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Alone in Berlin - part II: A powerful memorial, mistreated

(Berlin, GERMANY) – I saved the Holocaust memorial in Berlin for my last day there.

There are two sections to the area: the rectangular stones on top, and a museum underneath. As I approached the memorial, I noticed some bright red balloons.

I ventured into the memorial, searching for them.

A few minutes later, the young man accompanying the model and the photographer approached me and gave me his card. He asked me if I could send them the pictures I took. I said I would and asked him what the shoot was for. He said it was for Valentine’s Day.

This was on February 19th.


The card has a website link. It takes me to a site for a model named Marina Wenk.

Berlin’s a big town. I think Frau Wenk could have found a better place to promote herself.

The underground museum is, in my opinion, the most powerful Holocaust museum I have been to. It is small, not as overwhelming with information like Yad Vashem, and very painful to walk through. I found my heart pounding near the end.

In the last room of the museum, I saw the blonde German girl with the earphones in the picture above sitting on a bench and sobbing.

That’s when I started to choke up myself, rushed to the exit, opened the door, and took a deep breath of the freezing Berlin air.


Read also:
Alone in Berlin: Unsuccessfully trying to forget
Naomi Chazan: “An undemocratic Israel will not last a minute”  

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    1. antje eiger

      Hi Ami,

      read all 3 Berlin articles….. liked the Rabin comment and the article on the holocaust memorial….. the piece on the boell event was so-so…. there was so much more to it. only the fact that so many people showed up – 500 each time – is worth a thought

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    2. arieh gal

      In art exist a movement called minimalist.color for ther coloriself.You were strolling and then red, black and blondee..your only comment is that she could fine better places..?, she defenitly ask for it…!!. under conscius, old memories from grand father..and you accept for a future contact..why?
      the cheers and smiles when the cold and harsh piece of naked stone are the backgraund,when the hard edges are cutting almost the real flesh..Sorry Ami, maybe I didn’t understand. arieh

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    3. Ruthie

      I fully agree – the Berlin museum is the single most effective Holocaust museum I have been to, far beyond the more megalomaniac efforts of Yad VaShem and the one in DC, to name a couple. I think one of the reasons for this, at least for me, is the focus on facts and pictures, and less on leading you through an experience with symbols-turned-cliches.
      Even more importantly, it gives facts on all the different victims of the Nazi regime, not focusing almost solely on the Jewish victims (the story of whom I am of course more familiar with), and this fuller context – and a much more humanist approach – made the experience all the more chilling and memorable. I get shivers readings about it here.

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    4. @arieh – yes, I believe you misunderstood me. Take a look at my headline – I’m being critical.
      @ruthie – thanks.
      @antje – I agree that 500 people (although I think it was less) is a great turnout. But that has nothing to do with the discussions. That would be like saying “Titanic” was a great movie because so many people saw it…
      To sum up, maybe my post was so-so because it reflected the conference accurately.

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    5. noam

      ami, as a follower of your blog, and as somebody who defended your first berlin post, although i couldn’t fully relate, i must say that the subtlety expressed there is gone. please try reading through my thoughts without switching into an auto-pilot defensive/aggressive mode. of course you can still take your time, think it through, and then get upset 😉

      feeling any way you might about visiting germany is of course legitimate, and indeed worth sharing and writing about. however, i think your criticism of this individual whom you don’t even know is unfair, and that you’re projecting onto her PERSONALLY your ambivalence about german people GENERALLY. people live in berlin in 2012. this huge, park-sized memorial is situated right in the centre of town. people live around it, and live within it when passing through it. this doesn’t take away it’s importance as a constant reminder of the void caused by this genocide – the opposite. i think the concept of this huge park is that it will be a part of the city’s life – not a fenced, sacred zone like a church, synagogue, mosque or cemetery.
      i think most berliners would recognize the location these shots were taken on, and therefore would react differently to them than any random shot. they will be reminded, through a casual, everyday picture, of the destruction of european jewry. isn’t that precisely what this memorial intends to do? to engrave this into everyday, city-centre life? the become a part of the background? perhaps even to show up in a fashion magazine? why is this mistreatment?
      i think jumping up on this girl which you don’t know, and crucifying her online with several shots documenting her supposed misconduct is somewhat pious, unfair and uncalled for. she wasn’t modeling bikinis, sex toys or vandalizing the place. how do you even know what kind of use she intends to do with these shots? perhaps they’re for an art project? you know, wearing a red dress could be a schindler’s list reference just as likely as it could mean displaying disrespect.
      let me share with you an experience i had while living in vienna which offended me, maybe especially because i’m a jew. i was attending a free concert during the summer on a lovely square called judenplatz. in the centre of it stands a very powerful memorial for austrian jews. it is a square library carved in stone, surrounded by a marble ledge (an elevated step) with a dedication in german, hebrew and english. it’s rather small, unlike the berlin monument, and the square wasn’t particularly packed during the concert. one could sit ANYWHERE on the ground. and yet there were 5-10 people sitting ON THE LEDGE, ON THE DEDICATION. this really distressed me – people sitting ON the statue. i kept telling myself they most likely wanted to lean on something, and weren’t even aware of what they were leaning on. but the entire sqaure was surrounded by bare walls and house fronts, which were all free – and yet they sat right on the small memorial. this is what i call mistreatment of a memorial.
      i’m mentioning this story to tell you that it’s not like i don’t get where you’re coming from. if this girl in berlin would be posing profanely on these grey stones, mocking the place, or squatting on a dedication plaque – i could relate with you feelings. but i think your reaction here was caused by an emotional, irrational feeling visiting there. again, emotions are by definition always legitimate. however, how you act upon them and process them is worth reflecting over. i think it’s worth rethinking whether it’s fair to point out this girl’s supposed misconduct online in this way, and even more so with her full name and contacts provided.

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    6. @noam – I hope enough time has passed for me to answer you.
      Allow me to address your comment in two ways. First, the second part talks about an experience you had in Vienna. I fail to see how my experience differs from it. I see it as the exact same kind of mistreatment, if not worse. While in your experience they were “just” sitting, in my experience a model thought about where to have a photo shoot, brought bright red balloons, and posed sensually next to the stones. I truly do not understand how you do not see this as mistreatment.
      Now, to the first part of your comment: You are right, she wasn’t in a bikini and wasn’t posing with a sex toy. But you say that as if anything less than that is fine. That’s it? Excuse me, Noam, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. If for example, there was a “mistreatment” scale or something of the likes, then yes – posing with a sex toy would be the highest, a 10. But what this woman did was certainly applicable to such a scale, maybe a seven or an eight.
      In retrospect, I even think I went easy on her.
      And I wouldn’t worry about publishing her details. The man gave it to me with such ease to begin with, and remember she’s a model looking for work – “no such thing as bad publicity,” right? Unfortunately, I’m probably doing her a favor. (And let’s get things right: I didn’t publish her phone number and address – I linked to her website…)
      Lastly, I think the test should be putting ourselves in the shoes of a survivor. Noam, how do you think a survivor would feel if he was standing next to her with those balloons?
      This isn’t a memorial for some kind of war in the 1600’s. There are still survivors, it’s still fresh. A bit of common sense would have been nice.

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    7. David

      Loving the Berlin posts. I spent last fall there and was comfortably overwhelmed by the amount of Jewish/Zionist questions the city raised.

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    8. Sinjim

      It’s amazing how much your visit to the museum parallels my own. It’s probably one of the most vivid memories I have of my stay in Berlin, way more powerful than even the Holocaust Museum in DC. Believe it or not, when I walked through the memorial, I also came across a couple of Germans taking silly pictures and laughing loudly in what felt like a very sacred place and I had a similar reaction as you. Perhaps taking pictures there is not unusual, but people shouldn’t have to be told how inappropriate that is.

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    9. Rachelle Pachtman

      Loved all three columns. Complicated subject that makes us all uncomfortable. I was raised in a home where no German products were permitted despite the fact that my parents’ friends who were survivors still loved their delicate German china dishes. To this day, I am haunted by “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Yet I know lovely German people who could not be finer. Hard to hold it all together sometimes. What’s that called — cognitive dissonance?

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    10. @sinjim, david & rachelle – thank you.

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    11. Aaron

      Maybe a little off-topic, but I’ve never been to a Holocaust museum, and I don’t really understand why someone who’s already “sensitive” to the Shoah should go to one of these museums or memorials at all. What things do you learn that you didn’t know already? I mean, you already knew that the Shoah was bad and that it’s important to us Jews. What does the visit to the museum do for you? If some museums are more “effective” than others (to quote a comment above), then what do they effect?
      I watched that documentary Defamation, and the part with the visit to the Holocaust museum really creeped me out – the visit, not the museum itself – which was the point of the documentary, of course. So at least one other person, the Israeli documentarian, apparently feels the same as I do. I want to be clear that I’m not judging people who go to these museums or saying that it’s bad. That would just be closed-minded of me, because as I said, I haven’t been, so I don’t pretend to know what the experience is.

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    12. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      P.S. I agree with Ami Kaufman here contra Noam. A reference to the red dress in Schindler’s List? With the balloons and the make-up? Yeah, right.
      She was trying to be “edgy” and “provocative.” The right response is to say, “Yeah, we get what you’re trying to do, and we don’t like it. You’re insulting the dead, even though that isn’t your purpose. Knock it off.”

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    13. Steve

      Good feature

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    14. Robert Soran - Schwarz

      Why people go to “Holocaust” museums?
      Just two of the reasons:

      1. as school kids groups – to be confronted with history, with the darkest parts of homo sapiens and his biological “humanity” in order to learn from and never forget what dangers our genes and our societies hide inside.
      2. as individuals: kind of cleaning ritual bath, the wish to better understand and to show respect for the victims of evil human acts.

      1. school kids: like above, in addition such museums are almost the only way they can get “in contact” with their unknown, disappeared family members he never had the chance to meet
      2. adults: the hope to better understand what happened why and how. In addition a slight hope to find there something about the world and people his ancestors belonged to.

      In regard to Jews, sfaradim (oriental Jews) are somewhere at the intersection of Gentiles and Jews, because their families didn’t experience the Shoah.

      Visiting the museum has different reasons from visiting (or spending time) at the “memorial” monument.

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    15. Karen

      I agree it’s disrespectful. Shockingly so. Have you been to Phnom Penh? At the school house where the Pol Pot regime carried out much of their atrocities there is a genocide museum. One of the exhibits is a torture chair that is now encased in glass because tourists used to sit in it and get their photos taken! I don’t want to get involved in the “zionist manipulation” (as I see from blog comments) because i think that is an entirely different discussion and completely unrelated to the very real vivid emotions that accompany visits to memorials. I think this sort of behaviour that tourists engage should be outright banned.

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    16. Robert Soran - Schwarz

      The monument was for long years very controversial both in the Jewish German world and among the Germans.
      In 1997 the (second!) competition’s decision was: Sculptor Richard Serra and architect Peter Eisenman were the winners.
      Their idea convinced the jury: a field of about 4,000 concrete steles. “Our memorial has no goal, no end, no path to enter or leave by,” Richard Serra and Peter Eisenman describe the basic concept of their design.
      “The steles oppress the visitor and confuse him. He decides for himself how far he wants to enter this field, these memories. On an unstable foundation, deep in the field of steles, the visitor can only see a small portion of it. He knows the size of the area, perhaps he knows the number of steles, but he cannot get an overview of the entire field – a metaphor for the impossibility of grasping the million-fold murder of the Jews.”

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    17. Robert Soran - Schwarz

      From an interview with the “father” of the memorial, Eisenmann.

      Q: This can’t help provoke a question about the building you yourself have said is the one you are mostly likely to be remembered for, the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. I’m not sure what to ask you about it: it reminded me of a sea of gravestones in a military cemetery.

      Eisenmann’s answer: What I was thinking was something quite different. I’m very much against the Holocaust industry. I’m against the nostalgia that is brought up about the Holocaust. I am against kitchifying the Holocaust.

      I think it was something that defies representation; I think you cannot represent it. And what I’ve tried to do is say if you go to Auschwitz, if you go there, it’s horrific: you’re reminded of all these images et cetera. But you can re-assimilate your internal mechanisms to say, OK, that was then and here we are now.

      What I tried to do in Berlin was to do something that couldn’t necessarily be as easily re-assimilated. It has no imagery. In other words, it was not about imagery, it was not about marking, it was not about a cemetery. The fact that it could look like a cemetery is possible. It could also look like a field of corn. I was thinking about a field of corn I was lost in in Iowa when I did it. I was trying to do something that had no center, had no edge, had no meaning, that was dumb: D-U-M-B. And there’s nothing in the city that’s dumb. And therefore it was silent, it didn’t speak.

      I believe that when you walk into this place, it’s not going to matter whether you are a Jew or a non-Jew, a German or a victim: you’re going to feel something. And what I’m interested in is that experience of feeling something. Not necessarily anything to do with the Holocaust, but to feel something different than everyday experience. That was what I was trying to do. It’s not about guilt, it’s not about paying back, it’s not about identification, it’s not about any of those things; it’s about being. And I’m interested, in a sense, in the question of being and how we open up being to very different experiences.

      I’ve got to tell you the biggest supporter of that project was Helmut Kohl, the conservative prime minister of Germany. When the liberal Gerhard Schroeder came in, he almost killed it. My first project in Berlin was when Richard Von Weisacker was mayor and I did this field at Checkpoint Charlie, and VW came to me after I won the competition and he said to me,

      “You know, Peter, my problem with your project is this: the left wing hates it because they think it’s right wing and the right wing hates it because they think it’s left. Nobody can make an assessment. You have created something that is, in a sense, problematic for everybody, because they can’t label it. And if they can’t label it, then they can’t tell whether they like it or dislike it.”

      That’s what I’ve tried to do in Berlin. That’s what I’ve tried to do with myself, with my work. I don’t want a label. I don’t want to be either good or bad, right or wrong, left or right”

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    18. Robert Soran - Schwarz

      Eisenmann would have liked to see that a photo session took place inside the memorial …

      Eisenmann in a SPIEGEL interview:

      “SPIEGEL ONLINE: Now that the monument is finished and open to the public, it probably won’t be long before the first swastika is sprayed onto the monument.

      Eisenman: Would that be a bad thing? I was against the graffiti coating from the start. If a swastika is painted on it, it is a reflection of how people feel. And if it remains there, it is a reflection of how the German government feels about people painting swastikas on the monument. That is something I have no control over. When you turn a project over to clients, they do with it what they want — it’s theirs and they occupy your work. You can’t tell them what to do with it. If they want to knock the stones over tomorrow, honestly, that’s fine. People are going to picnic in the field. Children will play tag in the field. There will be fashion models modeling there and films will be shot there. I can easily imagine some spy shoot ’em ups ending in the field.

      What can I say? It’s not a sacred place. “

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    19. Robert Soran - Schwarz

      One last sentence: Ami, this was an excellent “report” from Berlin. Thank you!

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    20. Robert Soran - Schwarz

      Hara! I forgot what I wanted to start with:

      Yes, this is by far the best Holocaust museum I know. One of the contributing factors is its focus on facts, on somewhat distanced objectivity which is more effective and efficient in reaching both brains and guts. Because it carries with it a hidden, but giant load of conscientious guilt and a total determination to do not let such a hideous crime ever again happen.

      That’s why I was an active supporter of the project for more than 15 years.

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    21. Robert Soran - Schwarz

      In Berlin it was the unanimous decision of the architect, the sculptor, the project team and its supporting association to let visitors to do almost totally what they want there. This is why there were almost no incidents in seven years that would have requested police or security to intervene. Certainly, not everybody agrees with, but we achieved at least one of the goals: no visitor will forget having been there.

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    22. Amy

      I liked all three blog posts. My favourite was still the number II.
      As for this one, I don’t know why you would spend so much time on Frau Wenk, but since it was direct and unedited I suppose at least it is genuine.
      Since the ‘moment’ is gone, I suppose this post can’t be expanded upon because I’d like to read in more detail how you felt at the time.
      I felt the last part was too shrouded in secrecy, you whisked past it in very high speed.
      But in this post.. it felt as if you hid a lot or perhaps it didn’t come to you in such a direct way like it did in previous blog posts, until the very end when you saw the blonde German girl crying on the bench at the end.
      Still, looking back at all three blogposts, I must add to what many others have said: they were on the whole brilliant.
      You’re a gifted writer. And when you write as if you’re emotionally ‘naked’ then you’re at your very best.

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    23. Shelly

      “Perhaps the most moving image in Steven Spielberg’s epic “Schindler’s List” is the little girl in the red coat, one of only four color images in the three-hour black and white film. Our attention is drawn to the little blonde tot, overlooked by the German troops, who wanders alone amid the horror and panic. She is wearing a red coat which draws the viewer to her even when she is but one of a hundred people in a wide shot.”

      @Noam – the above quote was taken from a site devoted to Oskar Schindler. How this tragic image can be equated with the carnival feeling of bright red balloons, held by a posed model in the midst of a stark grey monument to holocaust victims is beyond me.

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    24. aristeides

      “It’s not a sacred place.”

      That seems to sum up the matter. Those who are outraged do consider it a sacred place.

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    25. Tzippi

      Am I the only one bothered that the holocoust only seems to focus on the Jewish victims. 11 million people were killed, not just 6 million Jews. We may have been the largest ethnic group targeted but we weren’t the only ones.

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    26. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      The architect’s comments were interesting, but his is just one opinion among many. He’s right that it shouldn’t be a sacred place – neither is a cemetery, for that matter – but that doesn’t mean it should be treated like just any other place. It’s not a question of whom the place “belongs to,” it’s just a simple question of decorum. Come on, this is just common sense.
      Re “why go to Holocaust museums?”, I don’t think that I need to learn more about the Shoah. More facts, why? And “lessons”? The whole “lessons of the Holocaust” thing is rightly scorned. We all seem to learn from the Holocaust those lessons which we were already predisposed to believe. It might be truly useful for educating or indoctrinating the young, but I’ve already learned the Holocaust basics in school.

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    27. ישראל ישראלי

      גם כשאתי ביקרתי שם ראיתי אנשים שמשחקים ולא ממש מבינים את המשמעות של האתר הזה

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