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Monumental Dilemma

A design competition is seeking an uplifting Holocaust memorial. Is such a thing possible?

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Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

From afar, the sculpture outside Milwaukee’s Jewish Museum looks suspiciously like Claes Oldenburg’s Lipstick. Actually it’s a chimney. Meant to symbolize crematoria in the camps, the truncated tapered column is part of a Holocaust memorial created by artist Claire Lieberman. This 1983 monument’s array of literal and symbolic citations would put R. B. Kitaj to shame: steel sheets weathered to resemble tear-stained book pages inscribed with the names of concentration camps; yellow marble stripes to evoke the armbands Jews were forced to wear; railroad ties.

Recently, Milwaukee’s Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC) decided the city needs another Holocaust memorial. So, this spring, it announced a competition for a sculpture on a prominent public site outside a Jewish community center. The monument has to be weather-durable and low-maintenance; it must include landscaping, seating areas, and space for ceremonies. The winner has to fabricate the piece, at a cost of around $100,000 at most. One more thing: It should not be about the Holocaust.

“While there should be some reference to the Holocaust,” the request for proposals says, “we are envisioning the iconography of the site to be of life and hope rather than of death and despair.” The goal: to “reach out and touch the generally impassive and silent majority, to inspire awareness among both Jewish and non-Jewish society, and to encourage deep reflection on the consequences of denying fundamental rights, human hope, and common humanity to any group or individual, particularly so when mass silence and indifference allows this to happen.”

Good luck with that.

Call it, with a nod to James Young, the post-Jewish-Holocaust-memorial problem. Is it appropriate, or even possible, to transform the specificity of Jewish suffering into something universal, appealing, uplifting—and inclusive? Just how inspirational is a Holocaust memorial supposed to be? Can a Holocaust memorial be too Jewish?

Certainly there are still some believers in the old-school tropes. Recently, outside Congregation Beth Ahm in Verona, New Jersey, train tracks appeared leading up to the existing Holocaust memorial, a Star of David encircled with barbed wire. The synagogue says the 11 ties represent the 11 million killed in the Holocaust, as well as the three local residents who died on September 11, 2001. That doesn’t mollify some neighbors, who complain the tracks are a macabre symbol they don’t want to look at every day. “People have to be aware of suffering in the world,” the rabbi told the press.

Increasingly, however, memorials derived from the iconography of the oppressor are on the way out. Commemorating the survivors as well as the victims is in. DeAnna Maganias, the sculptor of the Holocaust memorial just inaugurated in Athens, for example, notes that while the tips in her broken marble Star of David point toward the homes of murdered Jews, the hexagonal block in the center symbolizes rejuvenation and survival.

It will be interesting to see how artists visualize Milwaukee’s ambitious assignment. The charged field of memorial-building complicates the classic dilemma of public art in general: One person’s celebration of identity is another’s stereotype; one’s iconography of life, a beholder’s symbol of death. Remember Louise Bourgeois’s bronze sculpture of clasped hands, which was initially installed on the Battery Park waterfront looking out at Ellis Island? When the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust was preparing to open nearby in 1997, park officials took the precaution of surreptitiously moving the work to a less-prominent location. There was concern it might remind museum visitors of body parts from the death camps.

Abstraction poses other problems. Some thought the field of gray concrete steles in Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin was lacking in powerful symbolism when it was inaugurated five years ago. Others complained it was too Jewish, because it omitted mention of other persecuted populations. This resulted in the commission of two more Holocaust memorials for Berlin: Elmgreen and Dragset’s monument to gay victims (as well as, it turns out, to Eisenman’s design) and a still-unrealized environmental sculpture by Dani Karavan in honor of the Sinti and the Roma.

Eisenman designed his memorial to be ominous, alienating, and somber. However, that’s not what’s attracting a growing number of visitors to the site. A recent article reported that its field of gray granite slabs has become a haven for sunbathers, urban daredevils, and hide-and-seek players. However, the article said, Lea Rosh, who helped bring the monument into being, doesn’t like children playing on it. She tells them to go someplace else. So, it seems like Berlin has a new Holocaust memorial problem—it makes people feel good. Go figure.

This turn of events might be a cautionary tale for Milwaukee. Make a memorial that refers to the specific events you’re supposed to memorialize, and some viewers—precisely the ones you’re trying to reach—might be put off. Make one that doesn’t, and you end up with a picnic spot. If you make a monument to life going on, it will. But maybe that’s the point.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.

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JCarpenter says:

an Eternal Flame—light, hope, the Presence, all that the Nazis tried to pervert, snuff out, and obliterate— is in my opinion an uplifting and redemptive symbol.

virginia says:

Justice,justice shouts the Bible. This is inate cry of people the world over and it is getting louder. The Jews have heard this call for over 3,000 years. Instead of fighting off each enemy, the Jews can lead the way out of the current snakepit by echoing Micah “To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”
Perhaps some version of the Scales of Justice as a major part of a sclpture.

The real problem of the plethora of Holocaust memorials is not their DESIGN, but their NUMBER, and why they are growing. The underlying reasons why every Jewish community feels that such a memorial is a ‘must have’ goes beyond providing local Jewish communities with a focal point for identifying with and commemorating a landmark event in Jewish history (despite a deep beliefs in ‘American exceptionalism’).

There is an attempt afoot ever since the American Jewish community embarked on building a federal Holocaust Museum just off the Mall – the pantheon that celebrates American history and culture – to make the Holocaust an integral part of the American Experience, not only to commemorate and educate (its expressed purpose) but also to ‘mainstream the Holocaust’ into the American consciousness and remove the dissonance that objectively exists between the Jewish Experience and the American Experience.

This march to erect Holocaust memorials across America (and make it a major theme in the school curriculum) has surely reached a saturation point that threatens to boomerang. Moreover, the sheer number of Holocaust memorials is increasingly inappropriate considering there are no such memorials marking the tragedy of the Native Americans a subject that is certainly closer to the heart of the American Experience (and OUGHT to be commemorated in every American town and city – not the Holocaust).

In the tradition of Picasso’s painting Guernica extended into our networked times, I have created a work of Internet art as a call to action to prevent a second Holocaust before Ahmadinejad executes his plan to “wipe Israel off the map” with a nuclear bomb that is Iran’s prelude to global conquest in the service of a mad ideology.
The nations that did little to prevent the murder of six million Jews in Europe or collaborated with the Nazis in their extermination have built memorials to honor those dead Jews. As a warning of the danger of a second Holocaust, I propose designing in advance Holocaust memorials for the millions of Jews in Israel to be incinerated by an Iranian nuclear bomb that the whole world is doing little to prevent. Iran already possesses missiles that can reach Israel and is racing ahead to make nuclear warheads for them
As a member of the Council of the Wolf Foundation, I was happy to be at the Knesset two weeks ago to award the Wolf Prize to Peter Eisenman whose Berlin memorial is shown in the photo illustrating this article.

The “Guardian” article, with their usual disregard for factual accuracy, assumes and notes that Athens was the only EU capital city not yet to have a Holocaust memorial before this new one was unveiled. If the Greeks can do it……
But this is not true. ITALY/ROME has nothing. Despite a sorry history in this ex-Fascist capital, there is nothing there. Lots of plans and drawings and models on display, committee meetings over the years. a few plaques here and there in individual cities. but no nationwide sign of any construction anywhere, and given Italian history and insouciance in general, all the more distressing.
I would have liked to call this to the attention of Ms. Helena Smtih, the Guardian writer, but after spending too much time looking for an email link to her or even to the editor of the paper, i just post it here. if anyone can figure out how to get this info to her, thanks….

Hi, Neat post. There is a problem with your site in internet explorer, would check this… IE still is the market chief and a huge section of folks will omit your fantastic writing because of this problem.

I found this info earlier today while in the office. Very useful. Sent the link to myself and will most likely bookmark it when I make it home.


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Monumental Dilemma

A design competition is seeking an uplifting Holocaust memorial. Is such a thing possible?

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