Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Holocaust Memorials: Things Left Behind

Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Holocaust Memorials: Things Left Behind
by Samuel D. Gruber

Berlin is a city of monuments and memorials, celebrating Prussian power and now, in recent decades, Nazi crimes. The list of Holocaust commemorative sites, plaques, statues, exhibitions in continually growing. This is to say nothing of the more than 5,000 stolpersteine that have now been installed on pavements throughout the city, with many in the Berlin-Mitte neighborhood.  Having so many commemorative sites allows for great variety. Some are explicit and narrative; some conceptual and abstract. Some are generic and some precise. Some are collective, while some remember specific individuals and families. But even when taken together all these monuments cannot convey the enormity of suffering and loss; of astonishment, fear, violence, pain, and death.

Berlin, Germany. Examples of Stolpersteine commemorating former Jewish residents of Grosse Hambrger Str. 30. Photo: Sameul Gruber 2016
I've been to Berlin several times over the past twenty-five years - as this commemorative landscape has expanded neighborhood by neighborhood. Each time different memorials strike a chord.  On this visit, I was especially moved on the short walk up Grosse Hamburger Str. in Mitte, from the Old Jewish cemetery to Koppenplatz, the site of the bronze sculpture Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room), by Karl Biedermann, installed in 1996.  The work is a near-perfect example of a genre of monuments I call "things left behind." These works began appearing in Europe in the 1990s and continue to be made today. They rely on contradictions to convey their powerful message of abandonment and loss.

Examples are in Sopron, Hungary, where a 2004 monument by László Kutasis cast from real clothes to suggest the garments left by victims in the "showers" of Auschwitz. In Budapest, the 2005 memorial on the banks of the Danube of cast shoes and boots - to signify the victims who were shot and  thrown into the icy river in 1944-45 by Arrow Cross militiamen  - is another powerful example These Hungarian examples are more spricifc in the references than The Deserted Room which could equally have been installed in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels or any other occupied cavity from which Jews where Jews rounded up and deported. But it also speaks to any place today where refugees must run from their homes, never to return.

Sopron, Hungary. Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust from Sopron, László Kutas, sculptor, 2004. Photo: szoborlap.hu
Budapest, Hungary. Danube River Monument, 2005. Gyula Pauer, artist. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2009
While these works are conceptual at their core, they are also highly realistic - even hyper realist in their visible subject and form. They juxtapose the commonplace and every-day with the realization of the reality of unspeakable horror and inconsolable lose. Most powerful of all, these works encounter the view on high intellectual level but with personal immediacy.

Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
The bronze sculpture is so natural - one can mistake the table and two chairs as the real thing - though in fact they are slightly bigger than normal and cast in bronze. And yet these cannot be normal - they sit on a faux-parquet floor in a room with walls and ceiling within a small city park. This represent a room on ordinary apartment or houses, that has been left in a hurry. Were the residents who so recently sat at the simple table arrested and deported? Or did they leave suddenly, saving themselves as refugees on the run? Sadly, we must think the former. Around  the edge of the floor are lines from the famous poem O the Chimneys by Nobel Prize Laureate Nelly Sachs. The lines of the third stanza:


O die Wohnungen des Todes, Einladend hergerichtet Für den Wirt des Hauses, der sonst Gast war – O ihr Finger,

Die Eingangsschwelle legend Wie ein Messer zwischen Leben und Tod –

O ihr Schornsteine, O ihr Finger, Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft!

[O dwellings of death
Set out so enticingly
For the host of the house, who used to be the guest –
O you fingers
Laying the stone of the threshold
Like a knife between life and death –
O you chimneys
O you fingers
And Israel’s body dissolves in smoke through the air!]


Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
The lines of the Nelly Sachs poem could have been used for the Sopron memorial, too.

I'll be adding more about the Berlin Commemorative landscape in coming weeks.

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