Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Letter to a distant friend

by J J Cohen

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,


Suzanne Akbari said...

This is deeply moving, and makes it clear that your visit to Berlin was good in more than one way. I was very interested by your response to the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas: my 84-year-old aunt, who has lived almost her whole life about two miles from the memorial site, dislikes it very much because she thinks the children and lovers among the stones diminish our acknowledgment of the horror experienced by the victims; my cousin, who is one generation younger, feels the way you and I do about it, welcoming the joy of life that can be glimpsed among the stones. I don't know if we're missing something, or if my aunt just can't see what we see, having seen what she's seen. Thanks for writing this.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Your aunt is not alone, Suzanne. MANY Germans protested the abstract (deconstructive) design, and its refusal to establish a bounded, sacred space (it's a public square with no security visible; it's open all day and all night). The learning center is underneath the monument and easy to miss. There's minimal signage to tell onlookers what to think, how to feel, what to remember.

I found these words from Peter Eisenman, the architect who designed the Denkmal, going through my head on my visits:

"I think people will eat their lunch on the pillars ... I’m sure skateboarders will use it. People will dance on top of the pillars. All kinds of unexpected things are going to happen."

He was right.

dtkline said...

Sharply observed and deeply felt, this is a moving meditation, Jeffrey, and I thank you for it. From my admittedly distanced perspective, I would have to lean toward a 'both/and' understanding of the place as horror and joy, not because both were there in equal measure but because sequestering a space to sacralize imposes a different kind of violence (as we're struggling with in the Islamic center near the site of the twin towers).

Do you know about Adolek Kohn and the dance video he made at some of these same sites? A survivor dancing to 'I Will Survive' at the site of these horrors outraged many, but he also had a point to make: that life continues and by dancing with his grandchildren in the very places where the Nazis tried to stamp out his life and all subsequent generations of Jews is a kind of triumph. (

I was shaken last week when it occurred to me that I may live to see the death of the last Holocaust survivor. And it brought home to me just how important it is to carry on this witness.