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Critics say Germany's Holocaust memorial forgets some victims

BERLIN—Kurt Julius Goldstein, a German Jew who survived 18 months of slave labor in the mines at the Auschwitz death camp, would seem to be the target audience for his country's new Holocaust memorial. So why does he despise it?

Goldstein, 90, survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and lost 38 of 50 family members to Nazi murder. But he says he can't shake the feeling that the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe that will be unveiled here on Tuesday is unfair to the Nazis' many other victims.

"You know, I was here, and they (the Nazis) didn't begin and end with the Jews," he said. "How can we focus on our own suffering and ignore that of the physically and mentally handicapped, the gays, the gypsies, the communists, those who opposed them? This should be a place to unite us. Instead, just like before, it divides."

Still, as the honorary president of three survivors and resistors groups, Goldstein will attend the opening ceremony. "I thought about not going, but I have to pay respect to those who died," he said.

Goldstein's concern is one of many about Germany's largest gesture of repentance to date for the Holocaust. The memorial covers a piece of central Berlin about the size of two football fields and consists of 2,711 stelae—concrete rectangles from 1 inch to 15 feet high—so that the land resembles a field of tombs. They're intended to gradually oppress and overwhelm those walking through the memorial.

The memorial occupies land near the Brandenburg Gate that in 1937 housed Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels' office villa and later included his bunker. In 1961, it became a piece of the notorious "death strip," no man's land along the Berlin Wall that separated Communist East and democratic West Berlin.

The memorial has strong advocates. Avishai Margalit, an Israeli philosopher and author, backed the memorial plans, saying: "The way for the Germans to re-establish themselves as an ethical community is to turn their cruelty, which is what tied them to the Jews, into repentance."

The German government is also wholly committed. The official Bundestag (the German parliament) resolution approving the building of the memorial noted: "With the memorial we intend to honor the murdered victims, keep alive the memory of these inconceivable events in German history and admonish all future generations never again to violate human rights, to defend the democratic constitutional state at all times, to secure equality before the law for all people and to resist all forms of dictatorship and regimes based on violence."

That resolution is why groups representing others murdered by Nazis say they should be included, a position memorial organizers and others disagree with. The government says it's committed to eventually memorializing all victims of Nazi Germany.

There've been other complaints and concerns.

Officials realized the memorial could quickly become a graffiti target, especially by neo-Nazi and other anti-Semitic groups, so Degussa AG was brought in to provide an anti-graffiti coating. But Degussa is the company that produced Zyklon B, the poison that was dropped into "shower rooms," killing millions of people in the death camps. Degussa was ruled to have made restitution for its past actions, and the coating was used, but only after construction was halted while the matter was debated.

Others note that Germany doesn't hide its past, pointing out that the country already has numerous memorials to the Nazi genocide. Former camps such as Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen are maintained for educational tours. German students study the Holocaust in elementary, middle and high school. German television provides a steady diet of atrocity documentaries.

Recently, Germans are paying even more attention to the past. Outside Berlin's Jewish Community Center Wednesday, people took turns reading the names of Holocaust victims, taking more than an hour just to get through the R's.

Still, German historian Wolfgang Wippermann wonders if the memorial doesn't add to what he sees as "the Hollywoodization" of the Holocaust, an increase in attention to the drama of the events that obscures, rather than illuminates, the real horror of the Nazi years.

"In that case, this is a perpetrators' memorial, built by perpetrators and for perpetrators," he said. "Once it's up, it's easier to say, `We've done our job, now let's move on.'"

Several German writers and publishers, including Gunter Grass, a Nobel Prize-winning author, urged the government to rethink the memorial. They called it "abstract," "oppressively gigantic" and said it wasn't a "place of quiet mourning and remembrance, or warning or enlightenment."

"Abandoning the project on the grounds of common sense would honor all those involved," they wrote.

Those who spent 18 years trying to convince Germany it needed the memorial disagree. They say that it will serve as a public and accessible reminder to citizens and visitors.

"There must be memorials to all who suffered, and they must be in Berlin," said Jacob Schulze-Rohr, a member of the memorial board of directors. "But they must be separate. A gypsy could become a Nazi. A lesbian could deny her sexuality. Jews were separated from the rest of humanity by the simple fact that they were born Jews. That alone was their death sentence."

He said the memorial shows Germany is taking its past seriously and is committed to remembering, not repeating, it.

Alexander Golomshtok, 81, Jewish and formerly a Soviet Red Army soldier who fought against the Nazis, said he can't imagine a more appropriate place or reason for a memorial.

"This was a culture that waged war for racist reasons, the worst example of what humanity has produced," he said. "I live here now. This country treats me well. But we can never forget what happened. We need this memorial."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): GERMANY-HOLOCAUST

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050506 HOLOCAUST Berlin

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