Subsoil of Memory

Image: John C. Watkins V.

Memoir by Julie Zuckerman


I stand in the center of the open-air memorial amid a forest of gray concrete columns, my heart hammering. An aerial perspective would show that these are, in fact, 2,711 rectangular blocks, coffin-shaped, organized in a grid. But here on the ground, I am tiny and powerless against the colossal hulk of the towering slabs. Though I hear other tourists in the distance, for long moments I see no one. I feel as if in a maze. No escape.

I’m in Berlin for the first time, on a 15-hour layover with my daughter, en route from the United States back home to Israel, from my birthplace to hers. Next week, she begins her senior year of high school. We’re spending the first part of the day touring the city by bicycle. We’ve seen Checkpoint Charlie, remains of the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, and now, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Before releasing the group to roam through the memorial, our bike guide offered brief, technical explanations: year of opening (2005), number of blocks, the special chemicals with which they’ve been treated to protect against graffiti. Also the curious fact that the architect, Peter Eisenman, has said he will remain silent on interpretations of his design. Each visitor must impart his or her own meaning.

Living in Israel, it’s common to fly to Europe for a long weekend. My husband and I have visited Madrid and Barcelona, Paris and Budapest. But for many years, I balked at the idea of visiting Germany as a tourist.

Image: Julie Zuckerman.

I walk among the blocks, my mind galloping with possible interpretations of the designer’s intent. My first thought is that the blocks, which I later learn are called stelae, signify the lost Jewish communities, like the Valley of Communities at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem. There, too, one wanders among massive stone slabs, Jerusalem bedrock etched with long lists of cities and towns left bereft of their Jews, including Kolbuswoza, the small shtetl in Poland my grandparents left in the 1920s. But quickly I realize that the number of destroyed communities is far greater than 2,711; later, an Internet search confirms the figure at over 5,000.

Growing up hearing and reading first-person accounts of summary executions, of babies smothered to keep their cries from exposing hiding places, of rabbis forced to dance naked — I did not want to visit a place where I’d be surrounded by people speaking the same tongue as the Nazis. Ironically, both my son and my husband, the latter of whose family fled Frankfurt in 1933, have tried teaching themselves German. They do not share my hang-ups about the language. But I cannot hear the word schnell — quick! hurry! — without envisioning SS officers herding Jews out of their homes, into cattle cars and selection lines, onto death marches.

Some stelae are waist-level or below; others tower at 11.5 and 15.4 feet. All are the same depth and width. They could symbolize nameless, faceless victims, from the very young to the very old. The flat tops, lives cut off.

I’m not sure when or why the shift occurred, but today I am here by choice.

Perhaps I’m more open than I was 20 years ago, or have been influenced by numerous friends who have praised Berlin’s cosmopolitanism. Relations between Germany and Israel are strong, with exchange programs for students and thriving business cooperation. Perhaps it is because Germany — unlike other nations — has taken steps to reckon with its past, this memorial one example. Later today I will learn of the government’s decision to place a non-descript parking lot over Hilter’s bunker, sealing it from the public, to inhibit neo-Nazis from turning it into a pilgrimage site.

The floor of the memorial is sloped, and as I wander, the looming blocks suggest a swell of rocky sea, waves heaving above my head. Impending disaster for anyone forced into the surge. Humanity, sunk. If the intent is to convey uneasiness, the designer has succeeded with this visitor.

I was born a quarter of a century after the last death camp was liberated, yet a few times a year my unconscious mind descends into a vivid Holocaust nightmare: my family and I are running, running, running, Nazis at our heels. In real life, my grandmother lost three of her sisters, one brother, their four spouses, and at least two young children whose names we do not know. Of our immediate family in Europe at the start of the war, only one nephew survived, hidden with other children in the French countryside.

Later, I read speeches from the memorial’s opening in 2005. Wolfgang Thierse, then-President of the German Bundestag, referred to grappling with the difficulty of finding an artistic form that could be appropriate to commemorate “the inconceivable” and “the monstrosity of the genocide of the European Jews.” The memorial is a kind of experiment, he said, quoting the American scholar James Young, for “no other nation has ever undertaken … to reunite on the stony subsoil of the memory of its crimes, or to place the remembrance of these crimes in the geographic center of its capital.”

The survivor who spoke at the opening, Sabina van der Linden (née Haberman), bore the weighty task of representing six million murdered Jews. She reminded those gathered of the wise words of Elie Wiesel: “The children of the killers are not killers, but children. We must never blame them for what their elders did. But we can hold them responsible for what they do with the memory of their elders’ crime.”

For decades, most survivors did not speak of their experiences, not wanting to expose their children to the horrors they endured, or because they felt no one wanted to listen. When my father’s first cousin arrived in the United States after the war at age 14, the children were told not to ask any questions. This cousin suppressed his memories, thinking he was the only Jewish child to be hidden, until he chanced upon a magazine article 30 years later. Soon, the last survivors who can give first-person testimony will be gone; the full obligation of remembrance will fall to current and future generations.

I am the last of our group to return to the bikes. Most are somber and quiet as we ride to our next destination, but my daughter and I discuss possible interpretations. Earlier this summer, along with her classmates, she bore witness at Auschwitz and Birkenau, Majdanek and Treblinka. Trips to Poland have become a rite of passage for Israeli high schoolers, and are referred to as a masa, a journey. They spend 11th grade immersed in a curriculum studying both the Holocaust and the 800 years prior to the war, when Jewish life in Europe mostly flourished. They hear accounts from survivors, prepare ceremonies and slideshows, learn songs, and lead discussions for each other and for us, the parents. My daughter approached her Poland trip with nervousness, and returned saying it was life-changing. I did not hear any hesitancy from her about our visit to Berlin today.

“It’s so massive,” my daughter says of the memorial. “But did you see, there were kids playing on the shorter columns. It was disrespectful.”

I nod. At home, we bicker and are often exasperated by each other: teenaged girl seeking independence, my disapproval of her clothing, of her insistence on spending her hard-earned cash on things I consider frivolous. But today we do not argue. Today we are enjoying each other’s company.

Before arriving in Berlin, I had not read up on the memorial, nor on anything else we might see. I made a conscious decision not to spend our entire day focused on the Holocaust. This encapsulates my dilemma when a new Holocaust novel / memoir / movie / documentary is released, one that I know is shared by friends: Do I want to read / see another account in the time I’ve allotted for relaxation or entertainment? I usually come down on the side of yes; it’s my responsibility as a Jew and as a human being, and afterward I’m glad that I did. But given the abyss of suffering, it feels callous to write these words, to give voice to this internal debate.

In our remaining hours, we stop for lunch, visit a museum about life in East Germany, and buy a shirt for my daughter. She’s already talking about a return trip with her friends, so they can shop, take in the nightlife, and — I hope — spend a bit of time learning about the city. I, too, plan to return. I want to soak up more history, and gain a deeper glimpse into modern-day Germany, the subsoil and the topsoil.

I ask my daughter if she’d been hesitant about visiting Germany before we left.

“No,” she says. “I came to Berlin as an American.”

“You mean, as a tourist?” I ask.

She nods, meaning: in contrast to her journey to Poland. “But when anyone asked, I said I was from Israel.”

Months later, it is the memorial that made the deepest impression on both of us; it’s the first thing my daughter mentions when I ask her what she remembers from our day. Since our return, I’ve been scouring the official memorial website: reading and rereading the speeches from the opening, learning the history of its construction and the controversies surrounding its establishment. My research leads me to contemplate new topics, from architectural theory of public memorials to remembrance and responsibility. How far Germany has come, how far so many nations and institutions still need to go to acknowledge past sins. Indeed, as I’ve been writing this essay, it’s been impossible to ignore the widely-reported rise in anti-Semitic incidents, not only in Berlin but across Europe and the United States.

In his brief remarks at the opening, the architect Peter Eisenman mentioned that one of the purposes in constructing the project was to “begin a debate with openendness […] allowing future generations to draw their own conclusions. Not to direct them what to think, but to allow them to think.” He stated further that the project brought him closer to his Jewishness. “Orthodox or reform, religious or secular, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, German or Pole, we were all the same in their eyes.”

There’s no doubt that my brief visit to the memorial also brought me closer to my own Jewishness. Like my daughter, I arrived as a tourist, but left as a Jew. Like those who labored to make the memorial a reality, I grapple with how nations, communities, and individuals should take responsibility for the Holocaust and for the multitude of humanity’s other dark hours. Departing Berlin, I feel strengthened and resolved to travel to uncomfortable places, certain the journey will be worthwhile.

JULIE ZUCKERMAN hails from Connecticut but moved to Israel 23 years ago. Her writing has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, SFWP Quarterly, Salt Hill, Ellipsis, Occulum, Riggwelter Press, Sixfold, Descant, and The MacGuffin, among others. She is working on a collection of linked stories and a novel. Find her on Twitter.