Thoughts on the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe (the Holocaust memorial)

"Hat die Menschheit einmal ihren Erzähler verloren so hat sie auch ihre Kindschaft verloren" - "Once humanity has lost its storyteller, it's also lost its childhood."

When I wander Berlin's Holocaust memorial, I can't get these words - spoken by the character Homer in Wim Wenders's film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) - out of my head. Homer, played by German-Jewish actor Curt Bois, wanders the city lamenting the state of storytelling and wanders Potsdamer Platz searching for the Berlin he once knew, before "the people were no longer friendly".

The memorial - more properly known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) - is just a short walk from Potsdamer Platz, built in one of the gaps left in the city by the wall's death strip. Through these empty spaces, Berlin seemed to enjoy a kind of second childhood in the early post-wall years, a time of boundless possibilities, when areas left or forcibly made empty by the city's division suddenly became usable again. Berlin became known as Europe's biggest building site and began the process of capitalising on the potential of its empty spaces.

Designed by American-Jewish architect Peter Eisenman and opened in May 2005, the memorial consists of 2,711 concrete pillars - or stelae, as they're often referred to - arranged in a grid pattern. The heights of the stelae vary between 0.2m and 4.7m and the ground level also undulates, making it generally deeper in the middle. In his explanation of the memorial, Eisenman says that "The project manifests the instability inherent in what seems to be a system" - that it reveals the potential for chaos in what seems to be something orderly.

The Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, famed for his eccentric architectural design work, once said "An uneven and animated floor is the recovery of man's mental equilibrium, of the dignity of man which has been violated in our levelling, unnatural and hostile urban grid system." Rather than the memorial's uneven floor destroying the "illusion of order and security in the internal grid and the frame of the street grid" I find that it actually brings a sense of freedom and a desire to explore. To me, the uneven floor, like Hundertwasser's work, feels playful.

In a 2005 interview, Eisenman said that "I think people will eat their lunch on the pillars [...] I'm sure skateboarders will use it. People will dance on top of the pillars. All kinds of unexpected things are going to happen."

People do dance on top of the pillars. Skateboarders use it too. Just they get shouted at by one of the guards employed to make sure that the atmosphere remains as solemn and rigid as the concrete pillars themselves. Eating your lunch on the pillars might just about be ok, as long as you don't do it on the tall ones, though I can imagine the guards' tolerance for that being fairly low too.

Eisenman's comment there seems to suggest that he knew how the chaotic element of his design would make visitors behave, that he was aware of the playful edge which it would lend the memorial.

Before the Nazis came to power, Berlin's Jewish population was at the centre of its entertainment industry - writers, musicians, composers, artists, actors and cabaret performers, people who observed and commented on the city's daily life. During the Holocaust, Berlin lost many of its storytellers, and perhaps, for a while at least, it lost its childhood too. The Holocaust memorial, in having its playful side suppressed by its guardians, then becomes a lament for this lost childhood. The playful elements of the design end up jarring with the imposed order of the society which guards it.

How much freedom should visitors be allowed, though? It's clear from Eisenman's explanation of the memorial that his concept is something rather deeper than commemorating the Holocaust with an adventure playground, which is what it could be in danger of becoming if people are allowed to run, climb and jump their way through the memorial as they fancy. There have been times when I've been in there when it's been filled with shrieking teenagers - the atmosphere is certainly far from reflective then.

Interestingly, Eisenman also states that the memorial represents "the idea that all closed systems of a closed order are bound to fail." Interesting because the ordered part of the memorial, represented by the stelae, is itself becoming disordered; some of the stelae are starting to develop tiny weather cracks. Very slowly, the sharp, orderly corners are becoming notched and jagged as pieces flake away.

What's ultimately intriguing is the way that the very play between order and chaos which Eisenman eludes to is what plays out within the memorial, that the system it seems to present does reveal itself to be unstable, even if visitors might not always stop to ask what position in this system they might be occupying.

Mohrenstraße (U2)
Brandenburger Tor (U55)
Brandenburger Tor (S1, S2, S25)
Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe
10117 Berlin


This strictness and loss of playfulness is indeed something I observe in people, not necessarily only in Germans, I guess. It seems that many people carry big weights around on their shoulders, they seem to live in their own heads exclusively and avoid looking around, in fact the avoid the "stop and smell the roses" thing.

Makes me feel so sorry. All the empty faces ...
All the more it is heart warming to encounter people who smile back, who smile, giggle or even dare to laugh at the sight of playing children or funny events.

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