BERLIN (AP)–Germany’s national Holocaust memorial took shape Saturday after years of delay as its U.S. architect presented the first of 2,700 stark charcoal-gray concrete slabs that will make up the monument near the Brandenburg Gate.
Backers expressed relief that the memorial was finally getting under way in earnest on a sandy site in the capital’s revived center where the Berlin Wall ran before Germany reunited in 1990.
“It’s been a long road,” writer Lea Rosh, who first proposed the project in 1988, said as red-and-white tape marking off sections of the construction site fluttered in the wind.
German politicians rallied behind the project in the late 1990s after decades of debate over how Germany should remember Holocaust victims, but wrangling over details and the contract for making the slabs persisted even after the final design by American architect Peter Eisenman was approved in 1999.
The planned monument–2,700 concrete slabs on a plot the size of two football fields–commemorates the more than 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
After the backers resolved the final details, a German company began producing the slabs to Eisenman’s specifications. On Saturday, he inspected the first 13-foot high block that passed muster and praised Germany’s commitment to the project.
“I feel great because I think it’s going to be a fabulous project,” he said. “It’s a tribute to this country, this city, its government.”
Eisenman said the monument–undulating rows of closely spaced slabs set slightly below street level–would evoke the feeling of being trapped that Jews felt when they were sent to Nazi death camps.
“You’ll feel like what it’s to be alone when all of these 2,700 are here,” he said.
“I talked to people who walked alone at Auschwitz, who saw their parents taken away, who felt lost to the world, felt lost to reality, lost to any kind of explanation,” he said. “When you walk in this, it is not an abstraction. It will be just as real as walking alone there.”
Eisenman said he hoped the monument’s starkness would free visitors to reflect on the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jews, making younger generations of Germans “speak about what they feel and what they think today” about the Holocaust.
Backers once penciled in a Jan. 27, 2004 completion date to coincide with the 59th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. Latest plans call for completion by May 8, 2005–60 years after Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II.
The planned monument’s site resonates heavily with German history: Near the former site of Adolf Hitler’s Fuehrer bunker, the area was part of the Berlin Wall’s no man’s land during the Cold War.
Now the revived Reichstag parliament building and vibrant Potsdamer Platz square draw visitors to the neighborhood, and the new U.S. Embassy is slated to be built across the street.
At the German parliament’s insistence, the memorial will include an explanatory documentation center in an effort to prevent the site from becoming a place where Germans could simply unload responsibility for their past. The slabs will have a graffiti-resistant coating, reflecting officials’ worries about neo-Nazi vandalism.
Eisenman took a more sanguine view, saying he wouldn’t even mind if the site were used for picnics or skateboarding.
“It will mean different things to different people,” he said. “That’s fine.”