Bayerisches Viertel is an upper-middle class residential area in Schöneberg, a southwest borough of Berlin. On a warm Sunday in August, the streets are almost empty and except for some cafés and Spätkaufs (bodegas), all the shops are closed. It feels distant spatially and spiritually from the internationally celebrated areas of Berlin — the traffic and energy of Kreuzberg, the young-family-brigade of Prenzlauerberg, the old grandeur of Museum Insel. The bullet-holed and graffitied aesthetic that so typifies a city whose history can feel almost convulsively exteriorized is absolutely absent here; instead one finds well-groomed green lawns, cream and rose apartment buildings with decorated balconies, and quiet tree lined streets, and almost all of the very few people out walking or cycling are elderly and white. Barbarossaplatz, for instance, is a perfectly pleasant place to sit with a brötchen and enjoy the wind in the leaves. The street leading there, Barbarossastrasse, is a street like many others, in other family neighborhoods, in any other city: you see a mother and baby on the street, an older couple on their patio reading the paper, children’s bicycles in a pile, and a colorful, well-displayed street sign with a cat on it, the other side of which reads: “Juden dürfen keine Haustiere mehr halten,” which translates as, “Jews may no longer own pets.”
Twenty years ago this summer, German artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock, installed their “Places of Remembrance,” 80 street signs with images or symbols on one side, and a particular anti-Jewish (and sometimes anti-Polish) Nazi law on the other. Stih and Shnock proposed this project in 1991 as their submission to a competition calling for ideas for a memorial in the neighborhood’s central square, right off Martin-Luther-Strasse. By unanimous vote, the jury — consisting of artists, historians, city planners, and representatives of the Jewish community in Berlin — opted for Stih and Schnock’s controversial, non-traditional memorial over the more palatable, reassuring option of a centralized monument. In 1993 the signs went up.
In interviews the artists suggested they wanted to make a memorial that would adequately reflect the ways in which the alienation, harassment, and eventual deportation of Berlin’s Jewish residents was not a sudden, immediately recognizable, or universally resisted attack on the community, but instead operated as a kind of integrated and initially subtle management of daily life and routine. Schöneberg was known in the 1920’s as “Jewish Switzerland” thanks to its largely wealthy Jewish residents, yet it is also remembered as a culturally diverse community enjoying an intellectual climate: it was one of the first gay neighborhoods during Berlin’s Golden Years, and thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein lived here. What Stih and Shnock’s work seeks to bring out, however, is that non-Jewish Germans met the anti-Jewish laws, not with great resistance but accommodation (though of course there was some organized resistance, notably the Social Democrats, the Communist party, and workers unions). Where a single, discrete, and perhaps noble memorial might suggest a single, discrete, and perhaps terrible event, peppering an ordinary neighborhood with inconspicuous (until you read them) signposts suggests a different kind of integration into history, and demands a different kind of negotiation in the present.
German has two words that we might translate as memorial in English, though exactly where to draw the conceptual distinctions is not obvious even to native speakers. A Denkmal is a memorial or monument whose purpose is to remind us of something that has happened or someone who has lived. Denken is the German verb “to think,” so a Denkmal stands as a testament to something on which we have a duty to reflect. Denkmals can be bloated and grand — as in the Soviet Memorial in Berlin or Mount Rushmore in South Dakota — or sombre and respectful — as in the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, a black wall engraved with service members’ names, dedicated to honoring those who fought in the war.
A Mahnmal is something subtly different, and we have no readily available English translation. Mahnen means both “to admonish” and “to remind;” it is often paired with the idea of caution or observance, as when one urges someone to take caution or be vigilant. A Mahnmal, then, is something meant both to remind and to warn, it pleads for remembrance not for the purpose of glory but for the purpose of heedful acknowledgment, even shame. A Mahnmal takes the idea of “never again” and gives it shape.
Berlin has an impressive Mahnmal culture. The most famous is the Holocaust-Mahnmal, or the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, a vast grid of concrete vertical slabs arranged on rising and falling ground. Across the street stands the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, a concrete cube with a small window into which one can look and see a video of men kissing (following protest, the video now changes every two years and includes lesbians as well). There are also the Stolperstein — “stumbling stones” — the some 30,000 gold bricks lain in the streets that note the name, address, and place of death for those Jewish Berliners murdered by the Nazis. Again, it isn’t immediately evident that these works would count as Mahnmal rather than Denkmal; for some people I spoke with, a Mahnmal calls to mind something rather imposing or commanding in structure, while the Stolperstein, for instance, are anything but. But one can argue that a Mahnmal is a work the purpose or effect of which is not to communicate historical knowledge but to occasion a new commitment to hold in mind the difficulties of reality and history.
Like the stumbling stones, Stih and Shnock’s signs are effective precisely in their unobtrusiveness. In both cases, one can fail to notice these small pockets of admonishment, and indeed this possibility of failure, this ever-present capacity for not seeing, is exactly what is being consecrated with these works. Where a Denkmal asks us to remember some thing, person, event, or place, a Mahnmal reminds us of the fact of our not having seen, recognized, acknowledged, or acted, the fact that when what is being memorialized was live or happening, it went unattended. In calling to this historic inattentiveness, these works complicate and darken our present willingness to pay attention; unlike a Denkmal which can make us feel edified or exhilarated in our remembrance, a Mahnmal tends to make you sick, suddenly exhausted, borne down upon. In this way a Mahnmal calls not just to the past but to the present, making an intervention not just in history but in reality.
There are 80 signs in Schöneberg, 80 images and 80 laws (of more than 400 such laws), extending over many blocks. Hardly any attention is given to them now, though at the time they were erected there were protests, both anti-Nazi and anti-Semitic. On the Sunday I visited, I rode up to Bayerisches Platz on my bike and scanned the streets, unsure what exactly I was looking for or even if I would find them. The first sign I saw was bright blue with a cartoon loaf of bread. Its banality is heart stopping. On the back it specifies that Jews are only allowed to buy groceries between 4:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon. The more signs I saw — signs forbidding Jewish children from public schools or the employment of Jewish actors and actresses, signs demanding that jewelry owned by Jews be turned over to the state and that Jews without Jewish-sounding names adopt either “Sarah” or “Israel” — the more ill I felt. There is a sign with an enthusiastic Welcome mat on one side (“Herzlich Willkommen!”), and the following law on the other: “to avoid giving foreign visitors a negative impression, signs with strong language will be removed. ‘Jews unwelcome here,’ will suffice.”
Speaking with German and non-German Europeans, some young people expressed some exasperation with efforts like this. The thought is essentially, “we know that this took place, that these laws were enacted and were evil — we’ve been remembering for decades now. But we have to move on eventually.” Stih and Schnock’s signs, though, have much less to do with memory and the disseminating of history than these reactions would suggest. There are other ways to learn about the history of anti-Semitic Nazi laws: the excellent Jewish Museum in Berlin, for instance, has a wealth of information. But the placing of signs in a residential neighborhood outside the main drags of the city, their pop-art colors and present-tense phrasing, all works to do something other than bring the past to us in the form of historical fact. The impatient desire to move on from the past can only arise from the belief that the past and present are neatly separable, that there is some discrete event or time to move on from and somewhere beyond to move on to; if anything these signs assure us that this is not possible. But again, they don’t do this by reminding us of something — something that happened, that was done by some to some others — but by placing a possibility, or better a reality into the present. And by articulating that reality with punchy color and bitter humor — “Welcome!” — it becomes harder to assure ourselves that what’s done is done, or that we can move on now, or that only unusually cruel humans, which we certainly are not, could do such things (just think of Russia’s new law banning “gay propaganda”).
On that Sunday in August, Stih and Schnock’s signs were competing for attention with others kinds of signs; not only traffic and city regulations, but massive political posters in anticipation of Germany’s upcoming national election. In other neighborhoods — Wedding, Kreuzberg, and Neuköln especially — one finds alongside the political posters signs both in support of and critical of the crowded refugee center in the suburb of Hellersdorf, where many asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan are housed. Berlin has recently seen a rise in visible neo-Nazi activity; this month, NDP party supporters showed up in Hellersdorf to protest the arrival of asylum seekers, carrying signs saying, “Tolerant today — tomorrow we are strangers in our own country,” and “Maria, not ‘Sharia,’” accompanied by a picture of a flaxen-haired German woman juxtaposed with a woman in a niqab. In bars now it is common to see signs out front stating “Nazis are not welcome.” In such a climate, Stih and Schnock’s work no longer seems like a relic, but instead as a voice in a contemporary and frightening contest for allegiance, as part of reality as history.
In his radio lectures titled “At the Mind’s Limits,” the Jewish French intellectual and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry said that he holds onto his resentment so that the crimes against him can become a “moral reality,” in order that “history become moral.” Améry was concerned, skeptical, and furious that the German and international community seemed to so swiftly embrace a culture of forgiveness, before the scope and reality of the harm and brutality of the Nazi regime was acknowledged, before any responsibility or guilt was shouldered. Decades on, there is a no-less-urgent need to acknowledge that reality, to challenge ourselves to recognize that we haven’t yet, cannot ever, fully appropriate responsibility for that reality, don’t yet know what proper acknowledgment would mean. Stih and Schnock’s work seems to be part of that effort to make history moral, to make reality moral.
Image courtesy the author