Creative Nonfiction

A Sea of Isolation

30 March 2017

It is cold. The sky is endlessly grey, and light snow falls lazily, catching on the cuffs of my jacket. A few scattered mounds of scuffed ice cling to the pavement. I tuck my chin into my chest, ducking my head against the bitter wind that weaves between the buildings of a restored city.

I am standing on the edge of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. My tour guide is gathering the frayed edges of our group in closer. He does not want to shout.

Two friends and I have spent the morning walking around the city with John, the tour guide, and 15 or so other English-speaking tourists. We have passed museums that house antiques from the gates of Babylon to the bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. We have touched the patched pillars still indented with the marks of Soviet bullets. We have pressed our toes against the brass plaques which commemorate the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. Yet it is here that I feel the true weight of Berlin’s history. Standing amongst the concrete blocks which fade into the the city, as much a part of its monochromatic landscape as its history.

Minutes before, I stood on the edge of a patch of muddy grass in an emptying carpark, surrounded by tall, brown-bricked apartment blocks. A swing set was tucked between two of the tower blocks. The only indication that this site was ever anything other than a car park, home to shabby flats, people movers and rusting bicycles, was a sign detailing the plot’s much darker history. I was told that eleven metres beneath me were the sand-filled foundations of Adolf Hitler’s bomb shelter. Eleven metres beneath me, seventy-one years ago the world’s most infamous mass murderer instructed his servants to burn his body. They levelled his gun against his temple, and pulled the trigger – a far more dignified death than he bestowed upon his millions of victims.

To our left, our tour guide directed our gaze to a sandwich board advertising a sushi shop. This, he told us, was approximately where Hitler’s servants partially burned his body, alongside those of Eva Braun and the Goebbels family. I tried to sum up some sense of understanding, some reaction, but all I saw was a grubby car park. All I saw was a sushi sign. It was mundanity at its blandest, an average slice of Berlin life. Is this what Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher, meant when she spoke of the banality of evil? A normal façade hiding a history of unfathomable cruelty?

It was normal men, with wives and children, who massacred the ‘enemies’ of the Volk – the German race. Soldiers were told that they were fighting for their Fatherland, for the future of their children, so they could and would kill the children of those whom they believed threatened that. Disillusionment is the darkest rationalisation. Years of poverty, inflation, and degradation from the Allies, meant the promise of something more mobilised the most normal of men: men who were not born evil or insane. It set fire to a mentality which extinguished the lives of six million Jews.

Hannah Arendt’s words must have rung in the minds of the Berliners as well: the street bordering one side of the Memorial is named after her. Yet standing here, waiting for John to speak, there is nothing commonplace or banal about the grey towers set out methodically in blocks. From the outside there is an illusion of uniformity, yet just inside, I can see the cobbled ground dips as the rectangular slabs climb higher towards the centre. While it blends with the city, this is not hidden behind the recommencement of life. It is not beautiful, like Kathe Kollowitz’ statue in the Neue Wache, the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims War and Dictatorship, just fifteen minutes away. It is angular, it is confronting. It’s not just a memorial, it is a reminder; a physical representation of an ugly loss.

Our tour guide tells us, as everyone crouches closer in the cold, that the artist, Peter Eisenman, never completely revealed the true meaning behind the design, other than that the appearance of order mimics Hitler’s Third Reich: outside organised, inside chaotic.

John remembers a little boy on a school trip once noted that you could only walk between the blocks one at a time, making him think of how it was a walk each victim took alone. Eisenman’s work evokes this disconnect with humanity, a separation between regime and reason. Other than this, interpretation is largely personal.

To John, the rise and fall of the blocks signify the rise and fall of the Nazi Party, and the fleeting glimpse of another person in the gaps between the structures reflects the anonymity, the isolation, of .the Holocaust victims. A flash of a face, and then they’re gone.

I find it all of these things. The giant slabs of concrete remind me of tombs. They grow taller, and I think of how the bodies were thrown in piles, stacked. The numbers amass, reaching higher, until I feel very small, shadowed by grey gravestones twice my size on each side. They are impersonal: they are the personification of the six million statistic. I am suddenly overwhelmed. It is again a reminder, this time of the victim’s irrelevance in death, their final existence as a faceless mass.

I continue to walk between the towers of grey. Turning my head to look around the maze of blocks, I see a girl, two aisles across from me. It is barely time to take a breath, but she wears her curly hair under a beanie like mine, and for a split second, I think she is my reflection. It’s a brief human connection in a sea of isolation. And yet, I don’t know if I am comforted or if it is just a stark reminder that human connection couldn’t save six million people.

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