Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial Tour

The rain finally eased off last night and permitted me to take a tour of the Holocaust Memorial also known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I had called earlier in the day and was confronted with a sizeable queue snaking up to the information centre that seemed to be shuffling painfully slowly through the rain. When I learnt that the audio tour awaiting me at the end of this soggy rainbow did not even cover the memorial itself, only the underground centre, I rather more quickly shuffled off. The foundation that runs the memorial does, however, also have a short audio tour of the site, and additionally, audio tours of the nearby gay and lesbian and gypsy memorials too, all of which can be found online. When the rain stopped and with one of these recordings downloaded onto my phone, I set out into the night.

The audio guide is narrated by a British man in a rather matter of fact tone without any of the Schindler's List treatment. By that I mean it did not make an emotional or sentimental play upon the listener, but allowed the site and the facts to speak for themselves. 

The recording made no effort to navigate the listener around the space, indeed it was not really necessary to listen to the recording on site, it was a short audio recording about the memorial that could just as easily be listened to remotely. I walked though the dark passages between the concrete slabs and, every now and again, came upon a feature such as this stairway leading down to the underground centre.

I learnt about the site's history and the memorial's construction and not much else. I would have liked something more but I understand that the site is meant to function as an artwork in its own right and, therefore, speak for itself. I also noticed that I was not alone: there were people jumping along the tops of the columns and others playing hide and seek, one the cat and the other the mouse darting in and out of them. It really is a very particular sort of physical space that does lend itself to these games.

As I walked around listening to the rationale for the memorial's construction, I started thinking about the differences between people's perceptions of it and how these must be somewhat dependent on their relationship to the history. German school groups will probably experience this place in one way while American pensioners will most likely have an entirely different take on it. I saw a Jewish group with a Yiddish speaking guide making their way around a related site (Topography of Terror) and later saw a group of three, young Korean women getting a tour of it with a German guide and a German-English translator. While people will have their personal responses, I have to guess these larger distinctions will also frame the experience very distinctly.

The memorial and information centre is open free of charge to the visitor and is clearly run for political and educational purposes. This is in contrast to the rather trashy Checkpoint Charlie attractions which are simpler businesses making a profit by playing on the cold war / Berlin wall history. While the atmosphere and nature of the operations is very different, the tourists visiting these two sites are often the exact same people: souvenir shops and restaurants line the monument and I saw a good few people taking selfies on it. The tourist floats through everything collecting fun and interesting experiences and processing them within the context of their trip. They will rarely treat the monument with the same seriousness that its creators might have ascribed to it, but there is no way of getting around this. It is better that it exists than it doesn't and the memorial foundation does give educational tours to groups to help fix the meaning more firmly. These educational tours need to be pre-booked and, like a typical tourist, I did not do this so have no idea what they are like. This game of ascribing meaning is fluid, another sort of game of cat and mouse, and I suspect this is a site that will age in an interesting way.


  1. You bet it is! Actually the Korean women's tour was more absurd than I wrote about here. Their guide was an older German woman who gave the tour in German, their translator a young German man who spoke to them in English. One of the Korean girls was then translating from the English into Korean for her friend. What sense they must have extracted from this about events long before they were born to people far away I can only guess.