Berlin Holocaust Memorial a top tourist draw 10 years on

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.