A Failure to Understand: The Power of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

I Mean No Disrespect to Anne Frank

Travel Features Europe
A Failure to Understand: The Power of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a field of stone slabs in Berlin. They rest like tombstones but without names; they’re hardy, claustrophobic, and pass time as an amalgamation of unresolved souls. When you’re deep inside, it’s easy to forget that there’s a way out. Kids populate the architectural project as if it were a playground, chasing each other around The Holocaust Memorial. Dragging themselves up and back, surging through rows, they laugh, and gasp for breath as they gain on one another. Eventually one catches up to the other and they exchange roles. The chaser becomes the runner and the runner becomes the chaser– it might be the true art display of the Holocaust Memorial. A symbolic act of passionate escapism.

My parents didn’t want me to come to Germany. They were afraid of me visiting Europe and not returning home in one piece. “They hate Jews there. They still hate us,” they said. I rolled my eyes and shrugged it off as their typical overbearing neuroticism. Whenever I admit the sentiment to my friends, they think that my parents are out of touch. They laugh. I laugh too. 

On my first visit out of the country, and yearning to find out for myself– I line up for The Holocaust Memorial with my best friend, Sameera, telling the joke that I had thought of a few hours earlier, and saved for the moment. I say “Holocaust Memorial? More like, what up fam?” We both laugh again. I say, quieter this time, “do you think they’ll let us up to the front if I tell them I’m Jewish?” I look over my shoulder and check people’s faces to see if they’ve heard me.

Before visiting Germany, we started our 10 day trip in France. Everything about it was entrancing, and so was the native language, but I couldn’t speak. This was a feeling that shocked me more than it did as a theoretical thought. I had never left the country before, and therefore had never been somewhere in which English wasn’t the main language, so it was as much of a culture shock as it could’ve been to visit a place where the majority of the population still knows English. In Paris, life felt warm and charming, a little secluded, but more-so as a product of the language barrier than any negative experience. The division followed me to Berlin, but it turned crisp and icy. 

There is a shift in the air from one place to the other. Here, it’s real. I can feel the air rejecting me, or maybe my parents plunged me deep into subconscious paranoia. I know that this isn’t the year 1942, and they have never actually been to Germany. 

Sameera and I rest on the ground behind the 45 minute line, hovering, lifting ourselves, then lowering our bodies back down to the pavement each time the cluster in front of us inches a few feet forward, then eventually lets us down the stairs to the first exhibit. I absorb the English section of the pre-Holocaust timeline off the walls, which guides me down the lengthy hallway, slowly, and aware of the people around me who can comprehend it quicker. It concludes with death, and a doorway to a pitch black room. Projected images of letters burn into the floor, and act as the only lightness in the room. Nobody makes noise. I occasionally hear the clicking of a camera or the shuffling of a loud foot. I tread lightly, reading each individual word from the letters, written by Jewish individuals, who told their families their frantic goodbyes. I feel myself become consumed inside their stories, falling much heavier to the ground where the projections rest. 

Suzanne Burinovici writes to her husband, “My Dear, don’t separate from Michel. Don’t let yourself be taken to the children’s home. Write to Papa, maybe he can help you, and write to Paulette. Ask the furrier across the way for his advice. Maybe God will pit you. We are leaving tomorrow, for who knows where. I’m hugging you, in tears. I would so much have loved to hug you again, my poor children, I will never see you again.”

Szentkirályszabadja writes on October 31st, 1944: “I fell beside him and his corpse turned over, tight already as a snapping string. Shot in the neck – And that’s how you’ll end too, I whispered to myself, lie still; no moving. Now patience flowers in death. Then I could hear – Der springt noch auf – above, and very near. Blood mixed with mud was drying on my ear.”

The room that follows is covered in darkness too, but a lighter shade. Another projected image is drawn into my attention and flashes a name on a singular wall. A voice emerges over the speaker, first in German, then in English, explaining a two-to-three sentence background of the human name on the wall before turning into the next one. I think about my mom telling me that she became obsessed with trying to figure out The Holocaust when she came into her 20s, and about the concept itself of having to tell a child about it before they can really understand, and if it really gets through, with words. When I was told, I asked why it occurred. My mom responded that none of it makes any sense. At the time, I thought that if something was history it had to be far away, but a lot of the time, history is only yesterday. 

I start to cry in the room with black walls and eyes all pointed in the same direction, quieter than I would if my friend weren’t with me. To try to describe it with words makes my voice feel lost. I just blink, and stare blankly as a group of teenage boys take a selfie in front of a cluster of stones identical to the ones above ground. Up the stairs, people laze on them like seats, using them for comfort. Children throw themselves from one to another, like playground stools. I can’t help but imagine real people beneath them, banging to get out. The Holocaust wasn’t really that long ago– they might still be salvageable if we get them out fast enough. 

Not even 100 years have passed since the tragedy. I understand why my parents are afraid of this country, and why they didn’t want me to come, but I think that I needed to see it too. And I understand why people think I’m crazy, and they’re crazy—in general, but also specifically by misunderstanding the trauma. 

Holocaust Memorial

The air in Berlin is stale and it’s hard to find someone who might smile at you in passing. I think that the anger has lasted. The air is so heavy, and I can’t get out of my mind, repeating over to me in a very disciplinary tone, that this is the place that it happened. I wonder how many Jews still live here, where the history is so prominent. And maybe it’s not so prominent, but it is for me, at least, so maybe, stronger for a lot of them—I’m not even religious. I didn’t go to Hebrew school or synagogue. I wonder if any in their right mind would stay, when the ground we’re standing on once swam in our ashes. Germany feels like a strange place.

I wonder why the world decided to make Anne Frank the face of dead Jews. Was it easier to teach kids that way? They didn’t even list out all the names at the Holocaust Memorial. I don’t think they could if they tried. It was 6 million. And it was 80 years ago. And it is still happening now. And in other places too, like Syria or Palestine, and we’re just not doing anything to stop it again. 

I wonder how many edits were applied to Anne Frank’s journal, and if she was purposefully portrayed as someone who loved attention, so we would all think that this is what she would’ve wanted—to be the face of The Holocaust, almost as well known as Hitler. I mean no disrespect to Anne Frank, but it makes me so depressed to think of a young girl who is known because she is dead. And that we aspire to be remembered so hard and desperately that we leave behind art when we die and sometimes that’s our best chance at it ever being read, or being listened to ourselves. She just wanted a friend.

There aren’t a lot of names that we know so commonly, and I guess it would be impossible to remember more than we do. But I know that they all died too soon, sooner than they were meant to, and I wish there was a way that all of them could have done what they wanted to do, maybe publish books, too. A lot of people deserve to be remembered, and I’m glad that Anne Frank is, but there was so much more. Maybe I’m jealous, and expect that nobody might publish my journal when I die. But I think we are all just jealous. Hitler was jealous enough to set The Holocaust into motion. Jacob Twinger Von Konigshofen said “Money was also the reason Jews were killed, for if they had been poor and the territorial rules had owed them nothing, they would not have been burned.” We’re jealous enough to want to be martyrs too. And to tear apart life and riches and creativity and goodness. And to let it go on. I just have a feeling that it wasn’t really destroyed, even though Hitler thought it would be the last of us, and he’d be a martyr. I think that everything lost might’ve been reincarnated into something even stronger. And that they’re all still with us. Because you can’t just destroy life.

I wish we could all feel it, and be put to tears. But I relate, and not everyone does. I know that it’s hard to feel for what you can’t relate to, and that I can’t feel as intensely for the problems that don’t affect me either. I know it is just a profound symptom of being alive. And that there are children playing tag in The Holocaust Memorial pathways, jumping between stones, and nobody says a word. Nobody told them not to; I guess that I could have told them not to. If you look it up online, they tell you not to sit on the stones because it’s disrespectful. The kids are just having fun and being alive, and I can’t really blame them, because I lived too. I get to think these thoughts, and write them down. A lot of people had to die with them. 

It makes even more sense to me now why we’re all known for neuroticism and overbearing mothers, and why Jewish people have to be light-hearted. Sometimes it just feels like another way to separate ourselves from one another. It might be heritage, but it is also just words, but also, it is heritage (and the boundlessness of generational trauma).

It might be my own mental block, and not truly the current state of being in Berlin, but I can’t get past it. I think that it is just the world that I’m truly mad at. 

Before our trip led us to the Holocaust Memorial and ‘attractions,’ we experienced the loveliest flea market in Raw-Gelände with an influx of culture I’d never seen in my life before. On our second night, I asked a pair of young Germans at a bar if they were from around there, and then for their suggestions for places to go, mostly as a means to start a conversation. There was a comedy show in English, so it felt safe to approach them in our native language. The girl did most of the talking as she compounded a list of parks and bars on my phone. The boy sat kindly, and attentively, asking questions and responding by lighting up his eyes when we would answer them. The two claimed that their English was poor, but they spoke it almost perfectly. They asked if there were any stereotypes that Americans have for Germans and we told them that a lot of Americans say that Europeans in general are rude, but none had been so far. We said that we know that American tourists are known for being disrespectful to the area’s culture, and it’s part of the reason we had been afraid to speak in English to people. We were embarrassed to not be able to speak their native language when most Europeans know English, their native language, and often a third one too. We asked them if Germans are friendly, or willing to talk to you if you approach them. The girl answered, telling us that a lot of Germans are very inside themselves. They don’t really acknowledge other people—they are very focused on their own intentions, or whatever it is that they have to do.

On our second night in the country, I couldn’t tell if it was just fear of a new place, but more and more, I began to see that it was much harder to find people who will smile back at you on the streets than it was in France, or much more-so, Dublin (which I found to be a land of magic, returned smiles, and conversations in passing on the streets). 

Arriving in France as our first location of travel was a culture shock to me. I was the most excited to get to know people I’d never had the chance to meet before in my life, but I underestimated the gap in language, and the fear surrounding it (it might’ve dissolved, having gotten to stay for more than four days). 

I was surrounded by an enthralling new population of humans, realizing that there might be absolutely no means of communication between us (or some of us). A girl who wants to befriend the entire world should maybe never leave the country, so that everything beyond the walls can remain as pure imagination, and the possibility of communicating can stay outlandish but plausible (but then, there are worse problems in the world than misunderstanding). But I also wondered: maybe it isn’t much different than interfacing in English. I think that words sometimes abstract things worse than they are, or what we would take away if we just looked at one another, and sensed one another’s thoughts instead, intuitively. It’s not like we always understand each other, anyway, or even try to.

If I could guess, I have a feeling that Hitler never sat himself down with a friend, and had a real honest conversation. I don’t expect that if he had friends, they spoke about the world with love, or that they might’ve gotten as far as to speak about the world as a whole. I don’t expect that he ever had true friends, family, or love, and if he did, I can’t imagine that this social circle would be able to truly listen to one another. I bet it’d be hard to get a word in, if you were sitting in a room with those guys. And that never in a million years could he imagine a pleasant road-trip with a group of friends, where nobody really wants to get anywhere, but just talk for hours, and grow closer in the proximity of a wobbly car engine and somewhere to be. I doubt he ever tried to listen to someone else speak so hard that his own voice felt detached and wrong, like when it grows so loud that it’s echoing inside your ears and it doesn’t feel like you anymore, but a collection of thoughts you’ve built with another person for the purpose of coming to resolution. There’s no way he ever feared that he sounded much louder than he really was, or worried about it—the volume of his own voice, or how long he’s been talking for, or how much space he has taken up within the conversation, or if he can really, even truly hear the other person. I wonder if he knew about perception. 

I expect that talking to Hitler might be worse than a bad Tinder date—the kind where a man speaks himself straight into oblivion, can’t allow himself to utter a simple attentive question to his captive audience who isn’t you, the person, but you, the prisoner. Purposeful and buzzing like a drone, taking the conversation as hostage. But maybe nobody ever really listened so intensely to him, either, and it was all he ever knew. I just bet he never had a moment with a group of friends where nobody is really saying anything funny, but you all still want to laugh, and you can tell you all do, because you are.

I think that’s the source of the problem a lot of the time, and we all have so much trouble understanding one another, and then having empathy for those things, that we fail to understand. It really is different, when you sit down with someone and hope to cross the border of language through thoughtful questions, intent, and will. 

During my vacation, some of me wished that there was just one universal language, so we could all express the things inside of us and eliminate the barrier keeping us from acquaintance. Although culture wouldn’t be so special if it were so accessible—if we didn’t have a barrier between us and the thing that we want to share. It’s really beautiful, though, when we defy it. We’re defying it all the time. 

I felt it when the French barista at Shakespeare and Company Café laughed at me for excitedly poking at Sameera, and asked in a small voice, coated in French accent, but in English words, and with a gleam, “what has got you so excited?” I replied, telling her it was the pumpkin pie in the café display window, and judging by her short response but long look, she was sensing me more than hearing my words. She laughed, and smiled at me right into my eyes with nothing more to say, but much more to say, maybe, and reaffirmed the joyousness between my best friend and I, expanding it deeper, by three. Maybe we need laws so that we can break them. It’s still kind of upsetting that there is so much out of our reach, but maybe that just means we need to try harder. I think that I’m learning that the true universal language is in our eyes when we truly see one another.

Brittany Deitch is an intern at Paste.

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