Another Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Op Ed of almost a decade ago.
Monday, Sept. 25, 2006
Weekend Perspectives: Berlin's surprising model
Jewish history is honored in the German capital
Saturday, July 22, 2006
By Rudolph H. Weingartner
A recent visit to Berlin prompts me to make a statement that I had never expected to utter: With respect to Jews, the Berliners got something right -- on a matter, moreover, about which we here in the United States might think a bit more clearly. Jews are represented, so to speak, by two formidable Berlin sites.
The most recently completed (May 2005) is Peter Eisenman's Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, placed in the very center of the city, next to the Brandenburger Tor and not far from the Reichstag. The other is Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum, which opened in 2001 in a residential area of Berlin.
The paths toward the erection of these two works were anything but smooth. In particular, the squabbling, sometimes fierce, about every aspect of the Memorial -- design, materials, cost, location and even just what it was to commemorate -- lasted for more than a decade and a half. In a sense, it continues to this day since by no means all of those who disapprove of the design or even of its purpose are reconciled to its existence.
But I am by no means alone in my admiration of Mr. Eisenman's achievement. Heinrich Wefing, a leading German architectural critic, refers to it as a beautiful abstraction "that does not dictate what its observer should think or experience, but is nonetheless thoughtful and moving," while The New York Times' Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote "how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexity of human emotion."
What must not be ignored is the sheer scope of the memorial: 2,711 steles of different heights spread over an expanse measured in the most ur-American way, as having the size of two football fields. If the paradigmatic individual memorial is the simple tombstone, Mr. Eisenman's expanse of slabs is an appropriate cenotaph for 6 million.
The motto of the Jüdische Museum Berlin across town calls for "two millennia of German-Jewish History." And in a somewhat cluttered way, it emphatically lives up to that slogan. Its numerous displays convey a wealth of information about the many and changing roles that Jews have played in Germany.
As one descends from the starting point at the top of Mr. Libeskind's edifice, one moves forward in time until one reaches the lowest floor where information is provided both about the Holocaust and the emigration of Jews to other lands, reinforced by the Garden of Exile and Emigration just outside.
In two significant ways, Berlin got it right, even if it took years of controversy and argument to get there. First, by placing the account of the Shoah at the end of an elaborate overview of those 2,000 years of the intertwining of German and Jewish societies that basement exhibit is not one of mere victimhood but is reached by museum visitors after having been elaborately informed as to who those victims were.
This horrendous period of history is shown to have been both a murderous destruction of human lives and an attempt to eradicate a significant part of human civilization. It takes a Jewish museum to show that, rather than a Holocaust museum.
The second way in which Berlin got it right is that it was sensitive to the tension between the institutional goal of providing knowledge and that of fostering commemoration.
The didactic goal is indefinitely complex. Museums use displays and documents, film clips and computer screens, earphones and loudspeakers and ever more modes of communication to cram masses of information and impressions into the heads of their patrons.
Alert visitors -- moving this way and that, looking and listening here and there -- take in a lot. With luck, they will remember a goodly fraction of what they have experienced, and with even more luck, they will later reflect on what they have found out.
When all the stars are properly aligned, then, the absorbed stream of information may lead to retrospective contemplation. But a monument like Mr. Eisenman's has the power to do that on the spot. Inducement to reflection and meditation is focused, monolithic, immediate. By pressing different buttons from those multifaceted didactic ones, a thoughtful monument evokes thought, then and there.
That, finally, brings me to our own practices in the United States. To a degree, Washington's Holocaust Memorial Museum serves both the didactic and the memorial function, though in the latter role not as successfully as Israel's Yad Vashem.
But if we leave aside these major establishments of world capitals, accounts about the United States are not encouraging. The Israel Science and Technology Homepage reports that to this date, we have created 23 Holocaust museums, not counting our little one in Pittsburgh that didn't make it onto the list. If you put aside actual Shoah sites, such as Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, that is more than in all of the rest of the world together.
By way of contrast, the same source of information show there to be 24 Jewish museums in our land, while there are 57 in the rest of the world, not counting numerous museums in Israel.
Ours is the wrong ratio, a wrong view of history, the wrong way to present the contributions of the Jewish people to the world's history and the wrong way to commemorate the Shoah. We must hold on to an inclusive meaning of Never Forget. Forget not what they did, but remember, too, who they were to whom they did it. Let's stop building Holocaust museums and create Jewish museums instead.