Meditation on a note I sent, and a note that stays with me still.
You asked what I felt in Berlin. Although you did not know that this visit was my first to the country, you guessed at what it meant. I have been thinking for a long time of those who once lived there. Family stories vanish as their tellers die, but some remain.
To honor the memory of Johanna, bereft of a childhood home; to honor Paul, who saved everyone except his mother, who waited a few days too long, I made some visits in Berlin. The Jewish Museum is an old building with an angular and fragmented addition by Daniel Libeskind. The structure is traversed by three axes, one hopeful (Axis of Continuity), one fraught (Axis of Emigration), and one that winds a hallway which narrows, darkens, and dead ends. The Axis of the Holocaust is lined with glass cases, objects left behind: a letter that never reached its addressee, a notebook, some jewelry, shards of lives. I followed the darkening corridor to the sign declaring "Holocaust Tower." The school group which had been my noisy companions turned around at the enormous metal door. I pulled it open and went inside.
|fragment of the Berlin wall|
You enter into darkness, and the gate slams behind you. The empty space is lined with stone. The tower is dark, weak radiance from a wall far above, where a gash or wound is cut. The cold room is empty. You can hear some noise from the street outside: a car passes, a conversation intrudes or the wind, but you can see nothing of that world, can't reach the life that you know must continue at the stone's outside.
When the door closed behind me and I found myself alone, I will admit the tears that welled. Sudden enclosure, entrapment and hopeless finality overwhelmed. Some small fragment, some tiny fragment, I thought, of what those who lost their objects must have felt. The Holocaust Tower is one of five voids worked into the museum's design, empty spaces that declare what the museum can never exhibit. The most moving of these voids is Menashe Kadishman's "Shalechet" ("Fallen Leaves"), steel faces of the dead over which you walk, creating a sound that wrenches the heart.
These spaces are powerful. Yet they can also feel gimicky. I admire their artfulness, but I remain ambivalent about their manipulations.
Later that same day I went to the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a Holocaust monument in the heart of Berlin. This sculptural expanse consists of 2,711 rectangular slabs, one for each page of the Talmud. Unincised, dark gray and barren, they resemble blank sarcophagi. They cover an entire square with lithic undulations. Some of these slabs are only a few feet tall; many tower far above those who walk among them, perhaps to sixteen feet. In their stony solemnity, their weight as seeming grave markers, the slabs call to mind the concentration camp dead. I thought about placing a pebble atop a marker, but lost myself to wandering when I couldn't find one. The expanse seemed somber, as a memorial must be.
But then you notice that some children are running through the narrow gray avenues as if they offered a maze. Sometimes a bike glides by, a teenager daring the rocks with stunts. Tourists pause at the Denkmal as if it were a park. They take smiling pictures, they pose looking around the slabs, they eat their lunch or ice cream. With so many people losing themselves among the stones, it is impossible for you not to notice that the sky is very deep in its blue, that trees have been planted amongst the slabs, that the sun is illuminating the cobblestones.
I returned to the memorial late at night because I knew an enormous harvest moon would shine. In that lunar fullness I saw the tourists still walking. Some lovers were holding hands and sitting upon a slab, regarding the moon. None of this seemed a desecration. Life proceeds even in the wake of the worst. I was moved profoundly by this memorial, by its living rocks. It's not that they had sent a message of solemnity that had been ignored. They'd issued an invitation, and that offer had been heard.
Thank you for writing,