German soldiers reacting to footage of the Holocaust

It must be a daunting task to memorialize the Holocaust. The fact is, there is no real way to do this right. No matter how good your representation, in whatever medium, you know that you will face harsh, withering criticism. There is simply no way around this. The Holocaust is too raw and has too many dimensions to capture and there will always be people – a sizable number of good, well-intentioned people – who stand read to take you to task for what you miss.

I recently had the opportunity to see the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The above ground monument is powerful. Consisting of an undulating field of stone pillars that progress from shorter to taller, it first evokes the tombs of Jerusalem graveyards before giving way to a Kafkaesque set of higher pillars that is disorienting as you walk through them. When I was there a group of children were playing hide and seek among the pillars, which I totally understood (might I have done the same at that age?) even if at the same time it made me slightly nauseous. And the placement, so close to the government buildings, the Brandenburg Gate, the old dividing line between East and West, the additional monuments to those slaughtered by the Nazis, and the government buildings gives it an additional punch.

I went downstairs into the exhibition, located in the area of a the Nazis’ bunker system. The exhibition mixes emotional power with unvarnished fact. There is a straightforward, unapologetic narrative of the efforts at extermination and a powerful exhibition of written fragments of Jews who would soon be killed by the Nazis. A room devoted to the doomed fates of Jewish families from across Europe also put a human face on the Holocaust.

What I missed, though – and here I wonder if I just am asking for too much – is the how and why. Not how the extermination was carried out; there was plenty about that. How did the Germans, for whom this exhibit was built, come to treat their own (as well as Jews elsewhere) so murderously? While I know that there is no single “right” answer to this question, this is the question at the heart of the Holocaust (and perhaps the division of Germany into East and West) and I doubt anyone could leave the Memorial without asking it.  Yet I don’t know if anything in the exhibition would help anyone to answer it.

Earlier in my trip to Germany I visited the city historical museum in Potsdam. There was a panel dealing with the treatment of the Jewish community there. That exhibition was totally appropriate. It was factual and unapologetic. As far as I could see, though, it was also the first and only mention of Jews as part of the city’s narrative. Jews, and the relationships they had with Germans, just seemed to float unmoored, alien to the essential history of the city.

The Germans that I meet are extraordinarily sensitive to this issue, in a good way. They are not responsible for what happened, or at least not any more than many Americans are for the way that their ancestors treated their slaves. Both cases bring to mind the slogan “truth and justice”, and make me wonder what that really entails.