AMHERST, Mass. - Nearly a decade ago, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl declared Germany would build a national Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Now, after years of failed attempts and rancorous debate, University of Massachusetts English and Judaic Studies professor James E. Young has been named the only foreign member of a search commission that will finally choose a design.
Young was invited by Speaker of the Berlin Senate, Peter Radunski, after taking part in a public debate in Germany on the issue in April. The award-winning author of a book about Holocaust memorials and the curator of an international exhibition on public memory of the Holocaust which traveled to Germany in 1994, Young is considered a world-wide authority on the subject. On July 7, he and the four other members of the commission will announce a list of approximately 18 internationally renowned artists and architects invited to submit designs for the memorial. From this pool, the commission will choose and rank three finalists to be presented to Chancellor Kohl’s office in November.
"When I spoke at the public debate, I told the audience that I had actually been reassured by the memorial paralysis in Germany," says Young. "They were facing an almost impossible dilemma: how does a perpetrator mourn its victims? And how do you build a new state on the bedrock memory of your crimes? Making a national Holocaust memorial the centerpiece of a newly reunified capital in Berlin is like making memorials to slavery and the genocide of Native Americans the center of our national mall in Washington, D.C."
Young says this seemingly intractable position over what kind of memorial to erect has kept the debate simmering for as long as it has. Originally proposed by a German television talk show host and eventually adopted as an emblem of "reconciliation" by the government, the monument for years has been plagued by infighting and opposition among the principals involved. While the original citizens’ group supporting the memorial has wanted something with populist appeal, city planners have pushed for a high-art design, and the government has attempted to find something relatively free of controversy.
Young says a jury made up of representatives from each of these three groups had chosen a memorial in 1995 after a large international competition. Public and critical dissatisfaction with the choice was so widespread, however, that the original plans were scrapped and a public debate was called. It was then that Young spoke, after which he was appointed to the new commission.
The final monument will be built near the Potsdamer Platz, not far from Hitler’s bunker. It is scheduled to be unveiled in time for the official restoration of Germany’s capital to Berlin in 1999.