My Favorite Holocaust Memorial: 140 Empty Chairs in Leipzig

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April 8 2013 6:23 PM

140 Empty Chairs

My favorite Holocaust memorial.

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But I wasn’t really going out of my way to do Jewish things in Berlin—I always pray on Saturday morning. Nor was I going out of my way to do Holocaust things—they were impossible to avoid, even if I wanted to. The streets are lined with the Stolperstein—the ever-present Gunter Demnig-designed cobblestone-sized memorials on the ground in front of the homes of every Jew who was deported. The only thing I did steer clear of was the Jewish Museum. On my previous visit to Berlin, I had made the trip to the museum, already a bit skeptical. I have a conflicted relationship with Jewish museums that display the “history” of the Jews; they remind me of the Museum for the Extinct Race that Hitler had proposed (this feeling was solidified on a visit to Prague, which made me feel like my traditions and customs were for a vestige of an extinct race). I didn’t go back.

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The 140 empty chairs—14 neat rows of 10

Photo by Miriam Krule

I did begin to frequent the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, though—it was unavoidable, purposely so, right near the Brandenburg Gate. Many people have been highly critical of the design—2,711 gray concrete stelae—for its lack of specificity (which murdered Jews are being remembered?) and clarity (are these headstones? Sarcophagi?). But I think the ambiguity, which really isn’t ambiguous at all, is what makes the memorial so successful. I understand that assuming everyone knows something is the path to everyone forgetting it, but I don’t think the main purpose of a Holocaust memorial is to educate the viewer. I was drawn to the memorial more for what it left unsaid. I appreciated its abstractness, and how quickly you comprehend its meaning without explanation. I appreciated its immensity and its precision and organization, which brings to mind not just the Holocaust’s victims but its brutally efficient perpetrators.

For a while the memorial was my favorite Holocaust memorial, if one can use such a word in this context, but that was before I traveled to Leipzig. The apartment I was renting was built on the footprint of the city’s main synagogue, which was burnt to the ground during Kristallnacht. The 140 empty chairs—14 neat rows of 10—serve as a memorial for the 14,000 Leipzig Jews who lost their lives at the hands of the “Facists,” as the plaque along the far wall explains in Hebrew and German and English (and, I was surprised to find out, Braille).

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I didn’t know about the memorial, or the location of the synagogue, when I found the apartment on AirB&B. I lugged my suitcase from the train station and arrived at my building, looking up from the map on my phone, to a raised platform with 140 chairs. If I saw such an installation in New York, I’d think it was public art—but here, I knew what it was before I saw the plaque.

The Leipzig memorial reminded me of a different, perhaps more subtle, memorial in a small park in Berlin, with an overturned chair and a large table, capturing the moment when the Gestapo grabbed Jews from their homes. (It’s also similar to the Oklahoma City memorial.) The memorial itself is striking in its conspicuousness, but what moved me most was its unexpectedness. It was integrated into the urban landscape, across the street from cafés and even a club and adjacent to my apartment building. Its location directly correlated to its message, but a reborn city had risen around it.

Nothing can replace education about what happened to this congregation, and nothing should. These congressionally appointed days, and Israel’s holiday, are important prompts to remember, and study, the Holocaust. But memorials, like the one in Leipzig, can have more emotional resonance than a textbook. They capture your attention, force you to think. And the best ones—to me, at least—force you to relate to them without instruction, because instructing isn’t their job. The 140 chairs outside my apartment were beautiful, which makes them all the more powerful. They’re something I will never forget.

Miriam Krule is a Slate copy editor and edits Slate's religion column "Faith-Based." Follow her on Twitter.