BERLIN - Berlin's Holocaust Memorial, controversial when it opened 10 years ago, has become one of the city's top tourist draws and confounded fears it would be a target of neo-Nazi protesters.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, inaugurated on May 10, 2005 after 17 years of emotional debate and a full six decades after World War II, now attracts nearly half a million visitors each year from across Germany and around the world, director Uwe Neumaerker said.
The monument includes a vast undulating labyrinth of more than 2,700 grey concrete blocks spread over an area equivalent to three football fields, as well as a subterranean museum dedicated to the testimony of Holocaust victims and survivors.
Critics of the project at the time called the design too abstract and worried that its prominent location in central Berlin between the Brandenburg Gate and the site once occupied by Adolf Hitler's chancellery would make it vulnerable to vandalism and exploitation by far-right skinheads seeking media attention.
"Nobody is asking these questions anymore -- everybody just seems to accept that it's there and that it's going to be there," its US architect Peter Eisenman told reporters.
"I think that silence about the concerns is one of the most positive (examples) of the success of such a memorial."
The speaker of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert, who serves on the board of the memorial, noted that its approval was the last major decision taken by lawmakers before the government moved to Berlin in 1999 from the old West German capital Bonn.
Lammert said the transition to Berlin would have been "incomplete" after national reunification without "demonstrative commemoration of the worst single aberration in German history", the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust.
After several false starts and redesigns, work began in 2001.
But the project was delayed again two years later when it emerged that the company which made an anti-graffiti coating for the blocks had supplied poison gas to the Nazi death camps.
Journalist Lea Rosh, who played a leading role in the campaign to have the monument built, said that Nazi swastikas scrawled in pencil and Stars of David daubed on the memorial's blocks soon after its opening had been quickly removed.
She admitted she had been surprised by the memorial's popularity. "We never thought it would become such an attraction."
'Beautiful city, terrible history'
A more persistent problem has been cracks in the concrete that Neumaerker acknowledged had formed on nearly all the blocks.
"We don't know the cost or the timeframe of repairing them yet," he said, adding that a study had been commissioned to determine how best to deal with the damage.
He said that the board saw no problem with the fact that children had taken to playing on and among the concrete blocks, noting that the plan all along had been for the memorial to be "filled with life".
But he recently dispatched "representatives", as opposed to intimidating security guards, to gently discourage "inappropriate behaviour" such as sunbathing on the memorial.
The monument has become an essential stop on the programme of Berlin visitors for tourists as well as dignitaries such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US first lady Michelle Obama.
Michael Bol, a Dutch physiotherapist, said he had brought his family to the memorial to show them that Berlin was a "beautiful city with a terrible history" but that it was willing to face up to its Nazi past.
"This teaches them so much more than textbooks could," Bol, 54, said of his three children.
His 16-year-old daughter Danique said she was impressed by the design, adding that walking into the centre of the maze created a powerful feeling of "being trapped".
A Holocaust survivor, Ingeburg Geissler, said she saw the monument as a resounding success.
"This is a place where people come and actually spend time, where they are provoked to think," Geissler, 82, told AFP. "That is very positive indeed."
Over the last decade, smaller memorials have opened in central Berlin dedicated to the Nazis' gay, Roma and disabled victims, who were also targeted for extermination during World War II.