An achievement not yet built


Holocaust: An American with an understanding of the importance of incompletion coaxed the German government and Jews into agreement on a Holocaust memorial in Berlin.

May 02, 2000|By Adam Spiegel | Adam Spiegel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This is the story of a doughty English professor who left Amherst, Mass., one April morning with a most improbable mission: to persuade recalcitrant Germans and fractious Jews to build a Holocaust memorial at the epicenter of Berlin, a stone's throw from Hitler's underground bunker, and to concur on its design.

It took more than 30 cross-Atlantic flights and hundreds of hours of bilious debate, but James E. Young wrung approval for the monument from the Bundestag, ending more than a decade of political wrangling.

"How does a perpetrator mourn its victims?" asks Young. "How do you build a new state on the bedrock memory of your crimes?"

Largely as a result of his mediation, this week Jews will observe Yom Hashoah -- literally, Holocaust Remembrance Day -- in celebration of formal groundbreaking ceremonies held in January at the 4.9-acre Holocaust Memorial site near the Brandenburg Gate in downtown Berlin.

It was Young who single-handedly articulated the ground rules that would govern final selection of the winning entry.

Young, 48, would seem an unlikely candidate to overcome the contention that had led to official German rejection of an earlier winning design.

For one thing, he opposed any final answer to the Holocaust Memorial controversy. He believed that its very completion would enable Germans to dismiss an unwanted memory in the suspension of guilt through immobile, stony art.

This skepticism earned Young the admiration of German politicians opposed to any Holocaust memorial, and also the support of Jews convinced that no artistic statement could properly redeem their 6 million dead. He became the only foreigner, and the only Jew, named to a five-member panel to decide the outcome.

The winning memorial incorporated Young's consensus-building vision of an incomplete, brooding assemblage of about 3,000 gravestone slabs that defied all effort to conjure imaginatively an artfully finished statement.

Ranging in height from 1 1/2 feet to about 10 feet over one section of the site, the memorial puts viewers on an even footing with memory. As they wade waist-deep into this waving field of stones, they are treated as integral parts of a seemingly numberless landscape of anonymous markers, inviting them into a memorial dialogue of equals.

The initial proposal for a German Holocaust memorial came in 1989, when Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced a competition to design "The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe," a grandiose statement of contrition modeled on a desktop sculpture of the Pieta that Kohl particularly admired.

At the time, Young was writing a manuscript about Holocaust memorials in Europe, Israel and America. Their very proliferation won his intellectual esteem, because it suggested an unending quest to resolve an unanswerable problem.

After five years of squabbling over lesser sites, in 1994 Kohl selected a prime tract near Potsdamer Platz and invited architects to submit a design.

From the beginning, it was clear that among the 528 approved submissions, many were seeking aesthetic revenge. These ran the gamut of taste from ghoulish to grotesque.

One called for a Ferris wheel that substituted cattle cars for carriages. Another envisioned a gigantic, empty, 130-foot vat as a receptacle for the blood of murdered victims. A more punitive approach sought to repave a half-mile stretch of autobahn in a busy metropolis with cobblestones, slowing traffic to a crawl during rush hour.

The winning entry proposed a 23-foot-thick concrete gravestone 300 feet square, tilted at an angle.

Within hours of the announcement, the design was buried under an avalanche of political, artistic, intellectual and editorial criticism. Germans found it too big, too heavy-handed and too divisive. Jews deemed it undignified, unaesthetic and insensitive.

Facing international censure, Kohl threw up his hands and rescinded government support for the project.

Thus ended the first effort to build a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. After three more years of biting, tortuous debate about Germany's failure to confront its past, the government moved in 1997 to reopen the memorial issue.

As an American whose scholarship inveighed against any completed Holocaust monuments, Young was invited to speak at a convention called to set the ground rules for a second competition. When his time came to speak, he told the audience that the selection of a unifying design was doomed unless the monument created controversy, resisted simplification and defied conclusions of artistic completion.

His speech was greeted with universal applause.

"They liked having a clarifying mirror held up to themselves," he says. Young was named to the new panel and given broad scope not only to set its agenda and define its goals, but also to dissent publicly from its conclusions.

His first challenge was to persuade Germans and Jews alike to build the proposed Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Here he found himself at odds with his prior stance, but he was now an arbiter, not an outsider.

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