once visited my school, had spoken to us in the school aula, showed us the numbers tattooed on his forearm and told us stories, which we didn’t quite believe were true.

As I approached the Monument from Behrenstrasse, the blocks started off small. Knee-height, then to the waist. They grew taller fast, as the ground also sunk. Up to my shoulder, then above my head. Walking through the Monument, I very soon found myself immersed in them, towering above me, blocking my view to all directions, impossible to ignore. The experience was sombering.

As I walked out of the Monument, towards Hannah-Arendt-strasse, I could slowly see the sky once more. The blocks became smaller again. Shoulder height, waist, then knee.

I turned around, and looked again at the families and teenagers. Their activities now seemed out of place, dissonant to what I’d just experienced. Standing, much less jumping, on these symbolic monoliths seemed to me almost indecent.

Which is why it was such a shock when I looked down and found I was standing on one myself.

Towards Hannah-Arendt-strasse the lowest blocks were flat with the pavement, almost imperceptible. But, having come from the depths of the monument, having seen the full grown monoliths in all their horrible rising, the rectangular shape that barely jutted out of the ground was unmistakeable.

Coming from Hannah-Arendt-strasse one would easily miss these blocks. Exiting through the same makes them more noticeable.

The allegory of the monument is obvious of course, and to me quite effective.

The horrors of the Nazi regime started off small; first as a party in the political fringes, inflammatory articles in the newspapers, a block flush with the pavement. Later growing, official policies enacted against minorities, blocks at knee-height, then to the waist. Finally, the trains filled with captives, great towering blocks of horror engulfing you.

It’s easy to miss it when it begins. Coming from Behrenstrasse one does not know what to expect. Exiting the Monument one knows full well. The blocks are obvious, even flush with the pavement their angular shape screams against the surrounding soft ground.

Humanity has seen these happenings before, and their monuments stand to remind us. They are now easy to recognize. There is still time to take a sledgehammer to them before they grow taller than us.