By: Samantha Avalos
During my process of reflection on my experience in Berlin, and more specifically at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, I was steered by my professors to the work of Irit Dekel, in particular her article, ““Ways of Looking: Observation and transformation at the Holocaust Memorial, Berlin.” It was only after reading this article that I gained a better understanding of my experience at the Memorial, and thus I rely heavily on her work to further my analysis of my experience.
While on our final weekend of traveling we visited Berlin, a city not only once the capital of the tyrannical Nazi Third Reich, but a city torn between democracy and communism during the German Democratic Republic era. It was here, in Berlin, that “the question of … what pasts should be remembered, and through what forms” was raised when discussions of a Holocaust Memorial began (Till, A Fence, 11).
While in the capital city we had the opportunity to visit the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by Peter Eisenman and opened in May of 2005, the Memorial stands on over 4 acres of prime real estate in the center of Berlin. Located just south of the Brandenburg Gate, one of the most iconic landmarks of Germany, the Holocaust Memorial makes quite the statement.
In her article, Dekel articulates the idea that each visitor to the Memorial has an individually unique experience. The Memorial creates a space of openness leaving room for individual interpretation. Dekel states, “All visitors to the memorial are engaged in ‘imagination exercise’.”(Dekel, 76). Which suggests that as everyday visitors and citizens we are most comfortable with being given an established idea or understanding upon entrance to memorials or prior to visiting. As everyday visitors we are used to being provided a direct meaning of the memorials we visit or encounter, but at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe Dekel contends that visitors are left with openness and questions. This was my exact experience at the Memorial.
When I first saw the Memorial to the Murder Jews of Europe while sitting on the bus, I was in shock. It was massive. There was such a stark contrast between the memorial and the buildings surrounding it, not to mention the large green space just across the major street. I had a mix of emotions and I hadn’t even truly experienced it yet. I couldn’t figure out how I’d feel walking through, but I was ready to find out.
Upon arrival I along with some classmates noticed the numerous flocks of people congregating in the memorial, some were using the stelae as picnic benches, others using them as props to aid in their journey to achieve that perfect Instagram picture. It reminded me of our day at Auschwitz, where we witnessed people doing similar things. At the time I was disgusted, I questioned the actions and thoughts of these visitors. It wasn’t until I read Dekel’s article that I realized that this is a part of an ongoing debate about the etiquette of visitors. She raised a key question that truly resonated with me and pushed me forth in my own internal discussion, “Who or what is presumably offended by the ‘improper behavior’? The site itself? Other visitors? Survivors and their families?” (Dekel, 78). She again proved that each individual has a unique experience because of their interactions with the Memorial itself and observations of others there.
Our afternoon in Berlin continued with a moving tour of the underground Place of Information. As our tour concluded we were free to wander through the Memorial. I was instantly filled with a somber feeling, maybe it had to do with the grey skies and cold temperatures, but even with just a few steps into the Memorial I was in a mode of reflection. I continued to walk down the row of stelae I began on and felt myself getting smaller and smaller. I’m not a very tall person to begin with, standing at a mere 5 feet 2 inches, but the stelae towered over me. I began to feel a sense of isolation and loneliness in the midst of these concrete stelae. I had lost my peers that I began with, and my mind was racing with questions. What way was out? Was I lost? Would I be able to find the rest of my group? Was this sense of isolation the way European Jews felt? And at that moment my thoughts were interrupted with the sound of a young girl running through the stelae screaming with joy.
It’s this type of interaction and observation at the Memorial that Dekel contends is crucial in making the space intelligible (Dekel, 82). My question raising and moving walk through the memorial is what De Certeau’s defined as poaching in 1984. At every site we have visited I have performed these poaching strategies without realizing it. I have a unique experience at every site and the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe is no exception to this, nor is any other visitor different. Through my process of reflection I have realized that there are times where an explicit meaning of a site is not necessary and there is nothing wrong with having a site leave room for individual interpretation.