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Holocaust memorial opens in Germany to praise, criticism

BERLIN—Sixty years after World War II, Germany unveiled a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust on Tuesday—predictably amid an atmosphere of controversy.

The architect appeared almost apologetic. The woman considered the driving force behind the memorial was put on the defensive in television interviews, as German newspapers referred to her as a "professional Jew" and "Holocaust Cassandra."

Even supporters of the memorial were critical that it was dedicated only to Jewish victims.

Others saw triumph just in the two-hour ceremony that opened the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which has been dogged by controversy since the German Parliament approved the $35 million project in 1999.

"Architecture is no panacea for evil in the world," the memorial's American architect, Peter Eisenman, 72, told a crowd of hundreds gathered in a large tent on the edge of the site, a stone's throw from the bunker where Adolf Hitler committed suicide days before the war ended. Eisenman added that he hoped the memorial "would speak to and for the German people" on the darkest chapter in their history.

The memorial consists of 2,711 rectangular concrete columns of different heights on sloping ground, a design intended to make visitors uneasy, unsure of time and space.

It's been controversial from the outset, with questions arising about everything from its design to the fact that the anti-graffiti coating on the concrete "tombs" was made by the company that also manufactured Zyklon B, the murderous poison used at Auschwitz.

The most persistent criticism has been that the memorial honors only the 6 million Jews who were killed, not the millions of gypsies, homosexuals, people with handicaps, communists and others.

At the ceremony, Paul Spiegel, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, echoed that criticism, saying there should be no hierarchy of suffering among Nazi victims and that all groups should have memorials. He also said the memorial avoided the difficult questions of the Holocaust.

"How could a civilized nation at the heart of Europe perpetrate this?" he asked. "This memorial does not ask why. On the contrary, the memorial focuses on the suffering of the Jews."

Later, he added, "Remembering those killed spares the visitors from confronting the question of guilt and responsibility."

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder attended the ceremony, but didn't speak. German media have portrayed him as neutral in the controversies surrounding the memorial.

The president of Germany's Parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, praised the project, calling the design "ingenious" and saying the memorial was important as fewer and fewer people with firsthand knowledge of the Holocaust remain alive.

"We are living in days when, more and more, the events of the Holocaust become facts of history, and not words we can hear from the lips of those who lived through these events," he said.

Lea Rosh, the head of the foundation that will oversee the memorial, is seen as the driving force behind its being built. She's been a lightning rod for criticism of the project, particularly its dedication only to Jewish victims. Tuesday's media coverage was harsh in its references to her.

The paper Berlin Zeitung called her a "professional Jew," while Stern magazine called her a "Holocaust Cassandra," odd references given that German society in general is accepting of Holocaust memorials. Berlin city trains run to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp site, and memorials dot many city streets and railway platforms.

Before the ceremony, Rosh appeared on German television, defending the decision to focus on Jewish victims: "Hitler's desire to eliminate the Jews was more central to him than even his desire to win the war."

During the ceremony, she told of visiting a mass grave and finding a human tooth lying on the ground. She said she'd pledged then to build a memorial, to create a place for the millions who died without graves. She said she now had fulfilled that pledge.

"It is unprecedented in the world that a nation confronts its worst crimes in the heart of its capital," she said.

In a television interview, German Jewish author Rafael Seligman said that while he wished the memorial included everyone whom Hitler's Germany targeted, it was important to get the project built.

"Today we dedicate it, certainly," he said. "We can rename it later."


(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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