On German guilt and Jewish spirit

The challenge of designing a fitting memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust is one very few architects could take on.

April 26, 2014 22:45
3 minute read.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin 370. (photo credit: Photomontage from Wikipedia via Mosaic Magazine)

The challenge of designing a fitting memorial to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust is one very few architects could take on, and is best not even attempted by most. Of the hundreds of memorials proposed or built since World War II, few stand out. But two monuments, designed by architects of world stature, are worthy of note.

The first, the “Central Memorial to the Jewish Victims of the Holocaust,” stands today in Berlin, the very city in which the genocide of the Jews was conceived. Following years of heated debate in the German parliament, the monument, designed by architect Peter Eisenman in partnership with sculptor Richard Serra, who were the winners of an international competition for its design, was finally completed in 2005.

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The second, the “Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs” in Battery Park, New York, was designed by architect Louis. I. Kahn. Kahn’s proposal, made in 1965, was never realized, reaching only the project stage.

Though both designs are abstract, expressing their meaning without pictorial representation, and whose subject seems similar at first, the contrast between them could hardly be greater. To begin with, Eisenman was commissioned by the German government, Kahn by the Jewish community of New York.

Eisenman’s intention was to create a maze in which the visitor soon feels lonely and depressed, losing his sense of orientation. Comprised of 2,711 grey concrete slabs of varying heights, some ankle high while others towered above the visitor, the slabs are arranged in a tight, waving grid. Paths between them have an uneven walking surface, undulating as well.

The monument, which takes up an enormous area, extends over more than five acres in central Berlin.

One is here confronted with the unmistakable image of a vast, dark cemetery.

Of immense proportions, dark and foreboding and completely cut off from its surroundings, Eisenman’s monument, in spite of its title, is not a memorial to the six million at all, but rather a mirror held up to the face of the German nation – a painful reminder of its unspeakable deeds during the Nazi era, put there to help assuage its guilt.

Kahn’s proposal was of extremely modest dimensions. His central thought was that the monument should present, in his words, “a non-accusing character.”

He thought of glass for its quality of material presence, yet the sun could come through and leave a shadow filled with light. Marble or stone with its defined shadow could be accusing, glass could not.

Kahn conceived his proposal as an environment of light. Six piers of glass would surround a small chapel open to the sky, into which a small group or family could enter. The six piers, which were to be constructed with solid blocks of glass placed one over the other without the use of mortar, were not to be inscribed. Only the chapel would “speak”. He envisioned that the entire construction in depth would be evident as one looks through each pier and through the entire composition of piers.

THE MONUMENT would attain its mood from the endless play of the weather, and the drama of movement on the river transmitting its life to it. The site, in wake of “Welcome to America” – Ellis Island (today’s “Roosevelt Island”, where Kahn’s “Four Freedoms Park” was completed in 2012, 38 years after his death), Castle Garden and the Statue of Liberty, did much to inspire the proposed use of glass, the sense of dematerialization, in order to allow these symbolic structures and all the life around, to enter the monument.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught that in Judaism, the sanctity of man can and must be fully integrated with natural life. Louis. I. Kahn (1901-74), the most spiritual of 20th-century architects, understood this intuitively. Rarely in architecture has so much been compressed into such simple and uncomplicated elements. Condensing what had to be said to essentials, he had the ability to embrace, be sustained and inspired by the nature of things as they are, most especially by the light of the everyday.

Architecture is a most accurate reflection of the society or nation it serves. Decoding the symbolic meaning of these two monuments might teach us much about who we are. But here all is self-evident.

Eisenman’s German monument is tied to death, Kahn’s proposed memorial to the six million for New York’s Jewish community was tied to light – to life! The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.

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