“What does that word mean - Holocaust?” my younger daughter asked me. Her voice was a little quieter and her eyes a little bigger than usual.
We were on our way from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate and had just reached the edge of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A sea of concrete blocks laid out in seemingly ordered rows and columns. It is one of the modern works of art that moves me most.
”Didn’t you learn about that in school?” I asked her.
My older daughter chimed in ”That comes in the 8th Grade. She will have it next year in History class.”
Standing there at the edge of memorial, I gave my younger daughter the five minute introduction to Hitler, the Nazis, WWII, concentration camps, and genocide. We turned to the memorial and I asked her ”Look at those concrete blocks – what do they make you think of?”
“I dont know . . . maybe gravestones. Or coffins.” From our perspective, there at the corner, there seemed to be an ocean of them spreading out to the left and right.
“That could be. Or each one could represent a block of people I think of each one as a group of people brought to a camp or sent into a gas chamber.”
People lumped together into uniform concrete rectangles and deposited side by side in straight rows. But if you looked closely, you saw that each one was slightly different some were larger or smaller, taller or shorter, wider or narrower, level or inclined, upright or slightly tilted. They threw shadows and created waves. Just one or two blocks were missing.
”Do you see how they are laid out in even rows? For me that shows Hitler’s attempt to create a sick kind of ORDER - a neat little solution to the supposed problem of the Jewish people in Europe. But once you get inside, you will see that the paths are all uneven and go up and down – the cobblestones make them hard to walk on and you have to watch your step.”
We stood in silence for a while. Unfortunately, I had to watch while a young girl got up on top of one of the slabs so her boyfriend could take her picture. She crossed her legs, leaned back on one arm and did a cool movie star pose, smiling brightly for the camera. I glanced at my daughter and was relieved to see her looking in a different direction.
”Why did the people let that happen?” she asked quietly.
That was a tough one. I thought back to my first experience at this memorial. Once you got inside, it was like being in a labyrinth despite the straight lines. You passed between the slabs of concrete - sometimes you could see over the tops to the others, sometimes they towered over you. At each intersection you could look left and right and see other people a ways off: An old woman looking down and stepping carefully so she wouldn’t trip. Little kids playing hide-and-seek, oblivious to the meaning of their current playground. A young couple with a selfie stick having trouble finding a good angle for their picture. Some people walking slowly in contemplation. All of them coming into each other’s line of sight for a brief moment and then disappearing again. No one greeted anyone or even looked into another person’s eyes. I thought “this is how it must have been” for the people living through the times. Wandering lost and alone through the new Order.
I finally told my daughter that I couldn’t answer her question at that moment. She has grown up so far in a bright and colorful world where people are basically good. Now at the age of 13, she is beginning to learn about humankind’s shadowside and long long history of atrocities. I told her she should just walk around in the memorial and see how it all made her feel. We would meet up at the other end and talk again.