Monuments to holocaust victims a turning point: 9/11 memorial judge

Andrew Mangelsdorf

Monuments remembering holocaust victims marked a turning point in the design of commemorative spaces around the world, a jurist for the 9/11 Ground Zero memorial competition said this week.

‘Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art from the Holocaust to 9/11,” formed the focus of a talk Professor James Young gave at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation (ACJC) in Caulfield.

A professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Professor Young has a long history of work on memorials.

The ACJC in Caulfield facilitates visits from lectures on Holocaust and Jewish history from around the world.


The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Photo: Ali Wade
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Photo: Ali Wade

Professor Young framed the discussion around the shifts the Holocaust brought about in architectural designs for memorials, and how the traditional ‘mononlith’ came to be increasingly replaced with the ‘counter-monument.’

The counter-monument, he said, is perhaps best represented in the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington DC which is marked by an abstract design, where the visitor descends into the monument.

The world-renowned expert in Holocaust memorials will also be visiting the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne, which is set to undergo a $AU10 million upgrade in the near future.

Sue Hampel, Co-President of the Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC) in Melbourne, said Professor Young’s visit was an eye-opener.

“He may help us to think of different ways that we can show the story of the Melbourne Holocaust Jewish Community somewhere in a different way, cos he’s got all these new ideas,” she said.

“So I think it’s going to be very interesting to have a chat… about what he sees from the Melbourne Holocaust centre.”

Established in 1984, the Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC) in Elsternwick was originally established in conjunction with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Housing a museum commemorating the six million or more Jews who died in the Holocaust, this facility is a central component of Jewish collective identity in Melbourne, serving both Jewish and non-Jewish communities by spreading awareness of the Holocaust.

Opening the session with discussion on his role in choosing the memorial for Ground Zero to commemorate the victims of 9/11, Professor Young related how at the first press-conference after choosing the winning design, “an intrepid journalist who had done his homework” asked a poignant question.

He said the journalist asked, “Let’s see, uh, you were on the jury that chose the Denkmal, Peter Eisenmann’s design in Berlin, you’ve worked pretty closely with Liebeskind, and have written widely on the Liebeskind design in Berlin, for the Jewish museum, based on a series of six voids.”

He continued, “(The reporter said I had) kind of helped circulate the term counter-monument, and ah, basically, haven’t you just chosen another ‘Holocaust’ memorial, for Ground Zero?”

Back in the 1990s, Professor Young was on the jury for a commemorative space to remember Holocaust victims in Berlin, which was completed after a long debate and construction process in 2005 according to the memorial’s official website Stiftung Denkmal.

Ms Hampel commented that Professor Young “was actually on the committee, on the panel, and had to make the decision, how do you design something that hasn’t been done before?”

She continued, “And that is a memorial, that is actually in the city, in the place where the perpetrators planned the murder. How do you have a memorial in a country that is a perpetrator country? How do you tell the story of the victims? What is the best way to do it?”

Peter Eisenmann, one of the New York Five – a group of highly influential architects in New York City – won the Berlin Memorial competition.

But serious doubt was cast on the future of the Berlin memorial, when despite being fully approved by the Bundestag in June 1998 elections threatened to undermine that mandate, Professor Young said.

But the Berlin memorial was once again guaranteed when Germany’s Greens leader Joschka Fischer joined the ruling coalition government on condition that the memorial be built, he said.

“Even before the memorial was built, before they had started construction… Joschka Fischer invoked the memorial, when he, for the very first time, allowed German forces to join NATO forces, to stop the Serbs from a certain genocide in Kosovo,” he said.

“He [Fischer] said, this Denkmal remains hollow if we don’t act on the basis of the memory articulated here,” he said.