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(photo credit: AP)
The German government on Friday started construction of an exhibition center at the site where the Gestapo, leaders of the SS and other top officials in Adolf Hitler's police state presided over Nazi-era crimes.
The site "stands like no other place in Berlin for terror and genocide," Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit told reporters while marking the start of work. With the new center, he said, "one of the most important, authentic places of remembrance in Berlin will gain in stature."
The functional glass-and-metal structure, a single-story pavilion designed by German architect Ursula Wilms, will complete a memorial known as the "Topography of Terror" at what was one of the centers of Nazi power. It should be opened on May 8, 2010 -the 65th anniversary of Nazi Germany's final surrender.
Visitors - currently around 500,000 a year - have been able to view an open-air exhibition in what remains of the Gestapo cellars, which were uncovered in the 1980s in what is now largely wasteland.
The Gestapo also had its prison at the headquarters.
Next door once stood the Hotel Prinz Albrecht, which housed the leadership of the SS, the Nazi party's dreaded paramilitary unit - including Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich - and the Reich Security Main Office. Officials prepared the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where Nazi leaders formalized their plans for the Holocaust, at the site.
The SS acted as a special police force and was involved in some of the worst crimes committed in territory under Nazi control during World War II.
The remains of the damaged buildings were leveled after World War II. The site is in what was for decades a neglected corner of postwar West Berlin, right next to the Berlin Wall. It is still bordered by one of the wall's few remaining sections.
Wowereit said Wilms' design "is architecturally restrained and does not distract from the matter at hand."
The estimated $33 million cost of the new center will be shouldered by the German federal government and the city government.
Andreas Nachama, a former head of Berlin's Jewish community who leads the foundation overseeing the project, said that it would include a library and seminar rooms as well as the documentation center.
The site will now become "a worthy place of memory," said Wolfgang Boernsen, a lawmaker for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.
"We more than owe this to the victims of the Nazis' regime of terror, on whose fate decisions were made here."
The site is a few minutes' walk from the capital's Holocaust memorial, which opened two years ago. It is across the road from the one-time Nazi Aviation Ministry, which is now Germany's Finance Ministry.