Gazing from ruined pavements: A postcard from Berlin

Potsdam

“Broken fragments of stone become evocative ruins when someone gazes upon them and imbues them with significance; otherwise they linger on as worthless rubble to be swept away or ignored.”

(Michael Meng (2011) Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. London: Harvard University Press, p.10)

I’ve just finished reading Meng’s book. It examines the ways in which abandoned and ruined Jewish public places (principally synagogues and cemeteries) fared across various eras of neglect, erasure, re-purposing and (in some cases) rediscovery and restoration between 1945 and 2010, in Germany and Poland, under both communism and capitalism. Meng features the arresting image (above) of a crowd of passers-by photographed halted from their travels on the pavement and gazing at the ruins of Potsdam synagogue, in the daylight that followed Kristallnacht (the ‘night of broken glass’: 9-10 November 1938) and its orgy of coordinated ruin-making inflicted on Jewish buildings by the Nazis. Chillingly his sparse commentary draw us into the image, he suggests that we can’t discern from the image what the spectators were thinking, or even why they had stopped to look. This made me scour the picture – searching through the crowd, staring at the back of their heads – hoping to find a face that would meet my gaze and give me some clue. But the image – as Meng rightly notes – gives us no closure, and (as his book provides) requires a detailed meditation on context and an assaying of the ebbs and flows of two rival structures of feeling and acting: “redemptive antisemitism” and “redemptive cosmopolitanism” in each of Germany and Poland in the postwar years.

Meng’s analysis shows how, since the 1980s, Jewish ruins in Germany and Poland have become valorised – via the ascendancy of redemptive cosmopolitanism – in particular through their role in international commemoration and heritage pilgrimages. This seems self-evident, from our contemporary vantage point. But Meng’s book shows that there is nothing eternal or inevitable about this attachment of significance to these places, and his is a meticulous analysis of the unpredictable end-of-life-cycle of any ruin, and of the vital importance of understanding how the materialities (and costs) of dereliction intersect with the rise and fall (and dereliction) of the bodies of ideas that give meaning (and whether for good or ill) to any place. But Meng is also attentive to local contingencies for the sites that he chronicles, the story of each ruin cannot be contained within that building alone. The fate of a place may be collateral damage (or collateral salvation) related to some other local issue or project. To be effective then, the explanatory lens has to be able to move in (towards local prosaics) and out (to be able to situate the site’s fate as at least to some extent within wider sociopolitical trends).

Meng’s book was my holiday reading for a recent short family holiday sightseeing in Berlin. I’d been there once before, 10 years ago, and had done the whole ‘Berlin – city of traces’ thing then, absorbing myself with dark heritage guidebooks and trying to cram in as many glimpses of “the ghosts of Berlin” (Ladd 1997) as I could. This second time around I was happy to navigate the city via family consensus. I was politely but firmly told that this holiday wouldn’t be about ‘Dad’s dark ruins thing’.

The impression I came away with from this re-visit was that Berlin’s traces are neater and tidier now – presented as part of international heritage tourist circuits. The dark stuff is there, but it is increasingly ‘just’ part of those circuits. This impression may simply be a product of the different circumstances of my re-encounter with Berlin, and I’m not suggesting that Berlin in 2010 was somehow purer, more authentic or less touristic. Any experience of any place (and whether ruined, ‘dark’ or otherwise) is at least in part an outcome of what you go looking for. And I’m not going to be po-faced and suggest that somehow my exploring of Berlin in either 2010 or 2019 was itself anything other than a form of tourism. In short, each time I went to Berlin with certain expectations and each time found ways to ‘join the dots’ so as to meet those expectations.

There was one exception however to this ‘I went – I saw – I came home having seen what I expected’ intentionality. And it happened on the day where my teenage daughter had control of our itinerary. She decided that we would go to Berlin Zoo, and so we did.

Climbing out of the metro stations we were a little disorientated. We could see various signs to the zoo, but they seemed contradictory. We shuffled along in a direction that we thought might work, and soon came upon a bulky security barrier, painted in black and yellow, and with the (English) words “Truck Stop” repeated in very insistent, prominent letters. This street architecture seemed overly keen to announce itself and rather awkwardly positioned, laid down in an already cluttered street scene – pavements, market stalls, infrastructure. Then we saw some votive candles on the steps rising from this pavement and on closer inspection could see memorial photographs and a few flowers laid out besides them. Getting even closer (having weaved across the pavement’s heavy traffic of passers by to get nearer) we saw names engraved into the otherwise normal pavement steps. Collectively it started to dawn on us (but not in a tranquil, contemplative way – because our senses also had to remain focused on the perils of stopping within this pavement’s flow of incessant movement): this place was the scene of the 19 December 2016 Christmas Market terrorist attack, in which 12 of the pedestrians who had been using this pavement were murdered by being run down by a truck. Trying to take this in as the world incessantly and very mundanely carried on its flows around us felt unsettling. As I tried to process the newly-acquainted significance of this place fragments of the scene: the steps, the market stall to my left, the pavement beneath my feet, and the recently encountered Truck Stop barrier, all coalesced into a sense of place – that this otherwise unremarkable portion of pavement was a distinct location and that it was more important than any other stretch of the pavement further along this busy road. And yet, as I fought to stabilise this image  of a distinct, important place, it struggled to stay separated from the urban realm and flows of which it was part. Bodies buffeted me as I slowed to survey the scene, elements appeared at the periphery of any provisional framing of this scene – extending it further along the pavement and beyond the steps into the nearby church, the plaza beyond and the bulk of the market stalls. 

That this site was not separated from its surroundings felt strange (given the way that memorial sites usually are separated: e.g. presented as calm, contemplative oases in a nearby park). But it also gave it an unusual affective charge – this place and its unexpectedness had pricked me, and in circumstances where I had not been looking to be pricked. As we walked away I turned to look back at the ‘site’ (and to try and get a synoptic grasp of it). It was then that I noticed a very subtle form of memorialisation that had been installed to ‘frame’ this place. Running down the steps and across the heavily trafficked pavement was a narrow golden slither or rivulet. It was impossible to see the slither in its entirety because of the flow of passersby. It also proved impossible to photograph – for unlike a conventional sculpture it was but a flat mark across busy ground. It looked like a rivulet of golden blood and seemed in its context life affirming rather than mawkish.

Related image

Subsequently I’ve read that this memorial is actually meant to signify a crack – positioning this within the distinctly German post-war tradition of ‘mahnmal’ (warning monuments): for the crack here symbolises the attack (and thus the momentary breach in Berlin’s self-image of redemptive cosmopolitanism, and acting as a call for alertness and vigilance to guard against the risk of such cracks in the tolerant, democratic polity).

The creation of this artwork, by designers Merz Merz, actually involved first the chiselling out of a 17 metre long, narrow crack across the steps and pavement and then the elimination of that void with the golden infill. In that sense the re-joining of the pavement – via the elimination of the damage inflicted upon it – was intended as a redemptive gesture, a gesture augmented by involving the bereaved in the smelting of the gold.

But without knowing this process and backstory I reacted to this as a rivulet. Either way the enmeshment of this site and its subtle monument within the throng of daily life stopped me in my tracks. I had to stop, look from the pavement and make some sense of these broken-and-mended fragments of stone and what they could or should stand for.

 

Image credits: Postdam Synagogue, Potsdam Museum via http://www.grahamfoundation.org/grantees/3950-shattered-spaces-encountering-jewish-ruins-in-postwar-germany-and-poland ; Merz Merz (2017) Der Goldener Riss https://www.rbb24.de/politik/beitrag/2018/07/terror-breitscheidplatz-entschaedigung-antraege-gedaechtniskirche-berlin.html; Making Der Goldener Riss https://www.bento.de/today/berlin-so-sieht-das-mahnmal-fuer-die-terroropfer-vom-breitscheidplatz-aus-a-00000000-0003-0001-0000-000001951349

 

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