History@Portsmouth

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Heritage and Memory: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Aimee Campbell, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog entry on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe for the Introduction to Historical Research Unit. Aimee discusses the process in which memorials gain meaning and serve as sites where past atrocities can be commemorated. The unit is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth. 

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Heritage presents the past through a memorialised fashion; compromising of tangible memorials, rituals and ceremony. Heritage and memory can be political in certain historical contexts and conditions. [1] In this blog I shall explore whether the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin is successful as a site of remembrance with reference to the historiography surrounding debates on what makes a suitable memorial. As Sharon Macdonald has noted, “Heritage is deployed to show that the collective identity in question […] has not just been formed in the very recent past but somewhere further back”. [2] In the case of this memorial, for example, it is commemorating the Jews targeted by the Nazis, but this is a collective identity which was established far back in the past.

On the 12 May 2005 the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenman, was unveiled in Berlin, Germany. It consisted of an array of 2,711 rectangular stelae in varying heights, as well as an underground Information Centre presenting an exhibition about the Holocaust. [3] Henry W. Pickford argues that the memorial aligns itself with the idea of counter-monuments which, as suggested by Eisenman, refers to the fact that the horror of the Holocaust means that it could not be represented by traditional means. [4] Pickford displays this view because the site does not have any signage that indicates it is a memorial for the Jews murdered as part of the National Socialist regime. Geoffrey Cubitt writes that there is a desire to associate the idea of history with the idea of memory, thus suggesting that perhaps the only reason for the existence of memorials is for society to have something tangible which they can attach the past to or the suffering of a group with. [5] Therefore, the lack of anything signifying the purpose of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe raises questions as to the effectiveness of it as a memorial. However, Bridget Sion argues that the lack of a focal point acts to reflect how the perpetrators and victims were everywhere and cannot be pinpointed to an exact spot. [6] Walking through the memorial is supposed to be a disconcerting experience with uneven pathways and a feeling of isolation. The design also muffles the outside sound of traffic, creating an eerie atmosphere that only adds to the discomfort of the memorial. [7]

A key element to the memory aspect of the memorial is the underground Information Centre, the addition of which situates the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in between representational and non-representational forms of memorial design. [8] Without the Information Centre it would almost be too easy for people to walk through the stelae and have no idea of their significance to the many Jews who fell victim to the Nazi regime. The Centre fulfils the idea that memorials must accord moral recognition of the victims of the past and stress the need for society to process their past collective experiences; without the Centre Eisenman’s design would not be sufficient as a site of memorial. [9] This raises the suggestion that perhaps a heritage site dedicated to memory is only useful if its purpose is fully understood by those who visit, otherwise it is an injustice being done to those to whom a memorial is being set up to commemorate. After all, as stated by Sion, the core mission of memorials is commemoration. [10] It is also worth noting, as Sion suggests, that “memorials depend for their success on sensitivity to their immediate and ramified contexts” [11]. In the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe the sensitivity and emotion felt by visitors is more commonly felt in the Information Centre than when walking through the actual site. Another element that needs considering with this specific memorial is ‘dark tourism’, when people specifically travel to places that are associated with death and suffering. Germany is the second most visited country behind Poland when it comes to the Holocaust, and, within its first year of being unveiled, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe became a tourist magnet. [12] The very fact that the memorial is to commemorate an aspect of the Holocaust is exactly what draws people to it, highlighting how the purpose of a memorial is more for the present-day audience than those it is supposed to be commemorating. [13] Although the memorial was designed and commissioned with the intention of memorialising specifically the Jews who were victims of National Socialism, it has proved to be a place people can visit and share their grief, as well as pay their respects. As Joy Sather-Wagstaff argues, heritage is shared by groups of people as its foundations lie in collective memory, so a memorial is only efficient if it can unite a group of people in one common thought. [14] One of Eisenman’s intentions with this memorial was to have no sense of nostalgia or memory of the past, only the living memory of individual experience upon visiting the site. [15]

In conclusion, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an interesting case when considering the process of heritage and memorialisation. Eisenman’s memorial is a “self-reflective contemporary artwork and historically referential monument”. [16] Traditionally, monuments are geared towards the production and extension of knowledge and the awareness of such as part of social memory. [17] However, if someone was to visit the memorial and not the Information Centre they would come away potentially feeling moved by their experience but their understanding of the Jewish experience would not be advanced. Alternatively, it is not always essential for a monument to be a source of knowledge. It can sometimes just be a place to deposit memory and thought. [18] Despite its abstract nature, then, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is effective because it combines both a simple and passive structure with the informative and moving Information Centre, which work together and complete one another to fulfil the embodiment of a memorial.

 

Notes

[1] Joy Sather-Wagstaff, “Heritage and Memory”, in Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Heritage Research, ed. Emma Waterton and Steve Watson (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 191.

[2] Sharon Macdonald, “Undesirable Heritage: Fascist Material Culture and Historical Consciousness in Nuremberg”, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 12, no.1 (2006), 10.

[3] Bridget Sion, “Affective Memory, Ineffective Functionality: Experiencing Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”, in Memorialization in Germany Since 1945, ed. William John Niven and Chloe E. M. Paver (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 243.

[4] Henry W. Pickford, “Dialectical Reflections on Peter Eisenman’s Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe”, Architectural Theory Review, 17, no.2-3 (2012), 424.

[5] Geoffrey Cubitt, History and Memory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 30.

[6] Sion, “Affective Memory”, 243.

[7] Sion, “Affective Memory”, 246.

[8] Pickford, “Dialectical Reflections”, 421.

[9] Cubitt, History and Memory, 51.

[10] Sion, “Affective Memory”, 251.

[11] Sion, “Affective Memory”, 251.

[12] Sion, “Affective Memory”, 247-248.

[13] Henry W. Pickford, “Dialectical Reflections”, 426.

[14] Joy Sather-Wagstaff, “Heritage and Memory”, 192.

[15] Sion, “Affective Memory”, 247.

[16] Sion, “Affective Memory”, 249.

[17] Geoffrey Cubitt, History and Memory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 26.

[18] Sion, “Affective Memory”, 251.

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