There is a place in Berlin that defies description.
Or, to put it more precisely, I can describe it to you, but that won’t tell you what it feels like to be there.
The place is called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s a memorial to the Jews who died in the Holocaust, spanning nearly 5 acres, in the heart of the Berlin. In this space stand 2,711 concrete slabs of varying heights (from a few inches to more than 15 feet high) laid out in a precise grid on ground that dips down into a shallow, uneven bowl. There’s just enough space for one person to walk between the slabs.
To do so is a distinctly unsettling experience. Immediately the sounds of the city become muted. You catch glimpses of other people, but just for a moment before they disappear again. The ground goes up and down beneath your feet, forcing you to slow down to keep your balance.
Walking through these stones is disorienting and lonely.
On the day I was there, the sky was vivid blue and trees were in full bloom. There was beauty, because life endures, even as you are contemplating one of humanity’s darkest chapters.
More than a few young children, oblivious to the meaning of the monuments, giggled and shrieked in delight at the epic game of tag they were playing with their parents.
Maybe that is why we make our monuments beautiful, even when (especially when) when they memorialize people lost in horrific circumstances. They make space for grief, providing a structure to hold what cannot really be expressed.
The business of life must go on. Children and trees continue to grow. But here, and in places like this, there is space to mourn. To contemplate the unthinkable. To acknowledge the weakness and malice that can arise in any human soul if one is not cautious.
The precise geometry of this particular place, like the silent brooding wall of the Vietnam Memorial, the precise rows of matching stones at Arlington or any military cemetery, the pools at the 9/11 Memorial in New York, serve as containers for our grief, our collective memory, our desire to honor those fallen.
History will go on.
But some places will strive to remind us of the past, as a lesson for the future.