Memorials To Monstrosities, Ctd

A reader writes:

Having lived in the diplomat town of Bad Godesberg, Germany in the ’70s as a youth, I was familiar with Denkmals and Mahnmals.  Interestingly, an abandoned and vandalized villa near where I lived has now been restored and is now classified as a Baudenkmal, or a memorial building that enjoys historic building protection.  It’s still a privately-owned residence, sold by the original Jewish family (who eventually got it back) in 1997 to the Heidelberg,_Germany_Stolperstein_for_Max_and_Olga_Mayer,_June_2013current owner who restored it to its former glory.  Finding out a few years ago that it had been owned by a prominent Jewish Family that had to flee was dumbfounding to me; I had never thought of that possibility while sneaking in and playing on its grounds.

But more poignantly I just recently came across this project that qualifies for both Denkmals and Mahnmals: Stolperstein, or “stumble stone” (or as Wikipedia translates it, “stumbling block”) is an interesting project of placing a personalized brass memorial capped cobblestone outside the houses where Jewish (and others) victims of the Holocaust had lived.  I first found out about it a few weeks ago when using TracesOfWar.com.  It was fascinating for me to see locations at houses near all the places where I had lived in Germany. Powerful local reminders. As of July 2013 over 40,000 stones have been placed by the German artist.

Another reader points to the memorial featured in the earlier post:

Being more of a Francophile, I was unaware of the differences between the two German words for memorial. But I have been to Berlin and walked down into the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  The gray monoliths don’t look particularly impressive from the outside and I was perplexed about them when I first saw it.  But if you walk down into the memorial, their symbolism becomes quite clear.

The monoliths are situated so that only a few feet from the street, you lose sight of everything except walls of dull gray concrete, and far above, the sky, which in Berlin is often also gray.  It is a terribly claustrophobic feeling, as though you are lost and will never be able to find your way back.  I can imagine that’s what the murdered  Jews, and gays and others felt when they were doomed to Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz.  So this memorial not only conveys mahnmal, but for anyone who troubles to walk down into it, it can convey a terrible sense of despair and loss.

Conversely, the Reichstag building in Berlin, which sat burned out and unused from 1933 and pockmarked from bullets and artillery fire in 1945 during the battle for Berlin, has been, since reunificaiton, completely rehabbed and brought back to life.  Its most arresting feature is the chamber for the Bundestag, the German parliament, which sits on the top floor of the building under a giant glass dome which contains a system for reflecting light down into the chamber.

There are three symbols at work.  One, the rehabilitation of the building was conceived and designed by the great British architect Sir Norman Foster.  Yes, the Germans selected an architect from the victors of WWII to build their “capitol” building.  Second, the building was last used as the seat of German government in 1933, the last time Germany was a democracy, however flawed, before the dark ages of Nazism and the Cold War. So it is a bridge over those times.  Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the glass dome symbolizes Germany ruled in the light, hopefully never again in the darkness.

Berlin is a very modern, cosmopolitan city, and can be a lot of fun.  But it’s also a city of ghosts and reminders of terrible things.

(Image caption: “Stolperstein for Max and Olga Mayer, June 2013, Heidelberg, Germany”)