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The Berlin Memorial

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Josh Spinner

Perhaps one can say that the Germans have their 2,711, and we have ours.

I had a ticket for the green section, directly behind the yellow section for survivors and families. I sat down in the first row, not noticing that my row and the one behind were reserved for members of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. As the rows filled in, those sitting to my left and right must have noticed that I did not belong. It could not have been difficult - no doubt attributable as much to my yarmulke as to my unfamiliar face. I, however, did not notice that I was out of place until much later. Thus, I sat through the opening ceremony of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, as it is officially called, surrounded by the children and grandchildren of those who had murdered them.

On reflection, I would have rather sat across from my neighbors than next to them. I would have wanted to see their faces, their expressions, to have read their thoughts. Were they proud that the memorial had finally been built? Discomforted by yet another round of direct confrontation with their nation's guilt? Were they among the vast majority in the Bundestag who voted for it in 1999, or those who voted against it? Why did the vote pass? Why was this enormous, five acre field of stone columns built, right here in the heart of the city? Is it for us or for them?

I must admit that I was distracted during much of the ceremony by my view. I was sitting on the left side of the massive tent, facing large windows. Below the windows, and to the left of the podium, sat the German-Polish Youth Orchestra of Lower Silesia, the male members of which wore big, black, silk yarmulkes. I looked past this dubious attempt at cultural solidarity and found myself drawn to the extraordinary picture out the window - the field of columns, and then, rising above the trees of the Tiergarten beyond the memorial, the cupola of the Reichstag, surrounded by fluttering German flags.

There was no doubt that this was a remarkable place. Who else does this? A huge section in the center of their nation's capital, dedicated to the people their grandparents killed. I could not help, however, returning to the question of who it is for. Did they build it because they felt we needed or wanted it? Or did they build it because they needed or wanted it?

The President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Paul Spiegel, tried to answer these questions. In his remarks, he stated clearly that this is not "our" memorial. Ours is Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. This memorial is for the Germans. They initiated it, they built it, it is in their country -- it belongs to them.

After the ceremony, the thousand or so guests in attendance filed out of the tent to wander through the uneven paths between the columns. As I walked out into the rain, something began to nag at me. I had received an email that morning from a list I subscribe to, mentioning that the number of columns in the memorial, 2,711, was exactly the same as the number of pages in the Babylonian Talmud. Having paid attention recently to coverage of the celebration completing the daily cycle of Talmud study (2,711 pages in 2,711 days), I knew this to be true.

My initial interest in this connection, however, was limited. I assumed Peter Eisenman, the New York based architect responsible for the memorial (and a Jew), had done this intentionally. This would not have surprised me. We are used to such symbolism in Jewish related architecture here in Berlin, due in part to Daniel Libeskind and his Jewish Museum which opened here several years ago. Libeskind is a Polish Jew, descended from Chassidim of the Gur dynasty, and imbues much of his work with numbers, directions and other signifiers rooted in Jewish tradition and history. So why not Eisenman too?

If I am already here, I decided, I might as well ask. Despite the increasingly heavy rain, I wandered around and found Eisenman posing for pictures with the memorial as a backdrop. Excuse me, Mr. Eisenman, does the number of columns have any significance for you?

He replied that the number was not only incidental, but accidental. He had planned and hoped for much higher a number, but it was reduced to approximately 2,700 due to various considerations. And 2,711 happened to be the final number.

Where stretched symbolism might have left me indifferent, the extraordinary coincidence could not. Mr. Eisenman, do you know that the Talmud has exactly 2,711 pages?

He stepped back in shock. Are you sure?

Yes, sir, I am. What a story, said the Jewish architect.

After he rushed off to escort a number of prominent German politicians through the underground documentation center, I decided to wander through the field of columns. The paths undulate, the columns rose well above my head, and as I moved deeper into the field, I found myself losing direction. Turning corners into yet more endless rows of identical grey, I felt increasingly alone with my thoughts. Will this memorial work? Can any such memorial generate the kind of living memory that can move people to think, to relate, to feel? It occurred to me that God does not tell the Jewish people to build memorials and monuments to preserve memory. We seem to preserve memory in a dramatically different way -- by eating matzah, reciting Kiddush, sitting in Sukkot.

To create living memory, make it part of your life. Give it a taste, a place, a time. Make it something you do.

I returned to Paul Spiegel's words, about this memorial not being for us. He is right, I concluded. This memorial is not ours. Even Yad Vashem and other sites such as the preserved concentration camps, though they are important -- even very important -- they are not enough. Rather, to create living memory, says the Torah, take the memory and make it part of your life. Give it a taste, a place, a time. Make it something you do, or something you can take with you wherever you go. Rather than a field of columns somewhere meant to stand for something, choose a field of behavior and experience that is meaningful in itself.

For us, the Talmud is that field. Its 2,711 pages form the basis -- indeed the very structure -- of our world. Our ideas and philosophies, our laws and customs, our deepest secrets and most cherished values are all there.

Thirty years ago, leading Rabbis of the time declared that each completion of the daily study of the Talmud every 2,711 days (about 7 1/2 years) would be dedicated to the memory of the six million murdered Jews of Europe. What could better serve as a memorial to those who perished than the collective memory of a continuing, growing, living Jewish People?

So perhaps one can say that the Germans have their 2,711, and we have ours. Will theirs work? Will their memorial indeed preserve memory? These are important questions, but they are not ours to answer. We have our own memorials to tend to.

This article originally appeared in American Jewish Spirit - a new magazine for inspired Jewish living. To read current articles or for subscription information, please visit their website:


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