Digging Deeper: Architecture and Artifacts

Hi everyone! My name is Meredith Gade and I am a sophomore nursing major from Rochester, Minnesota.

We visited the Jewish Museum of Berlin and the Topography of Terror Museum. They allowed us to observe how museums focusing on the Holocaust are different based on the country they are located in. The country’s involvement in the Holocaust and WWII also effects how their story is presented.

Our visit to the Jewish Museum of Berlin (JMB) for me, the most emotionally moving of the places we have been to so far. While the  museum does not use of a multitude of artifacts, those that are used are authentic and focus on the story of the former owner of the  object. Hearing the personal stories of those lost to the atrocities of  the Holocaust, as Jennifer Hansen-Glucklich in chapter 5 of Holocaust Memory Reframed  aptly describes, “unveil[s] to us a multitude of lost worlds.” JMB relies heavily on its architecture to tell the story of Jews affected by the Holocaust. Another powerful impact was the Holocaust Tower to be a memorial for the victims. The space is 24 meters high, unheated, with only a small diagonal opening at the top of the space allowing natural light to seep in.

Previous museums were constructed to make the visitor feel like a  prisoner in a concentration camp but this was the first to strike true  fear in me. In Elke Heckner's book "Visualizing the Holocaust: Documents, Aesthetics, Memory"  refers to the camps as “the spatial emptiness and the  unfinished concrete walls invoke the very limits of physical comfort.”  The large black door prohibits the visitor from knowing what lies ahead of them. Just as the Jews as they arrived at various concentration  camps. I walked into the Holocaust Tower alone. As soon as the heavy, metal door swung shut behind me, my body and mind reacted. I felt the chill from outside. The sunny skies outside allowed light to enter, but the ladder on the wall – a possible escape, a symbol of hope - was out  of reach. I felt nothing but fear and panic. It is hard to describe, but what I felt was extremely minuscule in comparison to those who went through concentration camps during the Holocaust. It's something that can ever be known to anyone who didn’t experience the Holocaust.

The Topography of Terror Museum focused not only the perpetrators of the Holocaust but the photographs taken of them.  Our tour guide stressed that this museum is not a memorial museum. They are in no way supporting the Nazis or the crimes they committed. This angle focused on the perpetrators was due to many narratives about the Holocaust are influenced by  photographs from before the liberation of concentration camps. Since Nazis had all the power over those they oppressed, they were able to control the perception of the photographs.

We analyzed a famous photograph of a man kneeling before a mass grave already filled with bodies. A Nazi police officer points a gun to his head as a large number of Nazi's watch in the background. In Judith Kielbach’s article, “Photographs, Symbolic  Images, and the Holocaust: On the (IM) Possibility of Depicting Historical Truth” she posits that photographs alone do not allow us “to make out the incidents captured or the situation in which they were taken.” Our analysis attempted to do what Keilbach instructed –  construct a context. The man kneeling did not show any signs of resistance to his impending death. The Nazis would not want to have any photographic evidence of resistance. The officer waiting to shoot the man was wearing clean, shiny boots. If he would have dirty boots would promote the idea of killing as “dirty work.” The Nazis wanted to put the best image out  to the public. Various aspects of the photograph imply that it was staged. The lack of resistance from the man, the clean boots of the  officer, and the angle of the camera that allows these details to be noticed. As our tour guide pointed out, you only see what the  photographer wants you to see. And unfortunately, a lot of the time it  was a Nazi behind the camera.



Meredith Gade
Source of light in the Holocaust Tower
Barren concrete walls of the Holocaust Tower with “escape ladder” (left) just out of reach
Analyzing the photo with our tour guide Sebastian