Unexpected Sites of Holocaust Remembrance: Berlin

Yesterday I dedicated my new Substack newsletter to reflecting on my first visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There’s nothing unexpected about seeing such a site in the capital city of Germany — though it is still striking (maybe not surprising) that it wasn’t until 2005 that the memorial was finally dedicated.

But Berlin has many other Holocaust memorials, most much harder to find than a field of 2,710 stones filling nearly five acres in heart of the city.

All photos CC BY-SA 4.0 (Chris Gehrz)

I mentioned a few more memorials in footnotes to the newsletter, but thought I could use this blog to elaborate — and share a few more photos.

According to the American architect who designed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Peter Eisenman, “the extent and scale of the Holocaust inevitably make any attempt to represent it by traditional means a hopeless undertaking.” As you’ll see, most of the commemorative sites I found depart from any conventional idea of what a memorial should look like.


But if you want something less abstract and more representative… take an S- or U-Bahn to Alexanderplatz, then walk back towards the Spree River, past the East German TV tower. Find the 19th century statue of Martin Luther in front of St. Marienkirche, then cross the street and enter Rosenstraße.

It was here that, for a week in early 1943, hundreds of “Aryan” women marched in protest of the Gestapo’s detention of their Jewish husbands and sons. Coming in the wake of the Wehrmacht’s disastrous defeat at Stalingrad, Nazi authorities were unusually sensitive to a decline in civilian morale and actually acceded to the protesters’ demands. (Read more from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

Most likely, those men were soon rearrested and sent into forced labor, as the Gestapo had originally intended. (Meanwhile, the last Jewish families in Berlin were being rounded up and sent to Auschwitz.) But the Rosenstraße protest stands out as a rare example of ordinary citizens in the Third Reich publicly — and, at least for a moment, effectively — protesting the anti-Semitic brutality of the Nazi regime.

Outside Germany, I’m not sure how well known this case is. I only learned about it after reading Philip Kerr’s description in the 2013 Bernie Gunther novel A Man Without Breath. But it loomed large enough in the national memory that in the mid-1980s, East German sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger decided to create a memorial: a “block of women.” I’m not entirely sure why it took until 1995 for her sculptures to be installed in the small park on Rosenstraße, but I can imagine that the Communist authorities of East Berlin weren’t thrilled by her inscription: “The strength of civil disobedience, the vigour of love overcomes the violence of dictatorship.”

Memorials in and near the Tiergarten

Not far from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe are three other Holocaust memorials, all in or near the Tiergarten, the popular 500-acre park in the center of Berlin.

Across the Ebertstraße from the main memorial is one dedicated to the memory of gays and lesbians persecuted under National Socialism. While Berlin had been a relatively tolerant center of the Weimar Republic, the Nazis vigorously enforced Paragraph 175 of Germany’s criminal code, which banned homosexual conduct. While the gay rights movement in Berlin had been active since the 1960s (when West Germany finally repealed Paragraph 175), it wasn’t until 2003 that reunified Germany’s legislature voted to build an LGBT memorial in Berlin. Designed by two Scandinavian designers, it intentionally resembles one of the stone pillars across the road… but one side includes a viewscreen showing a film with same-sex male (and, later, female) couples kissing.

Further north in the park, right across from the Reichstag building is Brandenburg Gate, is a quiet space enclosed by trees and bushes. Berlin’s memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims of the Third Reich (built 2012), its designer describes it as “a small, inconspicuous place, which avoids the noise of the big city… a place of nothingness… No words, no names, no metal, no stone.” Actually, there are a few words surrounding the still pool at the center of the clearing: stones bearing the names of camps where so-called Gypsies were sent, and a poem by Roma writer Santino Spinelli (“Auschwitz”) encircling the water:

Sunken in face
extinguished eyes
cold lips
a torn heart
without breath
without words
no tears.

Finally, along the south edge of the park and near the Berlin Philharmonic, there is the memorial to victims of the euthanasia campaign administered from a now-gone building at Tiergartenstraße 4. Always enthusiastic advocates of eugenics, the Nazi regime had joined many American states (including Minnesota) in mandating the sterilization of people with physical disabilities and developmental delays, but in 1939 it began to take the next step and experiment with “mercy deaths.”

People suffering from mental and chronic illnesses, including schizophrenia, epilepsy, and dementia, were also targeted, under the rationale that their lives were not worth the cost of their care. Until a famous sermon by Catholic bishop Clemens von Galen largely put an end to the euthanasia program in August 1941, at least a quarter-million people (including some 10,000 children) were murdered. The 2014 memorial places a blue glass wall in between a series of interpretive panels and another example of abstract commemoration.