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Berlin Vol 2: Iconography of Memory

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Building a monument is a powerful act, one that has many meanings and outcomes. But when monuments are erected to acknowledge the violence of an entire people, they are especially powerful and important. Marking a place is both an act of and a promise to never forget – because remembering is our only hope of not repeating our actions.

As Canadians, we don’t truly understand who we are and maybe a well-designed monument could help us learn and about our past and present national identity. We’ve forced Indigenous children into Residential Schools, developed governmental policies to deal with the “Indian problem,” we’ve failed to protect and  Indigenous women and we’ve developed a national narrative that legitimizes our existence in this land and justifies the dispossession of millions of Indigenous people.

But with so much to comes to terms with as a country, is a monument appropriate or even useful? And if so, how do we ensure that it honours those who have been victimized and doesn’t glorify those doing the apologizing?

In my recent visit to Berlin, I saw a city that has reckoned with their guilt in profound yet humble ways. Monuments large and small are woven into the city structure. Photos painted on the sides of brick buildings, tripping stones with the names of those murdered in the Holocaust and the most recent addition: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the memorial consists of 2711 concrete blocks that vary in height and are arranged in a grid pattern. On the perimeter, the blocks are waist height, but once you walk further into the grid the slabs grow to over 15-feet-high. The 54 north/south rows and and 87 east/west rows are arranged on a sloping plane, which when viewed from overhead, creates a rippling, wave-like pattern. 

Underneath the monument there is an underground information centre that is devoted to telling stories and giving a face to those who suffered and dies. It’s meant to personalize the horror.

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Prior to choosing the design for the memorial, members of the Foundation overseeing its creation agreed that it shouldn’t be a monument of shame – this would be arrogant. In Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Klaus Frahm explains that to achieve a sense of grace in acknowledging guilt, the design of the memorial needed to reject all the “traditional iconography of memory.” In order to create a site that truly matters, a different kind of experience was created.

The Foundation also agreed that the memorial shouldn’t be intentionally horrific – a place for people to shock themselves with the grotesque. In other words, the memorial shouldn’t recreate the Holocaust or be an “Auschwitz Machine,” as Frahm so powerfully puts it.

For many, the design is confounding because there's no clear symbolism or meaning. But according to Framh, the “avowed lack of meaning” is the memorial’s greatest strength. The designer has created an experience that is meant to “provoke thought without prescribing an idea.” Visitors are free to feel or not feel, see metaphors in the concrete forms or view them as meaningless, but all are encouraged to reflect.

For me, I experienced something many others have expressed: a sense of isolation. I visited after the sun had gone down on a cold December evening. It was dark inside the grid, with only the ambient light from the surrounding city streets. I could peer out through the spaces between the blocks and see the city, but I felt separate and alone (perhaps because the monument is shockingly quiet). I visited with a friend and as we wondered through the grid we quickly got separated. I could hear only the sound of his shoes on the cobble stones and after only a few minutes, I worried that I’d get lost and headed for the perimeter.

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To achieve a design that allows for many meanings to be ascribed to it is a tremendous feat. The memorial must express grief without lamenting, must be both literal and abstract, evocative yet neutral, strong but silent. It is a design ruled by dichotomy and it walks the line masterfully.

Perhaps the most profound paradox of the memorial design is that the concrete slabs are both imposing and welcoming. The blocks on the edge are short and you feel safe to enter. But as the blocks become taller and taller, you find yourself inside of something much different than it appeared.  

I can’t help but see this as a metaphor for violence and evil itself. We’re lured into horror not because it’s horrific, but because of some desired outcome that feels completely disconnected from anything immoral or destructive. Prominent Indigenous writer Lee Maracle spoke to me once about an idea in Cree philosophy: everything bad begins with something good. The good is the inertia that moves us in a bad direction we wouldn’t consciously choose.

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While the design of the memorial employs the nuance of appropriate acknowledgment, it’s important to identify a key factor in its success: the period of oppression and violence it recognizes had ended.

If Canada is to build a memorial or monument to move towards reconciliation, we must ensure it’s not an empty gesture, pretty words without action. We have policies to unravel, reparations to make and land to give back. To quote Lee Maracle again: “I can forgive anyone for stepping on my foot if they get the fuck off.”