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Memorial Meanings

April 16, 2009

images-1.jpegMemorials are unusual structures. In a post-modern world of fractured meanings, these structures still attempt (and largely succeed) to present a clear, unified and highly-subjective view on world events. Some memorials, though, defy straightforward interpretation.

One example is the massive holocaust memorial in Berlin -- "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" -- which has been the cause of much controversy over the past decade for failing to acknowledge the non-Jewish victims of the Nazis and, as part of Germany's "Holocaust industry", exploiting the country's sense of shame and disgrace.

But as I walked through the memorial -- which consists of more than 2,700 stone pillars built onto an undulating 4.7 acre plot close to the Brandenburg Gate and was designed by architect Peter Eisenman -- it occured to me that this memorial is much more open to interpretation than most other stone-built momento moris.

For one thing, it's very experiential and interactive. You don't just look at it. You get inside it. In parts of the memorial, I felt very removed from the sky, like I was in a cave. I felt like I was descending into a labyrinthian dungeon. In other parts, I could perch on a stone pillar, see for miles and feel the warm air around me. At times, I felt very solitary and alone. At others, I felt like I was in a crowd. The pillars seemed like people. Every turn I made, I came across fellow memorial wanderers. I even saw a young couple necking in a shady enclave.

Nowhere inside the memorial or around it, does it say what it commemorates. Which leads me to think that while the structure has been built to commemorate a particular event, it means so much more. It can stand for a place of mourning and a hideaway for a surreptitious tryst.

What does it mean to me? It means death and life both at once. It means getting lost and finding oneself again. Despite the title of the memorial, its Jewishness feel abstract to me, probably because I grew up many decades after the close of the war in a family that, though Jewish, is essentially secular. The intention behind the creation of a memorial is an important consideration. It's difficult to experience the structure without a thought for the murdered Jews that it seeks to honor. But ultimately, its meaning is as much of a maze as the narrow corridors that greet the explorer as she approaches the structure.


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