Pressed for changes by Chancellor Kohl, Eisenman did consent to reduce the overall number of slabs from an original plan for 4,000 and to significantly downscale their height. The German parliament, meanwhile, mandated that an "information center" be built as part of the monument. This has been tucked away underneath the monument itself and consists of four large rooms where exhibits will set the Nazi crimes in historical context and detail the identities of many of those who were killed.
But controversy dogged the $35-million project even after the design modifications and the addition of the information center were made. Construction came to a sudden halt in 2003 when the press reported that a subsidiary of the German chemical firm Degussa, which was supplying a product to protect the monument from weather corrosion and graffiti, had manufactured the poison used to kill Jews in the Nazi-era gas chambers. After much debate (during which Eisenman was attacked for attempting to make light of the controversy), the monument foundation opted to resume work and continue to use the Degussa product.
"The jury is still out as to whether the monument will be what you and I might call successful," says Eisenman. The citizens' initiative that spearheaded its construction has raised about $1.3 million to help fund the information center, in part in response to a televised appeal featuring the voice of supermodel Claudia Schiffer. But last February, police removed some 40 posters from hoardings around the construction site that condemned the monument as an "Atonement Theme Park" and called for support of the far-right German National Democratic Party.
Critics of the memorial argue that education as well as remembrance should be the goal. "School groups will go there and foreign tourists will go there, but I don't think the Berliners will be reconciled to this monument," says German-Jewish novelist and historian Rafael Seligmann. "They won't accept it and will avoid it and thereby it will not achieve its goal."
Seligmann and other detractors further contend that it's wrong to memorialize the Jews alone since this sets up a hierarchy of victims in line with the Nazi regime's racist ideology. In the meantime, other groups persecuted by the Nazis have been demanding their own monuments on prominent sites in the capital. The Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan has already drawn up a design for Gypsies, and gay-rights groups are hoping to build one as well, as are advocates for the disabled. For the moment at least, the undying controversy over these memorials at the very heart of Berlin keeps Germany's burdensome past a powerful part of the nation's self-image.
For more information, see http://www.holocaust-mahnmal.de/en.
MICHAEL Z. WISE is a T+L contributing editor.