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Going to the heart of the Holocaust

On Tuesday, 60 years after the end of World War II in Europe, Berlin officials will unveil a monument to the Holocaust, in which 6 million European Jews were killed, in the center of the German capital.
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Thousands of bullet-gray concrete blocks rise crookedly from the earth like fresh gravestones along what was once barren no man's land surrounding the Berlin Wall. Deep underground is the wartime bunker built for Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. The site of the razed Reich Chancellery, where Adolf Hitler plotted the extermination of the Jews, is about 100 yards away.

On Tuesday, 60 years after the end of World War II in Europe, Berlin officials will unveil a monument to the Holocaust, in which 6 million European Jews were killed, in the center of the German capital.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was built after years of wrenching argument in Germany over how far the nation must still go to acknowledge its responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich.

Bureaucratic hurdles
First proposed in 1988, a year before the collapse of East Germany and the dismantling of the wall, the memorial was delayed by bureaucratic hurdles, disagreements over its design and outright opposition from many Germans, including some Jews.

Some critics complained that it was too stark, too visible and too painful a reminder for a people who had long confronted the Nazi past. Others said the monument should also commemorate the estimated 5 million other European victims of the Nazis, including Poles, political opponents, homosexuals and members of the Roma minority, also known as Gypsies.

"This is a statement to the world. It is also a very late statement. It needs to be pointed out that, until now, no central point existed" in Berlin to commemorate the Holocaust, said Michael May, executive director of the Jewish Community of Berlin.

"At the same time, this site has nothing to do with subtlety. Here you have a kind of crystallization of the enormity of the crime in a memorial, and that in and of itself is very significant," he said. "This cannot be overlooked."

The memorial is a maze of 2,711 unadorned concrete rectangular slabs that cover a city block not far from the Brandenburg Gate and the construction site of the new U.S. Embassy. The slabs tilt slightly at varying angles, and the ground rises and falls. Visitors must find their way through the labyrinth, designed to disorient them at every step. Organizers said the number of slabs had no symbolic significance but was dictated by the size of the site.

"The power of the field is that you can only experience it by going inside," said Guenter Schlusche, a consultant on the project, which was designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman. "At first, people just see a mass of concrete blocks," Schlusche said. "It's much, much more. Once you get inside, you feel alone. You lose your normal ways of orientation."

Uncomfortable subject
While Berlin has been rebuilt and rapidly reshaped since 1989, most of the money and energy has been spent restoring historical landmarks or buildings that predate the Nazi era. The few physical vestiges of the Third Reich have largely been erased or covered up, a conscious decision by German authorities, who have said they wanted to avoid preserving any site that neo-Nazi groups could use as a shrine.

Only a small fiberglass marker notes the location of the Reich Chancellery, which has been replaced by an expanse of apartment buildings and a Chinese restaurant. There is an exhibit at the site of the headquarters of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, but it is has been undergoing renovations. Until recently, the main memorial to Holocaust victims in Berlin was a site near the suburb of Wannsee where the Nazis furthered their plan for the Final Solution.

"For a lot of people, this is very uncomfortable," said Lea Rosh, a former television journalist and co-founder of the non-profit group that led the drive to build the monument. "This documents the largest crime in history. They'd rather have pleasant news to see and read about."

The $35 million project was dogged by bitter disputes from the outset. In 1995, Chancellor Helmut Kohl rejected the original design, a sprawling tombstone inscribed with the names of millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust, and tried to persuade the architects to conceal the memorial behind a border of trees. In 1999, former Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen almost derailed the project by insisting on a radically different approach: a single pillar bearing the words "Thou Shalt Not Kill." He was overruled by the German Parliament, which voted by a 3-to-2 margin for the current version.

Lingering criticism
Two years ago, construction was again delayed when it was disclosed that an anti-graffiti coating for the concrete blocks was manufactured by a German chemicals company, Degussa AG, with ties to the Holocaust. During World War II, Degussa held a 42 percent stake in a pesticides firm that made cyanide gas tablets for concentration camp gas chambers. After an emotional public debate, board members in charge of the project decided to use the chemical anyway, saying Degussa had taken major steps to face up to its past.

Rosh said many opponents focused their criticism on tangential issues, such as minor aspects of the design, rather than arguing openly that they did not see the need for a memorial. She called this the underlying reason it took 17 years to complete the project. Many Germans are tired of being reminded of the evils of the Nazi regime, she said. "There are many people who say, 'Sixty years, enough!' "

While public doubts have abated as the memorial's opening nears, some criticism lingers. In a column published this week in the newspaper Die Welt, the German author Hannes Stein called the project "monstrous kitsch" and said the underlying message could be interpreted as: "the German people give the Jews a graveyard."

Some Jewish residents of Berlin have expressed mixed feelings about the memorial, said May, the Jewish community leader. "The process was tortuous and possibly, I should say, shameful," he said.

But he held out hope that the memorial would serve its intended purpose: to ensure that people always remember the Holocaust and feel its evil. "The Jews in Berlin are slightly skeptical," May said. "Maybe if they take the time to wander through it, that skepticism will disappear."