My knowledge about the Holocaust mostly comes from my 77 year-old grandmother who talks now and then about what she remembers and what her dad told told her. I read about Holocaust survivors. I also read about concentration camps and prisoners if I I feel I can handle it. Saying these stories are touching would be an understatement and even insulting in a way. Some stories still haunt me despite having read them a few years ago. They are still very fresh in my mind.
But I had had no idea how haunting these stories really were until I walked through the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin two weeks ago. It was a warm Saturday afternoon. The place did not look like the pictures I had seen before.
I remember seeing endless rows of grey blocks; long standing, grey blocks. When I was younger, I thought it was a graveyard. I did not think it would be surrounded by a park and other buildings. I thought it would be isolated from the world. I was surprised when I got to the memorial; there it was, in the middle of the city, in plain sight.
There were people sitting and chatting casually, kids running around, others jogging. I saw an old person scolding someone for posing and heard another one asking someone to stop hopping on the blocks. The closer I got to the blocks, the heavier the atmosphere became. I became more and more conscious of the weight my legs were carrying. When I first arrived, my initial thoughts were: “Why does it look the way it does? What do these stelas symbolize?”
Suddenly, the sight of people sitting on the smaller concrete slabs and chatting bothered me. “What are they doing? This is a memorial.” I tried to ignore them and especially to not judge. I was in no position to judge. I was just a tourist, not Jewish, not a survivor, not German. I was just there to witness, learn. I told myself I was not allowed to judge anyone. But, I could not help but question the different behaviors I saw around me. I asked one of my friends to look up the symbol behind the monument.
I walked further down and my heart started beating faster. I could feel tears coming to my eyes. I remembered all the men and women I had read about. I thought about Anne Frank in particular. Would she have liked this place? Would she have approved of that girl posing on the slabs for pictures?If she has survived would she have been sitting here casually chatting with her friends as well, or scolding others?
My friend started reading what the stones could symbolize. As he went through the different interpretations, I felt the cold blocks and looked at the endless rows. It felt like I was in a maze. I couldn’t hear any sound anymore even though the place was lively a few minutes ago. The Berlin’s landscape around me disappeared too. There was only gray above me and gray around me. Was that how people felt when they were arrested or taken by the Schutzstaffel? Like, they were isolated from life and colors disappeared and everything turned gray. Shivers went down my spine.
I wanted to leave at that point, but I only had been there for fifteen minutes, or even less. All these thoughts made it feel like I had been there for hours. I wondered if time had stopped. I wanted to stop thinking so hard. I wanted to stop over-analyzing everything. If those who had been through the war were watching me from above, what would have they thought about me? I thought of how selfish and privileged I would have looked to them:. “Look at her, she can just leave whenever she feels uncomfortable”.
I wanted to go further down, but my feet froze when I saw a group of teenagers drinking coffee and checking their phones in peace. Further down, I saw a little girl running and her mom right behind her. Those people right there were celebrating life. Was this memorial made to celebrate the lives of those who lost them, or was it there to mourn them? What do the People watching from above think of this place?
My friend was still reading through the different interpretations. Why is the meaning of these blocks so vague? Is it vague just to me? I looked at all the people around me: How did they feel? What did this place symbolize to them? Did they feel as confused as I did? The blocks felt colder. I had so many questions, more than what I had 20 minutes ago, before I arrived. I could no longer hold my tears. I put my hand on the closest block, recited a short prayer, rubbed my eyes quickly, looked up to the sky, and walked out quickly without looking back.
It was the coldest warm afternoon I ever experienced.