I was seventeen, the first year I came to Berlin. It was February, the month a comma in the death sentence of an unending German winter. It was bitterly cold and I did not recognise the memorial when I stumbled across it. Rushing through the web of grey pillars I stood – dizzied – at its centre, wondering where I was.
The Holocaust memorial, I later discovered – a vast network of concrete stelae, 2711 hulking lumps of stone. Germany is no stranger to remembrance, and this is Berlin’s answer to its history: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
The further one ventures into the vast network of concrete stelae which compose the monument, the fewer the reminders of life outside endure: the external sounds of the city dwindle, then vanish. Birdsong, traffic, the laughter of children turn to silence, just as life can turn to death can turn to stone.
2711 slabs of stone. The stelae sit in central Berlin, prime real estate, and a place where past paints present. Just round the corner from the Brandenburg Gate, another set piece of the nation’s recent history, the memorial’s location is symbolic – in the heart of Berlin, it promises: we will not forget. The stones bleed into the landscape, reminding us that the Holocaust happened not only in Auschwitz, Birkenau, Belsen, Majdanek. It happened also on these streets, in this city, in that house, just next-door. On the horizon the lines between city and concrete stacks blur as does breath in winter air, as do handprints on cool glass – as did the moral boundaries that led everyday Germans to turn a blind eye.
I was almost twenty-one, the second time I visited the memorial. It was warm and October, the trees of the Tiergarten already aflame. I was visiting Berlin for a whirlwind weekend of dancing and friends. The rucksack on my shoulders held a lace dress and vintage shoes. I almost walked past. All these decades later, I too could have turned a blind eye. But in the three years that had passed, I had thought often of the memorial. Perhaps that was the point, really – better a memorial that remains a whisper in the mind than any ‘final solution’ to the complexities of a violent history.
This time around, the sun shone confidently on the forest of stone. I was struck by the life radiating from every corner: couples sat unhurried, some kissing, atop the hunks of concrete. Hip young Berliners sunbathed and children leapt from stela to stela. Locals cut through on their way to work. So did tourists en route to Unter den Linden, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. It seems to me that this is the best way to remember: to fold the very act into the business of the present, to allow memory to give way to life.
Berlin has been through the wringer. Battered, bombed, flattened, fallen. Yet, against all the odds, as it has always done, Berlin has risen from the ashes and today it is a city marked as much by the future as as it is by its past. Streets away from the concrete jungle that commemorates, glittering high rises shoot like sunflowers into the sky.
(A little essay, revisited, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.)