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A Self-Serving Admission of Guilt: An

Examination of the Intentions and Effects of


Germany's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of
Europe
by Sharon Chin, Fabian Franke, Sheri Halpern

We all recognize that a Holocaust memorial in Berlin is fundamentally differentthe memorial can only be
understood and accepted if it is the result of a fundamentally German initiativ e
- Moshe Safadie
Between the intersections of Hannah-Arendt Strasse, Cora-Berliner Strasse, and Behrenstrasse, 2,7 1 1 gray
concrete stelae of v ary ing heights rise abov e 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 v ictims of the Holocaust and to establish this ev ent in the permanent memory of
Germany s history and landscape. This site, howev er, is a memorial that bears no signs; there is no marker
indicating the title or ev en the purpose of this massiv e memorial. Thus, although the Memorial was heralded
to the world on May 1 0, 2005, an approaching v isitor, unaware of the ex istence of such a monument, could
remain bewildered about its purpose, meaning, and intended commemoration of the v ictims. The Memorial
is thus an abstract structure and considered open to each v isitors indiv idual interpretation.
This site, designed by Peter Eisenman, was purposefully crafted to be abstract. Germany s decision to build a
memorial, a mov ement first begun in 1 988, would prov e to be a problematic and controv ersial issue for the
nation; Germany needed to create a memorial that would serv e as both an apology to the Jewish community
and to record how Germany s collectiv e public memory regards the Holocaust today . After 1 7 y ears of
debate and ov er 800 design entries, Eisenmans 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 inev itably inadequate, Eisenman broke from established concepts of memorialization and adopted
the radical approach of av oiding all sy mbolism (Japan Times 2005). The number of slabs, differing heights,
and grid-like structure do not hav e any representational significance (Fleishman 2005), in accordance with
the belief that interpretation ought to be left to the v iewer. The only concrete description of the site,
therefore, is found in its title.
While the title of the Memorial is not phy sically represented at the site, its presence is still manifested
mentally . The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe connotes that the Memorials purpose is to serv e as
an apology to the Jews for the atrocities Germany committed during the Holocaust. The titles 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 ov er the other.
This apology serv es 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 discov er that this
memorial was not created truly TO the murdered Jews, but rather OF the murdered Jews and TO the Germans.
Ex amining the complex dev elopment process behind the Memorial rev eals 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 ev olv ed: that is the idea that the
Memorial was being built for the Jews. With an issue as sensitiv e as the Holocaust, the discussion will
inev itably be filled with controv ersy . In order to understand this controv ersy , a v ariety of opinions were
sought, particularly from the Jewish community , as they ev olv ed during the dev elopment process. As
Siy bille Quack, the first Ex ecutiv e Director of the Foundation for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of
Europe, stated, The importance of hav ing the Jewish community inv olv ed in the dialogue on the
dev elopment of this memorial was alway s considered necessary . There was constant talk with the Jewish
community and within the curatorium (Quack 2005). This memorial needed Jewish sensibility (Y oung
2000) and James Y oung, an American Jew whose ex pertise lies in the area of Holocaust remembrance, was
brought onto the Findungskommission. He was the only Jewish v oice on the adv isory 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 v ictims of the Holocaust is not
reflectiv e of the sentiments of its Jewish population. The Memorial forces remembrance in a contriv ed
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 productiv e alternativ e would be to
promote v isits to the actual, relev ant 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 giv en to the liv ing
Jews rather than highlighting their plight in the World War II era. Kramer adamantly proclaims that Germans
lov e their dead Jews more than their liv ing ones (Kramer 2005).
Howev er, when one considers the intended purpose of the Memorial, as officially stated by the German
parliament:
to honor the murdered v ictims, keep aliv e the memory ofinconceiv able ev ents in German history and
admonish all future generations nev er again to v iolate 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 v iolence" (Bundestag Resolution 1 999),
The reaction of Germany s current Jewish population to the creation of the Memorial becomes largely
contestable and irrelev ant to the discourse on the Memorials ex istence. After all, there is no reference to a
specific portion of Germany s liv ing population, Jewish or otherwise. Furthermore, a double standard of
intergenerational justice cannot hold; if one cannot hold the liv ing grandchildren of Holocaust perpetrators
culpable for the actions of their ancestors, the same rules apply to the v ictims ancestors. The liv ing
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 representativ e of the ov erall argument that the Memorial serv es as a conv enient opportunity for
the German public to wash its hands clean of the negativ e ev ents that mar its past. The slabs of dull grey

concrete blocks that jut up irregularly like an other-worldly grav ey ard (Prince-Gibson 2005) are permanent,
imply ing that the memory of the Holocaust will become frozen, buried nev er to be unearthed again. Hav ing
designated an impressiv e 27 .6 million Euros to the project, a millstone that the republic has
demonstrativ ely bound to its leg (FAZ 2005), German gov ernment 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 allev iate German consciousness of these
acts. In the words of Av ishai Margalit, an Israeli philosopher, "the way for the Germans to re-establish
themselv es as an ethical community is to turn their cruelty , which is what tied them to the Jews, into
repentance" (Schofield 2005).
Howev er, if the Memorial serv es the Germans to simply absolv e 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 productiv ely challenges its audience to take ownership of the Holocaust in a
new manner. Whereas guilt is an emotion that people attempt to absolv e their minds of, this memorial allows
for a sense of collectiv e responsibility , which cannot be neatly ignored or packed away (Ouroussoff
2005). This transformation of guilt to collectiv e responsibility represents the attitude that action must be
taken so that the negativ e ev ents of the past do not happen again in the future. Germans hav e been
incorporating this social conv iction of nev er again into their national identity , a counterpoint to the
argument that a finished monument would, in effect, finish memory itselfthis would not be a place where
Germans would come to unshoulder their memorial burden (Y oung 2000). Moreov er, 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 v iewed as an illness to be av oided,
memory is a more proactiv e way of dealing with the past.

Practical Functions of Abstract Art


Bey ond ov erall reconciliation with its past, the reasons why the Memorial is in fact for the Germans rather
than for the murdered Jews are ev er-present in German life. This claim is attested to by the inherent phy sical
location of the Memorial. Germans cannot ignore the Memorial, as they are forced to pass by and look at it on
a regular basis. Moreov er, many Germans feel that it enhances the aesthetics of their city , and appreciate the
fact that it is a public space (Memorial Site Surv ey s 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 Americas
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 ex termination took place; Goebbels bunker,
unchanged to this day , is ev en located directly beneath the Field of Stelae
The political significance of the location for the Germans ex tends bey ond the phy sical landmarks surrounding
the site. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1 989, a new Germany was env isioned. The reunification process
ov erwhelmed and preoccupied the German public during the ensuing y ears, culminating in the transfer of the
capital from Bonn to Berlin. The shift serv ed to reconcile the old with the new, the East with the West. Lea
Rosh, the most prominent and infamous impetus of the initiativ e of civ ilians (Quack 2005) for the
Memorial, howev er, 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, phy sical place of remembrance in the

heart of the nations new capital. Germany would take its memory of the Holocaust, also transformed, with it
into its unified future.
On the international lev el, the Memorial serv es as a way to improv e Germany s image in the ey es of outsiders.
The Memorial was the first of its kind in that it serv ed as an implicit apology to the gov ernments of other
countries for its actions during World War II (Leinemann 2005). Nations throughout the world are
responding positiv ely to Germany s decision to create a memorial and are broadly sy mpathetic to the
challenges of erecting a memorial inv olv ing such a difficult subject matter. In Japans public discourse, an
analogy has been drawn, focused on the difficulties that would emerge if one were to create a memorial in
Toky o to Asian v ictims of Imperial Japan. It would be like nav igating a minefield, as it was in Berlin (Japan
Times 2005). Also, Tobias Brinkman, a German historian at the Univ ersity of Southampton who researches
Jewish history in Germany , reports that the response in Britian has been broadly positiv e and the reaction
has been similar to that v oiced in response to Y ad V ashem (Brinkman 2005).

Commemoration without Education?


When one considers that this memorial is categorized as a Mahnmal, a memorial that is designed, bey ond
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 aliv e 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 dont need a memorial to help us remember. We
remember. The Holocaust memorial is for the Germans. (Sawy er 2005). The Memorial, to accommodate this
desire for German Holocaust education, houses an underground Information Center. The Center seeks to
prov ide the educational counterpart to the abstract Field of Stelae abov e it. Although Eisenman did not wish
to include this Information Center, many argued that such an abstract design needed to be placed in a contex t
in order for it to hav e 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 memorials plans. As Quack stated, One
should not build a memorial without prov iding a formal, historically sound, and appropriately
comprehensiv e ex planation for it (Quack 2005).
The Information Center seeks to prov ide a contex t for the Memorial through fiv e rooms. These fiv e rooms
each present a different function: prov iding a brief ov erv iew of the ev ents between 1 933-1 945; featuring
fifteen ex cerpts from personal accounts written by Jewish men and women during the time of persecution;
crafting an ov erv iew of Jewish family life in v arious countries; presenting an auditory reading of the names
and short biographies of the six million v ictims; offering a repository of v ictims names from Y ad V ashem;
and supply ing 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
abov e it and breaks it down to the lev el of the indiv idual v ictim. This Information Center, therefore, prov ides
the bridge between the openness of the abstract architecture and the concrete reality of the Holocaust.
While political compromise brought about the ex istence 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 v isitors do not take adv antage of this resource. There are no
formal instructions directing one to it. Sev eral interv iewed v isitors, in fact, were not ev en aware of the
ex istence of the underground education facility (Memorial Site Surv ey 2005). This ignorance is particularly
problematic in that it prev ents those v isiting the site from attaining the desired effect. Markus Wachter, a

photographer for the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, wasnt mov ed by the monument. "I can't find the special
emotion related to the real Holocaust in this concrete field," he say s. "Y ou could think it's just a place for
children to play hide-and-seek." After a v isit to the Information Center, howev er, he ex pressed a rather
different reaction; if y ou initially go to the museum and then v iew the memorial, it becomes v ery mov ing
(The Nation 2005).
The impact of the Information Center still remains to be seen as a critical mass of v isitors must first ex ist in
order to assess the efficacy of its education. It is already clear, howev er, that this Center is a necessary and
integral component of the success of the Memorial. In addition to prov iding a contex t for the Stelae, it is
hoped that this aspect of the Memorial will connect the v isitor to the actual authentic places of the Holocaust
and inspire a desire to self-educate. This connection is ex pressly done through the last room of the
Information Center, the Holocaust Memorials Database, which lists ex isting sites and Holocaust research
institutions throughout Europe. Thus, Paul Spiegels desire to inspire v isits to former concentration and
death camps, the mass grav es, the places of ex ecution, shooting and torture, the platforms from which people
were carted away in cattle wagons is reinforced in the memorial itself and is not mutually ex clusiv e. In the
end, after all, despite Spiegels many reserv ations, he ev entually 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 ex ists the Hall of Faces, the Garden of Ex ile, and the Holocaust Tower. These
places of remembrance, howev er, unlike the Memorial, originated with the Jewish population to conv ey 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 Memorials Information Center, which is dedicated
ex clusiv ely to the Holocaust a tiny part of German Jewish identity .

Discrimination Among Victims?


Commemorating only the Jewish v ictims of the Holocaust, as reflected in its title, the Memorial distinguishes
the murdered Jews from the other v ictimized groups, including the homosex uals, the Sinti (Roma), and the
mentally disabled. While the choice was conscious, howev er, this selection was arguably predetermined. As a
result of the sheer v olume of Jewish v ictims and the consideration that when Germany murdered half of its
Jewish population, and sent the rest into ex ile, 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 (Y oung 2000). The result of the policy of Jewish
ex termination rendered the loss of the Jewish part of German culture, creating a palpable and gaping wound
in the German psy chethat must appear as such in Berlins otherwise reunified city scape (Y oung 2000).
Additionally , the murder of European Jewry was the most crucial topic within Nazi policy and ideology . It
was THE sy mbol 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 v ictims of war (Quack 2005). Memorials, such as Die Neue Wache, sought to
pay tribute to all v ictims of war, and in this process, homologated all the v ictims; these were memorials for
ev ery body , as ex pressed through the sy mbol of a mater dolorosa (Quack 2005). Neue Waches
commemorated populations, thus, problematically include, alongside the Jewish v ictims of the Holocaust, all
Germans who suffered through the bombings. For the Federal Republic of Germany then, a memorial
designed to prov ide a place of remembrance for the v ictims of the Holocaust could not conflate these v ictims

with the perpetrators; to av oid this danger, Germany thus chose to specify (Brinkman 2005).
The seemingly simple choice to limit the Memorials scope to the murdered Jews, howev er, had div isiv e and
politically relev ant consequences. Kurt Julius Goldstein, a German Jew who surv iv ed 1 8 months of slav e
labor in Auschwitz, for ex ample, states that he "liv ed 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 phy sically
and mentally handicapped, the gay s, the Gy psies, the communists, those who opposed them? This should be
a place to unite us. Instead, just like before, it div ides" (Schofield 2005). Others worry that this memorial will
contribute to the ignorance regarding the full history of the Holocaust; many v isitors fear that the focus on
the Jewish population will perpetuate the erroneous belief that the only v ictims of the Holocaust were the
Jewish people (Memorial Site Surv ey 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 indicativ e of the perpetuation of the only Jewish v ictims belief. Sergey Lagodinsky of the American-Jewish
Committee, howev er, rejects these two fears with the following:
The memorial is improv ing the discourse for the specific v ictims being memorialized and for all groups in
general. As each group works towards hav ing its own future memorialwe can see the differences and
similarities in the hows and why s of each persecuted group. The discussion furthermore shows the
singularity of the v ictimization that occurred for the Jewish people. We can see that this tragedy was
unparalleled (Lagodinsky 2005).

A Successful Memorial?
There is no univ ersal definition for a successful memorial, as each memorial is measured against a unique
contex t. Therefore, just as the opinion of the current Jewish community with regard to the memorial became
irrelev ant in light of the uncov ered true recipients of the memorial, the question of whether the site is
successful as measured by traditional standards of memorialization also becomes irrelev ant. Instead, one
must assess this memorials success against the purpose stated by its creators. With this memorial, Germany
ex pressed the desire to honor, to remember, and to admonish. To achiev e these three aspirations, Germany ,
howev er, adopted a radical approach which some believ e has compromised its success in these three areas.
On all three counts, the Memorial has failed to realize its full potential. Too many interv iewees hav e emerged
confused or merely fascinated by the aesthetic impression of the structure for its place in German society to
be settled. Some hav e ev en reacted adv ersely , with rev ulsion, refusing ev en to ex plore the site bey ond the
surface (Memorial Site Surv ey 2005). Without this ex amination, one questions whether true reflection or
contemplation takes place. In order to rectify this situation on a v ery practical lev el, to enhance the goal of
education for remembrance and admonishment purposes, signs should directly point to the Information
Center. Further, if schools intend to v isit the site, pressure should be applied to make v isits to the
Information Center mandatory . Action must and can feasibly be taken to keep the site fluid. Organized
political dialogue, seasonal commemorativ e ev ents, special ex hibitions, among a plethora of other social
ev ents are enthusiastically being considered by the Memorials organizers in order to keep the site aliv e,
proactiv e, and meaningful to the public.
Before the design of the Memorial was ev en selected, there was a fear that the German public would not accept
it and, by its rejection, prov e to the world that it is still an anti-Semitic country . Howev er, the public is
accepting it v ery well, in the first month alone, as ov er 60,000 people v isited the Information Center (Keller
2005). If one measures success based on the numbers of v isitors, as the figure of those hav ing v isited the
Center comprises only a fraction of the total number of v isitors, this memorial is certainly , up to now, a

success.
Bey ond the actual general acceptance of this Memorial, albeit with indiv idual dislikes and concerns, perhaps
the most v isible sign of this Memorials success is the dialogue begun by the memorial-building process and
continued by the Memorials phy sical presence. James Y oung noted that the Germans may hav e failed to
produce a monument [that satisfies ev ery one], but if y ou count the sheer number of design hours that 528
teams of artists and architects hav e already dev oted to the memorial, its clear that y our process has already
generated more indiv idual memory -work than a finished monument will inspire in its first ten y ears (Y oung
2000). Indiv iduals who v isit the site often discov er new facts or are ex posed to personal stories that result in
their leav ing the site with ex traordinary ex periences that prompt further dialogue and thinking about the
Holocaust (Keller 2005).
This Memorial is also v aluable for its ability to bring the lessons of the Holocaust into the publics 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 nev er forget the past in order to prev ent such acts from happening again. It is a reminder of the
German phrase, Wehret den Anfngen, or Beware the Beginnings, signify ing that this Memorial is a
reflection of the Germans public consciousness and phy sical promise to stop human rights v iolations before
they become acts of magnitude. When Germans recall the nascent y ears of the Holocaust, they will perhaps
be more motiv ated to stop acts of racism and ex tremism before they turn into policies of genocide and
institutionalized discrimination. Whether or not this goal is fully realized, howev er, remains contentious due
to the newness of the Memorial.
Still, one might question whether or not people are truly dialoguing or ev en thinking about the Holocaust
when faced by images of v isitors who sunbathe, picnic, or jump on the stelae. While Eisenman might be
thrilled by this life blossoming (Lagodinsky 2005) interaction of v isitors with the Field, for some, such
interaction is not in the spirit of the Memorials purpose.
One might also argue that this memorial came too late, since its opening marks six ty y ears since the end of
World War II. The firsthand witnesses, after all, would inev itably hav e had more ex treme responses than
their descendants. On the contrary , the Memorial did not come too late; it is designed for a specific subset: to
the y oung Germans who call themselv es the Third Generation (Marzy nski 2005). These y oung Germans,
the grandchildren of those who acted in World War II and those who follow, are the ones who will liv e with the
Memorial and in spite of Eisenmans desire to keep the Memorial free from such representation and its mental
and sy mbolic ramifications. It is their Memorial.
It is important not to div ert attention from the gratitude that at least this memorial now ex ists (Cramer
2005). Although the Memorial is clearly incomplete, realizing the true agenda of the Memorial and the sheer
positiv e statement that its ex istence promotes are the key s to embracing it. In doing so, v iewers both
phy sical v isitors and those being informed about the Memorial through the media are enabled to ov ercome
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 six ty y ears,
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 achiev e a more
positiv e sense of national identity signaling a template that other countries may follow.
So, nations of the world, take the skeletons out of y our closet. Bring them out into the day light and deal with
them there.

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Berg, Nicolas. Interv iew with Professor Nicolas Berg, Simon-Dubow Institute for Jewish History and
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Bommarius. Conducted June 27 , 2005.
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Lagodinsky . Conducted June 24, 2005.
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Europe. Conducted by Authors. June 24, 2005
Quack, Sy bille. Interv iew with the first Ex ecutiv e Director of the Foundation for the Memorial to the
Murdered Jews of Europe, Sy bille Quack. Conducted June 26, 2005.
Websites Cited:
Bundestag Resolution on the Memorial. June 25, 1 999. <https://wwww.stiftungdenkmal.de/en/fromideatorealisation/resolution> June 22, 2005.
Hawley , Charles and Natalie Tenberg. How Long Does One Feel Guilty ?, Spiegel Interv iew with Holocaust
Monument Architect Peter Eisenman. Spiegel Online. May 9, 2005.
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Frontline. May 31 , 2005. <www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/germans/memorial> June 23,
2005.
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Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Foundation Site. <http://www.stiftungdenkmal.de> June 22, 2005.