Holocaust memorial project finishes

 

GERMANY: Nothing prepares you for a visit to the just-completed Holocaust memorial in central Berlin. Not the press reports, not the scale models, not even its gradual emergence on the Berlin landscape writes Derek Scally in Berlin.

After 15 years of heated debate and over 18 months of stop-start construction, the final piece of this controversial architectural puzzle was put in place yesterday.

"I thought at many moments we would never build this," said Mr Peter Eisenman yesterday. "I'm very thankful this has come to a conclusion, or that it's starting another phase, let's say."

Yesterday, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, as it's officially known, was opened for selected guests to visit. But you don't really visit this memorial: you plunge in.

The ground opens up ahead of visitors carrying them down into the memorial which sits on a vast site the size of two football fields adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate. Eisenman's design comprises over 2,500 oblong slate grey concrete pillars, each nearly 2.5 metres wide and of varying heights of up to 5 metres. The pillars rise and fall in a wave-like formation but soon you are completely disoriented in the walkways between the pillars that are just 95 cm wide. Here, in the middle of Berlin, there is no wind and little or no sound.

After finally escaping, the memorial looks very different from the outside. At sunset, the pale winter sunlight catches the pillars at an angle casting distorting shadows over the entire construction and lending it a startling similarity to the Giant's Causeway. "It's very moving to see the light passing, vanishing from one stone after another, like a life being extinguished one at a time," said Mr Ulrich Schöbel, a passerby from Berlin, with tears in his eyes.

As he speaks, the sleek concrete pillars glow warm in the sunlight. But as soon as the sun disappears, the pillars take on a steely, chilly hue, thanks to a special anti-graffiti coating from chemical company Degussa. Construction was halted in October last year after it emerged that a defunct subsidiary of Degussa had supplied Zyklon-B poison for Nazi gas chambers.

The controversy was eventually resolved, just one in a series of scandals to dog the memorial from its original conception in 1988. Construction work continues on an underground information centre and the memorial is scheduled to open next May to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Public opinion has been slowly swinging in favour of the memorial after years of controversy when critics attacked the idea of a Holocaust memorial and dismissed the designated city centre site as unsuitable .

"It's location is just right - it should shock you and creep up on you during your day, particularly our young people," says Mr Schöbel. Not all passersby were so impressed with the memorial.

"It will just become a tourist trap," said Ms Gudrun Hövner, a pensioner. "They should have used the money to run a free shuttle bus to the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen outside Berlin. That's real."