Remembering the Holocaust

‘I toured Europe a couple of years ago: Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow; Auschwitz’ a friend told me. ‘I’ve been to Auschwitz twice.’

‘You’ll cry your eyes out’ said another. ‘Exhibits of hair, just piles of human hair; shoes, bags. You should go.’

There’s an increasing trend towards ghoulish tourism: sites of crashes, assassinations and murders; a modern version of popping down to the Colosseum for a gladiatorial fight or Tyburn for a public hanging.

I chickened out and didn’t go to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, a daytrip away from Krakow in Poland. Instead, I stayed in Berlin, the city where the holocaust was organised and overseen. It’s a city whose sometimes troubling history is visible at every turn.

 The growing line of stelae of the Holocaust memorial, Berlin

For me, a more powerful image than the sheds and rail lines of Auschwitz is the eight year old Holocaust Memorial; more correctly The memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. It stands in the heart of civilian Berlin, within sight of the Brandenburg Gate and Tiergarten, close to the sites of Goebbels’ private bunker and the Fuhrerbunker.

The 2711 smooth rectangular grey-blue concrete blocks – officially described as stelae – are identical in width and breath but alter in height, up to 4 metres, between undulating pathways. The change in heights gave me a very real feeling of powerlessness. The interaction of the stelae with those who have come to observe it creates an obvious comparison between life and death. Children play and climb over the lower stelae, while others sit on them to enjoy picnic lunches, looking away from the abstract memorial to the Victory Column at the heart of the Tiergarten.

Beneath the standing stones is a modern underground bunker – an information centre or museum. Standing in it, with the knowledge that tons of concrete rests above me further enforces the sense of lacking control. The centre focusses on individuals; tens rather than millions. Central to the museum is an exhibition map, marking 220 locations where persecutions and exterminations of Jewish men, women and their children took place across Europe. Only Switzerland and Sweden are free of sites.

The essayist George Santayana once wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The aim of the bravely named memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe is to stop that happening as survivors reach old age and the sheds of Auschwitz crumble.

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