Pan-topia: Exposing the Palimpsest of Meanings at the Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

Irit Dekel

Abstract: This article analyzes the presentation of the Holocaust Memorial’s landscape and its history as grounds for discussion of the abundance of meaning of the site and through it of engaging with Holocaust memory today. Building on this profusion, the memorial abstract form as an architectural work of art in the center of Berlin is then considered meaningless and its visitors are called to instill meaning in it in the act of touring and interpreting their own actions. This tension and its exposure are the framework for the creation of a new landscape of memory that is constructed around personal engagement and plurality of standpoints in relation to the past, which the palimpsest-like understanding of the site enables.


“Most great stories of adventure come furnished with a map” (Michael Chabon, 2009)


“Over there, was the so called Führer Bunker” (a guide in the Holocaust memorial)



1. Building on the abundance of meaning


The Holocaust Memorial is built on historically charged ground: it had been the Ministers’ Gardens in imperial times, the center of Nazi power, and during the GDR time the death path by the Berlin wall. This physical ground serves as a basis for discussing the German past, layered under the memorial’s abstract architecture. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or in its popular name the Holocaust Memorial was opened in May of 2005 after seventeen years of public debates about its form, dedication and necessity in the center of Berlin. It was designed by Architect Peter Eisenman of New York and is composed of two parts: above ground is the field of stelae (Stelenfeld) made of 2711 stones of various heights on a 20,000 square meters lot. Underground there is a small installation called the Place of Information, telling the history of Nazi Persecution of Jews in photos, text and computerized databases[1].



Interior view of Foyer 1 and 2 with six portraits, Foundation
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Photo: Yara Lemke de Faria, 2005



Memorial above ground (photo Irit Dekel 2005).


The memorial is open to the public at all times and from all directions. Guided tours are held above ground and in the Place of Information to individuals and groups. Guides, hosts and visitors in the memorial often talk about the topography of the area, and every publication about the memorial dwells on the history of its ground. Scholars evaluating the project refer to this topography and landscape as part of the chrono-topia leading to its realization, in its current form, dedicated exclusively to Jewish victims, at this particular place between the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag building and by Potsdamer Platz (Cullen 1999, Carrier 2005, Leggewie and Meyer 2005, Quack 2002).

According to Carrier “the significance of the site of the Berlin monument was consistently perceived in general and imprecise terms” (2005, 102). Its dedication to Jews was a constant source of dispute. The popular name “Holocaust Memorial” suggests commemoration of the Holocaust in general, and even the references to the land of its erection described the multiplicity of past uses of the site. The site has developed historical specificity from the moment of opening it to the public as a “Holocaust Memorial”.

1.1  The multilayered landscape of memory


The physical landscape of memory had been important after the fall of the wall, as the ultimate symbol of divided Germany, the wall, was dismantled and dispersed into myriad pieces. The Holocaust memorial, located in an area that was a no mans’ land by the wall, is now for the first time since imperial rule accessible to citizens. Questions regarding the actual ‘filling’ of this site with the particular memorial joined questions regarding renaming streets; the fate of Nazi architecture and objects, and those of grand historical importance such as the Church of Our Lady in Dresden and the Royal Palace in Berlin (Koshar 2000). Evoking the political monuments of the GDR and reusing old war monuments such as the Neue Wach in Berlin set the ground for multilayered thinking regarding how to commemorate the past and to what extent to mold it with the present and future of Berlin (Varvantakis 2009, Ladd 1997).

The process by which new and old memories are represented and reorganized in the urban landscape follows from the construction of the “new Berlin” (Till 2006): the renovated Reichstag building, the American embassy and the renovated Pariser Platz, Brandenburg gate and Potsdamer Platz are its highlights.  Guided tours, as well as leaflets given to visitors at the site, exploit this embroidered past and present, informing the visitor about the “Führer Bunker” and “Göbbels Villa” that existed there during the Nazi time, and about the history of the site during the Kaiserreich and the GDR.  All contemporary maps of the site demonstrate that its history precedes it: the space had been empty for years, and the Memorial filled it, making it an integral and universally accessible part of the city for the first time. In this sense, the presentation of the site’s topography is crucially not as a “topography of terror,” but corresponds with places of horror by reflecting on the foundations of past places, and its proximity to sites of killing and torture that are now gone. 

2.      From abundance to absence of meaning


The quote that opens the article refers to the relations between stories of adventure and stories of landscape, or between people and topography (Chabon 2009). This relation is established in the memorial in individual personal experience and in guided tours. However central are former buildings on the memorial ground to the discussions at the memorial, no map of the site conveys those historical locales from different eras. What is clear in all contemporary maps of the site is that the space had been empty for many years, and that the Memorial filled it. Based on my ethnographic fieldwork at the site’s foundation, in guided tours and discussions, I will here show how presenting and discussing the site’s historical landscape together with its’ abstract form sets the ground for a deliberation oriented engagement with memory and its uses.

If architecture is considered the most “social” of art forms, presenting ‘ethics in stone’ (Erll 2008, 231) we will see how the construction of a memorial that does not resemble others in its thematic and geographic vicinity, produces many sites of memory. It morally calls for a new ethic of individual engagement with memory, and this ethics can best be found in acts of interpretation which focus on plurality and openness instead of one “proper” way to remember the Holocaust.

 Guides describe the site’s 2711 stones as a random “meaningless” number, encouraging visitors to think about its history and the history of commemorating the Holocaust and the murdered Jews in a way that avoids closure and produces more interpretations. This meaninglessness then mobilizes visitors to think about remembering the Holocaust morally, as these thoughts, and their action at the memorial is what “charges” it with meaning. For example, the following excerpt is taken from a guided tour of Andreas [2] with 11th grade pupils.

Andreas: “This place is not authentic. There is nothing concrete you can do with the Holocaust. But around us there are many historical places. Here is Wilhelm Street. In 1871 the Ministerium was built here. In 30.1.33 Göbbels said here “now we have Wilhelm Street”, referring to the importance of this street for German political life. At the same time Max Liebermann saw from the window of his apartment the Nazis marching through theBrandenburg gate. Around us we also see symbols of German partition. What meaning can there be to commemoration without knowledge? We shall think about this underground in the place of information. If you do not have further questions, please follow me downstairs”

The guide, Andreas, constructs a narrative that combines telling the story of the Memorial and telling Holocaust stories. This narrative contains “entry” and “exit” points into the history of Jewish persecution in WWII. One of the crucial entry points to the story of the memorial is that it is a non-authentic place. As an inauthentic new touristy place, it offers an authentic or real experience by the wandering, wondering self. This might happen there, according to memorial workers like Andreas, because of the newness of the memorial, its abstract form and its loose relations to the reality of the Holocaust and to Holocaust commemoration elsewhere. The statement “there is nothing concrete to do with the Holocaust” connects all the valid routes in the Memorial above ground with the declaration that “all is possible in the Memorial”: an inexhaustible space for experience and judgment (Godfrey 2007, 239- 278).

If guided tours related to Wilhelm Street as the center of Nazi power three counterpart streets were named after Jewish women on two sides of the memorial. On the eastern part of the memorial runs the new Cora Berliner Street. It is crossed by the newHannah Arendt Street. On its south end there is the new Gertrude Kolmer Street. Sybille Quack, the first executive director of the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, writes: “We are in Germany. The Stelenfeld symbolizes part of our history […] The murder belongs to us. The three new streets are short, as well as the history of deciding to give them these names”. According to Quack (2005, 413), remembrance through street names of Jewish, scientist, women who suffered expulsion and persecution under the Nazi regime goes beyond mere geographic orientation. It is the first framework of concrete historical orientation around the abstract memorial, even before one descends to the Place of Information and encounters more information about the Holocaust.

2.1  Charged meaninglessness


 “It neither admonishes, nor warns. It does not monumentalize humiliation, fear or festering wounds. It even belies description as an undulating field of stelae, for all that is to be seen is a heap of big, grey stones, scattered far and wide, quietly unassuming. If you didn’t know it was there, you might drive past thinking it was a huge construction site. And that may be exactly what it is: a place that presents nothing, where nothing is finished, and with which the Germans may not so easily find closure.”[3]


“We are not confronted with the presence of history but with the present itself. What has been created here is not a landscape of remembrance but a landscape of experience.” (Ibid).

These two excerpts are taken from a book published with the opening of the Memorial in 2005. Hanno Rauterberg is an art historian and writes for the center left weekly Die Zeit about art and architecture. He first presents what the Memorial is not. It does not educate and warn (as other memorials might attempt). It hinders description and as such is a construction site for nothing—and can therefore be never finished. It thus stands for presence, present and experience.

Peter Eisenman writes in the same book:

“The experience of being present in presence, of being without the conventional markers of experience, of being potentially lost in space, of an un-material materiality: that is the memorial’s uncertainty. When such a project can overcome its seeming diagrammatic abstraction, in its excess, in the excess of reason gone mad, then such a work becomes a warning, a Mahnmal, not to be judged on its meaning or its aesthetic but on the impossibility of its own success”.


These excerpts constitute the attempt to collapse the meaning that one might infer from the memorial in which guides and hosts also participate. Whereas the guides and hosts are often frustrated in trying to communicate these messages and facilitate this experience; the writers manifest the ground on which the place should be (not) understood.

In January 2001 there were extensive discussions about the right to demonstrate in the future memorial. These debates connected issues of security and the wish to facilitate democratic participation in the site. Eisenman gave an interview to the Zeit in which he was asked whether he, as a Jew and the memorial’s architect, would allow demonstrations. He replied that if there is right-radicalism then it won’t help to repress it. Why should not the “Holocaust Mahnmal[4]” be the place where this energy is visible and released?[5] He said that the place should not look like a concentration camp with wire-fence and a watchtower. The interviewers asked him if he then sees the Memorial as a catalyst for social conflicts. He answer was that he did not want to represent or illustrate the Holocaust but to originate an experience that generates insecurity. The visitor should ask themselves: What is it here? What does this mean? Where am I actually? Eisenman: “I want to originate exactly this feeling of being lost and lack of orientation; this search, in vain, of a clear sense. The cognitive experience abdicates the affective one” (ibid). 

The discussions regarding the aesthetic propriety of this work of art as the German national Holocaust Memorial dealt with the gigantic- monumental figures of the site, alongside speculations about securing the site. After the opening, when it became clear that there are very few and random cases of graffiti, the focus shifted to the security of the visitors themselves, who tend to jump between stelae and on them. That led to the view that “everything goes” in the memorial visit. Whatever comes in one’s senses is welcome[6]. Articles about a year to the opening related to Schröder’s famous wish that the Memorial will be a place that people would like to go to. Journalists reflected about the big number of visitors through that saying, and seized that it is the case: people like (to go to) the place[7].

So far we saw how the historical ground is connected to the new site and how the latter is built on lack, as well as on abundance of architectural and historical meaning, alluding to the meaning of the history it recalls. Two discursive means are constructed around the process of going to the site and touring it.  The initiators, builders and guides try to create an event located in a negative space (visceral, devoid of an inherent message), which reflects the absence of meaning and the inability to represent the historical event it alludes to. The visitors, however, explore their presence and that of others in the site, building on this particular incomprehensibility of the memorial and the history it commemorates. Many visitors say that they feel lost in it, or that they wish to feel lost in it, preferably walk and be alone while touring it. This individual engagement with memory in public is built on the lack of instructive meaning of the field of stelae and the physical fact that only one person can walk between the stelae.

The Memorial site, in this particular landscape, thus serves to recall and transform experiences of this and other historically charged grounds and make them habitable for discussion for Germans as well as for other visitors from all walks of society. In that sense it is crucial to keep it in its multiplicity not only for the positive chronological and moral ascendance from Hitler’s bunker to the Holocaust memorial, but as a framework for keeping competing and sometimes conflicting memories open for re-visits. For this reason, the landscape of the memorial is open to interpretation that delves into the possible qualities of the memorial built on this ground, and of new memorials on its surroundings, which bear many of its physical traits (such as those dedicated to other victims of National Socialism, one for homosexuals—recently opened across the street from the Holocaust memorial site, and one planned for the Sinti and Roma).

2.2 Inauthentic, surrounded by real

As we saw in the example of the guided tour, in presenting the topography of the site, guides at the memorial discuss “real” sites of violence, now destroyed or buried such as the center of Nazi power and Hitler’s bunker—sites which should not become sacred (indeed, should be kept in their profanity) because they epitomize violence, albeit violence that occurred elsewhere. They discuss those places together with authentic, classical memorial sites in concentration camps where violence did occur. Crucial to these discussions is not the attempt to unearth the past in some archeological excavations, as it is close to the surface of knowledge, not too remote in time, and dwells in other “authentic” sites. The moral task is to expose one’s dealing with the past to those of other touring the site. I elsewhere discuss the implication of moral engagement with memory in the etiquette developing around visiting the site. (Dekel 2009) Here we focus on the act of exposing the many layers of the memorial’s grounds and the construction of an architecture that builds on this palimpsest so as to bring to light the many possible ways of engaging with memory, including those of reservation and remorse.

Erik Meyer attends to the question of the non-authentic nature of the Memorial, its form and its possible influence of memory action:

“The conception that the Holocaust Memorial is virtually a lapidary inscription of a final line of which some were afraid and some perhaps even hoped for, is not true. This field of stelae is quite open-meaning and has no clear message. One cannot read off the stelae what they should mediate to us. The visitor wandering through the stones is in the end directed by his own perception”.[8]

Meyer claims that it does not mark a finish line[9] over the Germans’ dealing with their past, as its ‘readers’ are left to their own device there. They wander in it like in a projective test. Opposition to the building of the Memorial feared that it will serve as a closure device; that once a memorial in built in the center of Berlin in an area in which “nothing actually happened”, people will not go to sites where crimes were perpetrated, that it would be like drawing a Schlussstreich or a bottom line, over Germany’s past and its discussions[10]. It would trivialize memory and encourage its misuses in adding yet another site to the already saturated endeavor called Holocaust Memory. The fear from reaching an end of the German engagement with the memory of the Holocaust was in the center of the historians’ debate in the late 1980’s. Maier (1997 [1988], 55) in his discussion of the debate, argued that this fear led to the insistence on the left that the Holocaust was unique genocide, incomparable to other genocides, and should be kept vivid in German memory. This insistence led to the focus of the Memorial on the Jews as a single victims group, in order to avoid relativising their case.

3. Creating the palimpsest of meaning

Participants in guided tours are familiar with parts of the discussions that preceded the building of the site, and discussions following its opening, which referred to the historical topography of the site. These guides offer a sacralizing experience of this site through what it is not; making this sacralization both possible and bound to fail (as we saw in Andreas’s assertion “This place is not authentic. There is nothing concrete you can do with the Holocaust”.

            This failure to comprehend the task of commemoration is akin to the inability to represent “the Holocaust”. It is necessary because there is still the danger that the former “real” sites will attract “authentic” pilgrimage, and more importantly, since it may bring closure to the discussion about memory that this site strives to facilitate (Young 2004). This inherently open-ended discussion, based on the inability to grasp the Memorial and its site as a whole, calls for constant motion and metaphorization, and thus cannot abide the closure that sacralization would entail. Discussions of the topography of the place betweens visitors, workers and scholars create an alternative landscape of memory work, based on the tension on the axes of presence (the remnants of Nazi time such as Hitler’s bunker) and absence, sacred and profane, real and unreal.

Nevertheless, the abstract, visceral and inauthentic qualities of the Memorial should not necessarily lead us to assume plurality in the legitimate approaches to it, but rather multiplicity of encounters that the site facilitates for different visitors. The palimpsest of the memorial’s meanings—it resembles a graveyard and a labyrinth, visitors as well as Eisenman himself say—and the palimpsest in its topography—former site of Nazi power, on top of which rested the wall, on top of which came the memorial—collide, as guides insist that an entry point to discussing the memorial is knowledge about its topography and about the chronology of its realization.

3.1 Attempts toward comprehension


The following excerpt is taken from a guided tour in the memorial. The guide Andreas, asks the students to reflect about the memorial, after walking in it.

Andreas: What do you think about the memorial? How did you feel in it?

Pupil: How does it look like from above?

Andreas: Like a wheat field. This is one of the only things that Eisenman agreed to say about the memorial. I’ll show you a picture from the air inside the Place of Information.

Pupil: It is narrow, one feels lost.

Pupil: Yes, it is like a labyrinth

Andreas: Anyone can feel what they wish here.


In this short interaction we can identify the conflict the visitors face between the lack of guiding text in the site, built around the authority of Eisenman, and their will to comprehend what it means, or how can one grasp its experience. As Andreas avoids providing interpretation to the Memorial form, he offers an official one, and hurries to blur it when stating “anyone can feel what they wish here”. The question, ”How does this look like from above” also reflects the double wish to be walking in this maze together with seeing it from above and outside and experiencing it ‘not from within’.

The same guided tour proceeded:

Andreas: “so many ask me: where was the Führer bunker? (imitates an old voice, the pupils laugh) the bunker was there, near the trees, and Göbbels Villa on the other side. Decisions were taken here, but the Holocaust did not happen here. This is not an authentic place in this regard. You can run, hide, jump, all goes here”.

Andreas: “No one asks me how much it cost?—3.3 km. Autobahn (imitates an old voice) “It is taken from my Renta [retirement payment]” some people say. Then I tell them it is 3.3 km autobahn.

Teacher: It is really ok. We need them both equally”.


The idea that since it is not an authentic place and since it is also abstract and urban all is possible in the Memorial is very intriguing. At the same time, the moral standing of the visitors and their families is constantly tested through references to popular interest in Nazi history and its heroes and the questioning of the Memorial’s necessity. Tracing the history of the German ground is an activity embedded in West German memory politics since the 1970’s (Koshar 2000 226-285). Paradoxically, both the guide’s references to the Autobahn and to the memorial bring in history unwittingly, as the Autobahn was one of the major successes of Nazi Architecture. Maintaining it will enable mobility in the present and the future but also the maintenance of a trace, far removed from its origin, resembling the Holocaust memorial’s relations to exist and extinct traces of the past on its land.


In this paper we saw how the abundance of historical evidence to Nazi terrorism instills the memorial ground with legitimacy and meaning and makes possible the search for significance outside of it, in the memorial’s abstract structure, with its absent figurative and instructive meaning. This tension between the wealth of the palimpsest on which the memorial is constructed and its form which calls for different engagement than with what is expected in other Holocaust memorials was crucial to the understanding of visitor’s action in and around it. We saw how the act of exposing oneself and others to questions regarding what one thinks and feels in the memorial stems from the knowledge of the site’s historical landscape, and that in turn, it is vital to present it as emptied, and then to re-charge it with meaning.




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[1] See more about the Memorial’s history, form and current activities at its official website: accessed onAugust 6, 2009.


[2] Guides’ names were changed.


[3] Hanno Rauterberg “Building Site of Remembrance” in Lars Müller 2005 Holocaust Memorial BerlinLars Müller Publishers.


[4] After the opening of the Memorial its foundation insisted that it is a Denkmal. Nevertheless, many still call it Mahnmal. The foundation’s website can be reached both from Accessed on March 6, 2008.


[5] „Architect Peter Eisenman im Zeit interview über jüdische Identität und Demonstrationsfreiheit für Neonazis am Holocaustß Mahnmal“ 25.01.01. a conversation with Thomas Assheuer, Hanno Rauterberg and Ulrich Schwatz.


[6] Claudia Keller „Eisenman ist ein Genie“ Der Taggespiegel 10.05.06 p. 10

[7] Jan Feddersen Die Erinnerungslücken bleiben  10.5.2006, p. 6.


[8] Erik Meyer, Political scientist and a co author (with Claus Leggewie, 2005) of a book about the memorial, in an interview on 05.08.05 „Kein steinerner Schlussstrich“ to the ZDF national TV [my translation].,1872,2295278,00.html


[9] Schlussstreich means also a bottom line, or a closure.


[10] Karen E. Till 2005 The New Berlin “Aestheticizing the Rupture” 161-188.

Dr. Irit Dekel is a Postdoctoral fellow at the Center for German studies and the department of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She wrote her doctoral dissertation in sociology at the New School for Social Research on political action in and around the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, following an ethnographic fieldwork supported by a DAAD research grant. Her which deals with political transformation in the site through photography, play and looking,
“Ways of Looking: Observation and Transformation at the Holocaust Memorial, Berlin”
Was recently published in Memory Studies 2 [1] 71-86.

Germania, September 2009