Two enormous rusty metal sheets on the pavement formed a narrow passageway. We walked around it but could not see what the sculpture was supposed to represent.
We then looked through the gap between the sheets and proceeded cautiously through it. But when we emerged on the other end, we were none the wiser.
It took stumbling upon a plaque on the ground several metres away to be enlightened.
This site was where the planning was done for Nazi Germany’s euthanasia programme.
Referred to simply as Aktion (Operation), the programme ran from 1939–1945 and largely targeted the disabled and mentally ill.
About 70,000 were murdered, but the figure throughout the German Reich is probably four times higher.
According to the website of the official memorial for these victims, “the classification, selection and murder of these patients made this the first centrally organised and systematic process of mass murder carried out by the Nazis”.
This location was where the Nazis planned and coordinated the programme. Its address, Tiergartenstrasse 4, gave rise to the programme’s other name, T4.
The offices were destroyed in WWII. Today, the site sits within Kulturforum, a cultural centre near Postdamer Platz, that is home to institutions such as the Berliner Philharmonie.
But the metal sculpture was not designed to commemorate these specific victims.
Called Berlin Junction, it was created in 1987 by renowned American sculptor Richard Serra to memorialise the Holocaust. It originally stood elsewhere but was relocated to the Kulturforum at the request of the artist.
Its new location was more apt as the bowed steel plates echoed the silhouette of the distinct Philharmonie and fitted into the overall Modernist architecture of the Kulturforum.
However, just as we found when we first encountered it, the public felt its lack of association with the T4 victims. It immediately courted controversy, which was to last over a decade.
In 1989, a plaque was installed near the sculpture to provide the explanation felt to be missing from only having the artwork stand there.
Finally, an official memorial was erected in its vicinity in 2014. It is called the Gedenk- und Informationsort für die Opfer der nationalsozialistischen ‘Euthanasie’-Morde (Memorial and Information Point for the Victims of National Socialist Euthanasia Killing).
Still, Berlin Junction remains a powerful piece of commemorative artwork.
Although the sheets are only 25m long, they curve, which means one cannot see the other end when walking through the passageway. The 3.5m tall walls also curve in towards the narrow passage. Only by looking up, can one see a strip of sky.
The experience is claustrophobic and unnerving, and certainly compounded by the coldness of the structure’s minimalism and use of industrial material.
For now, Berlin Junction appears to be allowed to remain where it is.
Serra’s other memorials stand at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Interestingly, his was one of the final designs shortlisted for Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial (formally, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), but he withdrew before the winning design was chosen. ω
A great analysis of Berlin Junction as a memorial is in a blog by architect Filipe Serro. The evolution of a memorial at the T4 site is documented in Sigrid Falkenstein’s Spurensuche website on the Nazi T4 programme (in German only).
The official memorial is called the Gedenk- und Informationsort für die Opfer der nationalsozialistischen ‘Euthanasie’-Morde (Memorial and Information Point for the Victims of National Socialist Euthanasia Killing).