A Self-Serving Admission of Guilt: An Examination of the Intentions and Effects of Germany's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
“We all recognize that a Holocaust memorial in Berlin is fundamentally different…the memorial can only be understood and accepted if it is the result of a fundamentally German initiative”
- Moshe Safadie
Between the intersections of Hannah-Arendt Strasse, Cora-Berliner Strasse, and Behrenstrasse, 2,711 gray concrete stelae of varying heights rise above the ground. This site is the Field of Stelae and is otherwise known to the world as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Memorial is dedicated to commemorating the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and to establish this event in the permanent memory of Germany’s history and landscape. This site, however, is a memorial that bears no signs; there is no marker indicating the title or even the purpose of this massive memorial. Thus, although the Memorial was heralded to the world on May 10, 2005, an approaching visitor, unaware of the existence of such a monument, could remain bewildered about its purpose, meaning, and intended commemoration of the victims. The Memorial is thus an abstract structure and considered open to each visitor’s individual interpretation.
This site, designed by Peter Eisenman, was purposefully crafted to be abstract. Germany’s decision to build a memorial, a movement first begun in 1988, would prove to be a problematic and controversial issue for the nation; Germany needed to create a memorial that would serve as both an apology to the Jewish community and to record how Germany’s collective public memory regards the Holocaust today. After 17 years of debate and over 800 design entries, Eisenman’s design emerged as the compromise. Claiming “that the enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate,” Eisenman broke from established concepts of memorialization and adopted the radical approach of avoiding all symbolism (Japan Times 2005). The number of slabs, differing heights, and grid-like structure do not have any representational significance (Fleishman 2005), in accordance with the belief that interpretation ought to be left to the viewer. The only concrete description of the site, therefore, is found in its title.
While the title of the Memorial is not physically represented at the site, its presence is still manifested mentally. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe connotes that the Memorial’s purpose is to serve as an apology to the Jews for the atrocities Germany committed during the Holocaust. The title’s semantics are misleading in that their connotation focuses attention only on the recipients of the apology and ignores the complementary importance on the side of those apologizing, which in this case dominates over the other. This apology serves as a means through which Germany is attempting to reconcile with its past. When one separates the effects of the Memorial from its intended purposes, therefore, one will discover that this memorial was not created truly TO the murdered Jews, but rather OF the murdered Jews and TO the Germans.
Examining the complex development process behind the Memorial reveals the distinction between the effects on those to whom the monument is truly addressed and those purported to be honored by it. The study of the history of the Memorial also allows one to see how a critical misperception evolved: that is the idea that the Memorial was being built for the Jews. With an issue as sensitive as the Holocaust, the discussion will inevitably be filled with controversy. In order to understand this controversy, a variety of opinions were sought, particularly from the Jewish community, as they evolved during the development process. As Siybille Quack, the first Executive Director of the Foundation for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, stated, “The importance of having the Jewish community involved in the dialogue on the development of this memorial was always considered necessary. There was constant talk with the Jewish community and within the curatorium” (Quack 2005). This memorial needed “Jewish sensibility” (Young 2000) and James Young, an American Jew whose expertise lies in the area of Holocaust remembrance, was brought onto the Findungskommission. He was the only Jewish voice on the advisory committee for the Memorial. While one might suspect that public funds being dedicated to the memory of their ancestors would be a welcome proposition, the reaction of the Jewish community at large was not so enthusiastic.
“We did not ask for it. We do not need it.”
These are the words that Stephan Kramer, the General Secretary of the Central Council of the Jews, claims represent the adamant rejection by the Jewish community of the Memorial proposal (Kramer 2005). The community objected on the grounds that it was initiated by a non-Jew, German Lea Rosh. Germany’s choice in determining how it wishes to commemorate what happened to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is not reflective of the sentiments of its Jewish population. The Memorial forces remembrance in a contrived manner, not in accordance with the manner in which the Council desires remembrance. The Council, represented by President Paul Spiegel, instead suggests that a more productive alternative would be to promote visits to the actual, relevant Holocaust sites in order to bring about a more authentic form of remembrance. Other members of the Jewish community feel that more attention should be given to the living Jews rather than highlighting their plight in the World War II era. Kramer adamantly proclaims that Germans “love their dead Jews more than their living ones” (Kramer 2005).
However, when one considers the intended purpose of the Memorial, as officially stated by the German parliament:
“to honor the murdered victims, keep alive the memory of…inconceivable events in German history and admonish all future generations never again to violate human rights, to defend the democratic constitutional state at all times, to secure equality before the law for all people and to resist all forms of dictatorship and regimes based on violence" (Bundestag Resolution 1999),
The reaction of Germany’s current Jewish population to the creation of the Memorial becomes largely contestable and irrelevant to the discourse on the Memorial’s existence. After all, there is no reference to a specific portion of Germany’s living population, Jewish or otherwise. Furthermore, a double standard of intergenerational justice cannot hold; if one cannot hold the living grandchildren of Holocaust perpetrators culpable for the actions of their ancestors, the same rules apply to the victims’ ancestors. The living grandchildren of the murdered Jews should not be confused or conflated with those being cited by the Memorial.
As Hendrik M. Broder, a well-known German political commentator, puts it, the Memorial can be seen as “not meant to commemorate the Jews,” but rather that “it is meant to flatter the Germans” (Santana 2005). This opinion is representative of the overall argument that the Memorial serves as a convenient opportunity for the German public to “wash its hands clean” of the negative events that mar its past. The slabs of “dull grey concrete blocks that jut up irregularly like an other-worldly graveyard” (Prince-Gibson 2005) are permanent, implying that the memory of the Holocaust will become frozen, buried – never to be unearthed again. Having designated an impressive 27.6 million Euros to the project, a “millstone that the republic has demonstratively bound to its leg” (FAZ 2005), German government officials showed that this memorial was high on their agenda; some stated that this unprecedented amount of their federal budget directed to the Jewish population who suffered in the Holocaust was an attempt to alleviate German consciousness of these acts. In the words of Avishai Margalit, an Israeli philosopher, "the way for the Germans to re-establish themselves as an ethical community is to turn their cruelty, which is what tied them to the Jews, into repentance" (Schofield 2005).
However, “if the Memorial serves the Germans to simply absolve their country of its past, then it should be blown up” (Bommarius 2005). While the permanent nature of the structure threatens to halt the dialogue regarding the Holocaust, it also productively challenges its audience to take ownership of the Holocaust in a new manner. Whereas guilt is an emotion that people attempt to absolve their minds of, this memorial allows for a sense of “collective responsibility,” which “cannot be neatly ignored or packed away” (Ouroussoff 2005). This transformation of guilt to collective responsibility represents the attitude that action must be taken so that the negative events of the past do not happen again in the future. Germans have been incorporating this social conviction of “never again” into their national identity, a counterpoint to the argument that “a finished monument would, in effect, finish memory itself…this would not be a place where Germans would come to unshoulder their memorial burden” (Young 2000). Moreover, as Eisenman puts it, “our memorial attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia” (Hawley and Tenberg 2005). Whereas nostalgia is a form of sentimentality and has been viewed as an illness to be avoided, memory is a more proactive way of dealing with the past.
Practical Functions of Abstract Art
Beyond overall reconciliation with its past, the reasons why the Memorial is in fact for the Germans rather than for the murdered Jews are ever-present in German life. This claim is attested to by the inherent physical location of the Memorial. Germans cannot ignore the Memorial, as they are forced to pass by and look at it on a regular basis. Moreover, many Germans feel that it enhances the aesthetics of their city, and appreciate the fact that it is a public space (Memorial Site Surveys 2005). The location is politically prominent, as both the Reichstag, Germany’s seat of the lower house of parliament, and the Bundesrat, the upper house, are just a few meters away. Other historically renowned sites nearby include the Brandenburg Gate, Embassy Way, and Potsdamer Platz. This location is comparable to the Mall in Washington, DC, the central location of America’s most celebrated, federally funded museums and national monuments. Additionally the new US Embassy will be situated directly across the street from the Memorial. And perhaps most significantly, this memorial is located in the core where the political planning of the Jewish extermination took place; Goebbels’ bunker, unchanged to this day, is even located directly beneath the Field of Stelae
The political significance of the location for the Germans extends beyond the physical landmarks surrounding the site. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a new Germany was envisioned. The reunification process overwhelmed and preoccupied the German public during the ensuing years, culminating in the transfer of the capital from Bonn to Berlin. The shift served to reconcile the old with the new, the East with the West. Lea Rosh, the most prominent and infamous impetus of the “initiative of civilians” (Quack 2005) for the Memorial, however, saw a growing danger that her country was looking into the future of a reunified Germany at the cost of remembering its past (Apthorp 2005). Therefore, in order for Germany not to forget the past amidst its transformation, she took it upon herself to create a central, physical place of remembrance in the heart of the nation’s new capital. Germany would take its memory of the Holocaust, also transformed, with it into its unified future.
On the international level, the Memorial serves as a way to improve Germany’s image in the eyes of outsiders. The Memorial was the first of its kind in that it served as an implicit apology to the governments of other countries for its actions during World War II (Leinemann 2005). Nations throughout the world are responding positively to Germany’s decision to create a memorial and are broadly sympathetic to the challenges of erecting a memorial involving such a difficult subject matter. In Japan’s public discourse, an analogy has been drawn, focused on the difficulties that would emerge if one were to create a memorial in Tokyo to Asian victims of Imperial Japan. “It would be like navigating a minefield, as it was in Berlin” (Japan Times 2005). Also, Tobias Brinkman, a German historian at the University of Southampton who researches Jewish history in Germany, reports that the response in Britian has been “broadly positive and the reaction has been similar to that voiced in response to Yad Vashem” (Brinkman 2005).
Commemoration without Education?
When one considers that this memorial is categorized as a “Mahnmal,” a memorial that is designed, beyond commemoration, to warn and admonish, the principle of education becomes one of its key purposes (Berg, 2005). Perhaps no argument so strongly reflects that this memorial was created for the German people, and not for the Jews, than the potential that such a memorial offers for keeping alive the memory, education, and potential lessons offered by the Holocaust. Sandra Anusiewicz, an education curator at the Jewish Museum, stated that the Jews “know about the Holocaust. We don’t need a memorial to help us remember. We remember. The Holocaust memorial is for the Germans.” (Sawyer 2005). The Memorial, to accommodate this desire for German Holocaust education, houses an underground Information Center. The Center seeks to provide the educational counterpart to the abstract Field of Stelae above it. Although Eisenman did not wish to include this Information Center, many argued that such an abstract design needed to be placed in a context in order for it to have meaning. After much debate as to the proper scope of this memorial, a political compromise was made and the Information Center was added to the memorial’s plans. As Quack stated, “One should not build a memorial without providing a formal, historically sound, and appropriately comprehensive explanation for it” (Quack 2005).
The Information Center seeks to provide a context for the Memorial through five rooms. These five rooms each present a different function: providing a brief overview of the events between 1933-1945; featuring fifteen excerpts from personal accounts written by Jewish men and women during the time of persecution; crafting an overview of Jewish family life in various countries; presenting an auditory reading of the names and short biographies of the six million victims; offering a repository of victims’ names from Yad Vashem; and supplying a database of Holocaust museums throughout Europe and Holocaust memorials and places where Jews were actually persecuted. This Information Center takes the abstract nature of the Field of Stelae above it and breaks it down to the level of the individual victim. This Information Center, therefore, provides the bridge between the openness of the abstract architecture and the concrete reality of the Holocaust.
While political compromise brought about the existence of an Information Center, the compromise failed to integrate fully the principle of education into the Memorial. Since the Information Center lies below ground and is not compulsory for the passer-by, many visitors do not take advantage of this resource. There are no formal instructions directing one to it. Several interviewed visitors, in fact, were not even aware of the existence of the underground education facility (Memorial Site Survey 2005). This ignorance is particularly problematic in that it prevents those visiting the site from attaining the desired effect. Markus Wachter, a photographer for the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, wasn’t moved by the monument. "I can't find the special emotion related to the real Holocaust in this concrete field," he says. "You could think it's just a place for children to play hide-and-seek." After a visit to the Information Center, however, he expressed a rather different reaction; “if you initially go to the museum and then view the memorial, it becomes very moving” (The Nation 2005).
The impact of the Information Center still remains to be seen as a critical mass of visitors must first exist in order to assess the efficacy of its education. It is already clear, however, that this Center is a necessary and integral component of the success of the Memorial. In addition to providing a context for the Stelae, it is hoped that this aspect of the Memorial will connect the visitor to the actual authentic places of the Holocaust and inspire a desire to self-educate. This connection is expressly done through the last room of the Information Center, the Holocaust Memorials Database, which lists existing sites and Holocaust research institutions throughout Europe. Thus, Paul Spiegel’s desire to inspire visits to “former concentration and death camps, the mass graves, the places of execution, shooting and torture, the platforms from which people were carted away in cattle wagons” is reinforced in the memorial itself and is not mutually exclusive. In the end, after all, despite Spiegel’s many reservations, he eventually endorsed the Memorial (The Nation 2005).
Some would question why Berlin needs another formal place of remembrance for the Holocaust. At the Jewish Museum, there already exists the Hall of Faces, the Garden of Exile, and the Holocaust Tower. These places of remembrance, however, unlike the Memorial, originated with the Jewish population to convey a specific message to the non-Jewish German population. Further, the presentation of information at the Jewish Museum is much broader than that of the Memorial’s Information Center, which is dedicated exclusively to the Holocaust – a tiny part of German Jewish identity.
Discrimination Among Victims?
Commemorating only the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, as reflected in its title, the Memorial distinguishes the murdered Jews from the other victimized groups, including the homosexuals, the Sinti (Roma), and the mentally disabled. While the choice was conscious, however, this selection was arguably predetermined. As a result of the sheer volume of Jewish victims and the consideration that “when Germany murdered half of its Jewish population, and sent the rest into exile, and set about murdering another 5.5 million European Jews, it deliberately,” and perhaps permanently, “cut the Jewish lobe of its culture from its brain. [It created a] Germany [that] suffers from a self-inflicted Jewish aphasia” (Young 2000). The result of the policy of Jewish extermination rendered the loss of the Jewish part of German culture, creating a “palpable and gaping wound in the German psyche…that must appear as such in Berlin’s otherwise reunified cityscape” (Young 2000). Additionally, “the murder of European Jewry was the most crucial topic within Nazi policy and ideology. It was THE symbol of Nazi atrocities” (Quack 2005). These factors, therefore, placed the murdered Jews in the first position of the hierarchy of those groups to be commemorated, although, among some, this is still a contentious belief.
The need to distinguish among persecuted groups was also recognized and fueled by the failure of memorials “that tended to remember all victims of war” (Quack 2005). Memorials, such as Die Neue Wache, sought to pay tribute to all victims of war, and in this process, homologated all the victims; these “were memorials for everybody, as expressed through the symbol of a mater dolorosa” (Quack 2005). Neue Wache’s commemorated populations, thus, problematically include, alongside the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, all Germans who suffered through the bombings. For the Federal Republic of Germany then, a memorial designed to provide a place of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust could not conflate these victims with the perpetrators; to avoid this danger, Germany thus chose to specify (Brinkman 2005).
The seemingly simple choice to limit the Memorial’s scope to the murdered Jews, however, had divisive and politically relevant consequences. Kurt Julius Goldstein, a German Jew who survived 18 months of slave labor in Auschwitz, for example, states that he "lived through [the Holocaust], and [the Nazis] didn't begin and end with the Jews.” He questions, “How can we focus on our own suffering and ignore that of the physically and mentally handicapped, the gays, the Gypsies, the communists, those who opposed them? This should be a place to unite us. Instead, just like before, it divides" (Schofield 2005). Others worry that this memorial will contribute to the ignorance regarding the full history of the Holocaust; many visitors fear that the focus on the Jewish population will perpetuate the erroneous belief that the only victims of the Holocaust were the Jewish people (Memorial Site Survey 2005). The Memorial, in public discourse, is often referred to as the “Holocaust Memorial” (Quack 2005). One can only speculate whether this name, often replacing the true title, is indicative of the perpetuation of the only Jewish victims belief. Sergey Lagodinsky of the American-Jewish Committee, however, rejects these two fears with the following:
“The memorial is improving the discourse for the specific victims being memorialized and for all groups in general. As each group works towards having its own future memorial…we can see the differences and similarities in the ‘how’s and ‘why’s of each persecuted group. The discussion furthermore shows the singularity of the victimization that occurred for the Jewish people. We can see that this tragedy was unparalleled” (Lagodinsky 2005).
A Successful Memorial?
There is no universal definition for a “successful memorial,” as each memorial is measured against a unique context. Therefore, just as the opinion of the current Jewish community with regard to the memorial became irrelevant in light of the uncovered true recipients of the memorial, the question of whether the site is successful as measured by traditional standards of memorialization also becomes irrelevant. Instead, one must assess this memorial’s success against the purpose stated by its creators. With this memorial, Germany expressed the desire to honor, to remember, and to admonish. To achieve these three aspirations, Germany, however, adopted a radical approach which some believe has compromised its success in these three areas.
On all three counts, the Memorial has failed to realize its full potential. Too many interviewees have emerged confused or merely fascinated by the aesthetic impression of the structure for its place in German society to be settled. Some have even reacted adversely, with revulsion, refusing even to explore the site beyond the surface (Memorial Site Survey 2005). Without this examination, one questions whether true reflection or contemplation takes place. In order to rectify this situation on a very practical level, to enhance the goal of education for remembrance and admonishment purposes, signs should directly point to the Information Center. Further, if schools intend to visit the site, pressure should be applied to make visits to the Information Center mandatory. Action must and can feasibly be taken to keep the site fluid. Organized political dialogue, seasonal commemorative events, special exhibitions, among a plethora of other social events are enthusiastically being considered by the Memorial’s organizers in order to keep the site alive, proactive, and meaningful to the public.
Before the design of the Memorial was even selected, there was a fear that the German public would not accept it and, by its rejection, prove to the world that it is still an anti-Semitic country. However, “the public is accepting it very well, in the first month alone, as over 60,000 people visited the Information Center” (Keller 2005). If one measures success based on the numbers of visitors, as the figure of those having visited the Center comprises only a fraction of the total number of visitors, this memorial is certainly, up to now, a success.
Beyond the actual general acceptance of this Memorial, albeit with individual dislikes and concerns, perhaps the most visible sign of this Memorial’s success is the dialogue begun by the memorial-building process and continued by the Memorial’s physical presence. James Young noted that the Germans “may have failed to produce a monument [that satisfies everyone], but if you count the sheer number of design hours that 528 teams of artists and architects have already devoted to the memorial, it’s clear that your process has already generated more individual memory-work than a finished monument will inspire in its first ten years” (Young 2000). Individuals who visit the site often discover new facts or are exposed to personal stories that result in their leaving the site with “extraordinary experiences” that prompt further dialogue and thinking about the Holocaust (Keller 2005).
This Memorial is also valuable for its ability to bring the lessons of the Holocaust into the public’s mind and to keep social action in the forefront of current national interest. The Memorial marks the acceptance of the Holocaust into Germany’s permanent national identity in a manner that fuses German identity with a dedication to never forget the past in order to prevent such acts from happening again. It is a reminder of the German phrase, “Wehret den Anfängen,” or “Beware the Beginnings,” signifying that this Memorial is a reflection of the German’s public consciousness and physical promise to stop human rights violations before they become acts of magnitude. When Germans recall the nascent years of the Holocaust, they will perhaps be more motivated to stop acts of racism and extremism before they turn into policies of genocide and institutionalized discrimination. Whether or not this goal is fully realized, however, remains contentious due to the newness of the Memorial.
Still, one might question whether or not people are truly dialoguing or even thinking about the Holocaust when faced by images of visitors who sunbathe, picnic, or jump on the stelae. While Eisenman might be thrilled by this “life blossoming” (Lagodinsky 2005) interaction of visitors with the Field, for some, such interaction is not in the spirit of the Memorial’s purpose.
One might also argue that this memorial came too late, since its opening marks sixty years since the end of World War II. The firsthand witnesses, after all, would inevitably have had more extreme responses than their descendants. On the contrary, the Memorial did not come too late; it is designed for a specific subset: to the young Germans who call themselves the “Third Generation” (Marzynski 2005). These young Germans, the grandchildren of those who acted in World War II and those who follow, are the ones who will live with the Memorial and in spite of Eisenman’s desire to keep the Memorial free from such representation and its mental and symbolic ramifications. It is their Memorial.
It is important “not to divert attention from the gratitude that at least this memorial now exists” (Cramer 2005). Although the Memorial is clearly incomplete, realizing the true agenda of the Memorial and the sheer positive statement that its existence promotes are the keys to embracing it. In doing so, viewers – both physical visitors and those being informed about the Memorial through the media – are enabled to overcome the self-threatening misnomer presented by its name. Getting past the implications of the terminology can bring about the intended effects of the Memorial, leading to healing for the nation. For the past sixty years, Germany has dealt with the Holocaust in a guilty manner. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe now presents the opportunity for a catharsis, through both debate and its sheer presence, to achieve a more positive sense of national identity signaling a template that other countries may follow.
So, nations of the world, take the skeletons out of your closet. Bring them out into the daylight and deal with them there.
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Cramer, Ernst. “German Daily Says Berlin Holocaust Memorial is Insufficient.” Die Welt. Berlin, May 10. 2005. p. 8
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Das neue Holocaust Mahnmal”, Frankfurt, May 10, 2005
Fleishman, Jeffrey. “’Permanent Memory of Holocaust’ Opens in Berlin.” The Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, May 11, 2005. p. 3
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The Nation Staff Writer. “A Song for Six Million.” The Nation. Thailand, June 11, 2005.
Ouroussoff, Nicolai. “A Forest of Pillars, Recalling the Unimaginable.” The New York Times. New York, May 9, 2005. p. 1.
Prince-Gibson, Eetta. “Memorial to Murdered Jews to be Unveiled.” The Jerusalem Post. Jerusalem, May 10, 2005. p.6.
Santana, Rebecca. “Holocaust Memorial No Balm for Berlin; City Split Over Size, Design, Intent.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Atlanta, November 6, 2003. p.2B.
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Young, James E. “At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture.” New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
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Bommarius.” Conducted June 27, 2005.
Keller, Claudia. “Interview with Der Tagesspiegel Journalist Claudia Keller.” Conducted June 29, 2005.
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Leinemann, Danielle. “Interview with Jewish-German Lawyer Danielle Leinemann.” Conducted June 22, 2005.
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Quack, Sybille. “Interview with the first Executive Director of the Foundation for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Sybille Quack.” Conducted June 26, 2005.
Bundestag Resolution on the Memorial. June 25, 1999. <https://wwww.stiftung-denkmal.de/en/fromideatorealisation/resolution> June 22, 2005.
Hawley, Charles and Natalie Tenberg. “How Long Does One Feel Guilty?, Spiegel Interview with Holocaust Monument Architect Peter Eisenman.” Spiegel Online. May 9, 2005. <http:www.Spiegel.de/international/0,1518,355252,00.html> June 28, 2005.
Additional Sites Consulted:
Marzynski, Marian. “A Jew Among the Germans: Germany’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Frontline. May 31, 2005. <www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/germans/memorial> June 23, 2005.
Eisenman, Peter. “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin.” May 31, 2005. Eisenman Architects. <www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/germans/memorial.html> June 23, 2005.
Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. “Foundation Site.” <http://www.stiftung-denkmal.de> June 22, 2005.