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A Holocaust Memorial in Berlin Seems Stuck on Drawing Board

Germany faces a difficult question: What kind of memorial is appropriate in the land of the perpetrators?

How should the capital of a united, democratic Germany memorialize the millions of European Jews the Nazis murdered during World War II?

Berlin may get a little closer to an answer to that question this week. A panel of artists and architects is to be named to take up the difficult task of designing a Holocaust memorial for Berlin.

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The hope is that the new panel will succeed where an earlier competition did not and produce a design acceptable to all interested parties, enabling construction to begin on schedule, with groundbreaking on Jan. 27, 1999.

It is a matter of a certain urgency. "Coming to terms with the past" is a continuing theme in Germany. New questions keep presenting themselves. As Berlin prepares for the move of the government here from Bonn, one of the questions is: How do we, in this city that once served as capital of a criminal state, remember the Jews our fathers and grandfathers murdered?

Politicians understand that restoring Berlin as the capital is a matter of national pride. But they also know that it is incumbent on them to reassure the world that "the Berlin Republic" truly is a continuation of the peaceful and democratic "Bonn Republic."

It has been clear at least since April that the controversial winning design for the memorial will not be built, at least not in its original form. This design called for some 4 million names to be carved in tablets on an expanse 100-yards-by-80-yards at a site within view of the Reichstag building. The 19th-century Reichstag building, used by Adolf Hitler for his government, will house Germany's legislature when the government moves to Berlin.

This design was rejected in the court of public opinion. "It was seen as too big, as too 'loud,' so to speak," says Berlin architect Bernhard Schneider.

Looking for the right design

In the summer of 1995, Chancellor Helmut Kohl got involved in what had been up till then largely a local project launched at the behest of a private citizens' group called Perspektive Berlin. He assigned finding a solution to Peter Radunski, cultural affairs minister in Berlin's city-state government.

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Mr. Schneider, Mr. Radunski's point man on the memorial project, is philosophical about the fact that the winning design was not immediately embraced as the right answer. "This happens sometimes, especially with subjects as complicated as this. You hold the competition and you have a winner, and you realize, 'This can't be the answer.' "

For many observers, the public debate is the most important thing: What kind of memorial is called for in the land of the perpetrators?

All this, Schneider acknowledges, was "very frustrating" for the sponsors of the project, who had started pushing for a Holocaust memorial here before the Berlin Wall came down. "Here they thought they had reached their goal, that the memorial was to be built, but then they grew nervous that the project as a whole was in question."

Too many names?

The idea of a memorial that would record names has had great appeal but also evoked considerable criticism, because so many names would be repeated again and again. "Abraham Rabinowitz, for instance," says Schneider, "Is that Abraham Rabinowitz of Brussels - or of Prague?" He suggests that this could lead to "a different kind of anonymity" for the victims.

Jakob Schulze-Rohr, spokesman for Perspektive Berlin, counters, "I've been to the Vietnam memorial in Washington, and there are lots of repeated names there, too - lots of Smiths and Millers." He adds that reading aloud of the names of the dead is particularly important in the Jewish tradition.

Listing of names is problematic for another reason: The names of all 6 million Jews who perished during the Holocaust are simply not available, so complete was the destruction of whole communities.

Another basic controversy is whether "in the land of the perpetrators," where so many actual historic sites of the terrors remain, a traditional memorial is really what's called for. One school of thought advocates a serious documentation of historic sites, and would go so far as to call a memorial counterproductive.

"There are different groups with different claims here," says Thomas Lutz of the Berlin-based Topography of Terror Foundation. "There are victims, who want to be recognized, there are the media and politicians, who want a place for ritual, for 'events.' Then there are Berliners and visitors to Berlin, young and old. Personally, I'm of the opinion that a memorial will do justice to the claims only of the victims and the politicians."

He adds that a memorial could be "a danger" because it could be seen to let Berlin "off the hook" of its obligations to history.

Perspektive Berlin's Mr. Schulze-Rohr expresses concern, however, about what he calls the "typically German scientific approach." Events are documented "with unbelievable industry," he says, "but most intellectuals ... never answer the question, What did your father do [during the war]?"

He believes "most people can be reached only at an emotional level." Referring to the original design for the memorial, he adds, "To have it outside the Reichstag, where it could be seen in the sunlight or by moonlight or in the rain, would have an emotional impact. And if 50 years from now, some 18-year-old sees it and asks his parents or his teachers, 'What's that?' that would not be a bad thing. There could be no better way to keep our history always before us."

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