Remembering the Holocaust How Many More Monuments for Berlin?

Monuments in Berlin dedicated to homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis as well as to Sinti and Roma Holocaust victims are finally nearing completion. But what about the other groups?
Von Patrick McGroarty

When the German magazine Cicero reported earlier this month that over half the pillars of Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe were cracked, it was tempting to blame the weight of history. Or the divisive nature of lingering disputes over how best to honor the victims of Nazi Germany.

This week, as Germany marks 75 years since Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, it seems that progress has been made in solving some of those disputes. The federal government on Monday announced that two new Holocaust monuments -- within walking distance of the sprawling, five-acre Jewish memorial -- will soon be completed. One will be dedicated to the gay and lesbian victims of the Holocaust. And in February, construction will begin on another new monument dedicated to the Sinti and Roma, often called Gypsies, who died in the Nazi camps.

"The road is finally clear for these monuments to be erected and inaugurated," said German Cultural Minister Bernd Neumann on Monday.

The announcement has been long in coming. Despite Berlin's willingness to call attention to its often dark and tragic history, commemorating the Holocaust has been a controversial undertaking. The stark, concrete pillars of the Jewish memorial, which opened in 2005, were originally conceived of as a monument to all of the Nazi's victims. But a German activist, Lea Rosh, led a contentious public effort to associate it solely with Jews killed in the Holocaust. That left advocates for other groups persecuted and murdered by the Nazis -- homosexuals and Gypsies, as well as the handicapped, Jehovah's Witnesses and Soviet prisoners of war -- looking for memorials of their own.

Berlin's Memorial Mile

Groups representing both the homosexuals and the Gypsies began many years ago to plan for their own plot on Berlin's memorial mile. But they were both stalled, not only by long processes to secure land and funding, but also by contentious infighting over what the memorials should look like and to whom, precisely, they should be dedicated.

For the Sinti and Roma, the dispute has been raging for years, with construction of the fountain to commemorate the 500,000 Sinti and Roma who died in the Holocaust originally set for 2004. But two separate groups representing Gypsies in Germany could not agree on the inscription, and the project stalled -- transforming a rickety wooden sign marking the spot across the street from the German parliament building as an unintended monument to bitter infighting. Even the 2006 agreement by the German government to provide funding failed to resolve the stalemate.

The design calls for a fountain conceived by Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan, inscribed with a poem called "Auschwitz" by Italian poet Santino Spinelli. A triangular pillar will jut out of the fountain with a rose placed on the top of it. Once a day, the pillar will sink down into the fountain and the flower will be replaced. The project is expected to cost €2 million ($2.95 million). Construction is now set to begin in February.

Plans for a monument to homosexual Holocaust victims (the Nazis imprisoned 54,000 homosexuals and some 7,000 died in concentration and work camps) were delayed by a similar dispute. In 2003, the German government approved plans for a €600,000 memorial, but some advocacy groups objected to one facet of the design: a video of two men kissing that would play on an endless loop at one end of the monument. The video, they argued, did not recognize the suffering of lesbians as well as gay men. In the final design, a video of two women kissing will rotate every two years with the video of a male couple.

'It Was Quite Late'

"I think the artist's solution that we have now is the best thing that could ever happen, because now it’s a project in constant change," Albert Eckert, a leader of the Initiative to Commemorate the Homosexual Victims of the Nazis, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It shows that this is an ongoing process, that lesbians and gays are still persecuted in a lot of ways."

Eckert's group was founded for the express purpose of lobbying for the creation of the new memorial. While press reports have claimed that construction is to start this spring, a gigantic wooden cube -- reminiscent of an over-sized packing crate -- sitting across the street from the Jewish memorial is testimony to Eckert's affirmation that the monument is finished and will soon be unveiled.

"I'm relieved, but I'd say it was quite late," he said. "The war has been over for such a long time and it took 14 years of lobbying -- this project should have been finished a lot earlier."

Still, even when both memorials are finished, it is hard not to wonder if more are on the way. A group representing those imprisoned and sentenced to death for deserting the German army is also interested in a memorial. The Third Reich likewise persecuted Jehovah's Witnesses as a group and also killed thousands of handicapped people. None of those groups have a prominent place in central Berlin.

Some, though, don't want one. "We are not interested in seeing the construction of a new memorial," said Margret Hamm, executive director of the Coalition of the Euthanized and Forcibly Sterilized, a group that works on behalf of handicapped individuals murdered by the Nazis. "It might have been better to have one place, one memorial, to remember all the victims, but that's not the case. We think it would be unproductive and illogical to concentrate our efforts on the creation of a new, individual memorial."

Hamm said that by no means should the suffering that the Nazis inflicted on handicapped Germans be forgotten. By her count, nearly 300,000 handicapped individuals were murdered -- 70,000 were gassed, while others died due to starvation or after gruesome medical experiments. Their suffering is currently commemorated by a modest plaque in the Tiergarten Park, behind the Berlin Philharmonic. In a city that has been described as having a memorial on every corner, and in a nation both burdened and fascinated by its Nazi past, Hamm believes that the plaque is enough.

"We prefer to look forward, and to concentrate on working for the next generation," said Hamm. "We carry the perspective of what happened with us in our work for the future."

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