CRM Journal

Book Review

At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture

By James E. Young. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000; viii + 248 pp., photographs, drawings, notes, bibliography, index; paper $18.95.


Post-Holocaust Jewish-American and European artists and architects have moved in new directions to memorialize the Holocaust with often jarring, nontraditional "counter memorials." At Memory's Edge treats what James E. Young, a University of Massachusetts English and Judaic studies professor, defines as "memory-work." The author recapitulates his extensive scholarly output of articles, catalog essays, informal talks, lectures, and symposia as the foundation for At Memory's Edge. The introductory chapter includes a standard literature survey. Young proceeds to several case studies to describe post-Holocaust artistic interpretations and memorials. The book concludes with his insider's perspective chronicling "memory-work" to select the design for the German national Holocaust memorial.

The artists' and architects' body of work cited in the book leapfrogs the traditional style of memorials found throughout Europe—statues, preserved ruins, monumental architecture, and poignant inscriptions. The book represents the author's specialized scholarship regarding the novel approaches that post-Holocaust generations of American and European artists and architects of Jewish heritage have employed to remember the Nazis' bitter fruit. These intellectuals have rejected typical bronze and marble Holocaust memorialization in favor of artistic approaches that draw the world's attention to what they argue resulted in an immense cultural void in late 20th-century Europe.

At a temporal distance from the Holocaust, artists and architects have produced nontraditional ethereal monuments, memorials, and museums. The artists and architects did not directly experience the Holocaust; rather their perceptions have been created and influenced by survivor accounts and by the vast outpouring of Holocaust-related books, magazines, movies, and television programs. Some of the artists returned to the neighborhoods where the Jews worked and lived, trying to recapture "what it was like" in order to educate present-day observers. Shimon Attie's large-scale slide projections of historic photos of early 20th-century Jewish life seemed to be a particularly effective medium when projected on buildings, streets, and sites in European cities. Jochen Gerz attracted public interest by commemorating the loss of 2,000 Jewish cemeteries in Germany by inserting replacement cobblestones (each inscribed with the name of a razed burial ground) in Saarbrucken's main square.

Among other artists' and architects' works, the results are startling: Art Spiegelman's cartoon art, Maus: A Survivor's Tale; David Levinthal's miniature figurine photography; and Horst Hoheisel's national Holocaust memorial proposal to blow up the Brandenburg Gate, a well recognized Berlin monument once incorporated in the Berlin Wall.

The artists' and architects' cutting edge "memory-work" regarding the Holocaust does not, perhaps unconsciously, intersect with what Europeans have already accomplished as remembrance of that dark story. While it is interesting, educational, and inspiring to examine old stories with unique and often startling perspectives on the Holocaust, the emphasis on daring, novel art and architecture, what the author calls "counter monuments" seemingly dismisses traditional approaches to memorialization: statues, plaques, memorials, and preservation and interpretation of concentration camps, transit centers, ruins, cemeteries, and other terrible landmarks of Nazi tyranny. Yet these traditional memorials continue to serve as parallel and powerful reminders of the European Holocaust.

Young concludes with an insider's perspective on the intellectual angst generated during the protracted, tortured debate in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s on erecting a German national Holocaust memorial in Berlin. A talented panel sifted through some 25 proposals ranging from demolishing the Brandenburg Gate to Renata Stih's and Frieder Schnock's Bus Stop—the Non-Monument—a large bus terminal in Berlin from which visitors could travel to concentration camp sites throughout Europe.

The book concludes with the selection of a preferred design near the end of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's tenure, "Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe" by American architect Peter Eisenman. Under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's tenure, the design was further modified. The Holocaust memorial is under construction on the former "death strip" near the razed Berlin Wall within hailing distance of Hitler's demolished Chancellery and scheduled for completion in March 2005.

For students of the cultural impact and value of memorials, At Memory's Edge is a useful addition to the growing body of literature. While the book is geared towards an artistic and architectural academic analysis, a more balanced treatment should have at least introduced the magnitude of "memory-work" at existing historic sites. Nonetheless, the book provides useful discussion of an engaging array of artistic output that should be considered by cultural resource professionals, historians, artists, architects, and academicians. Recent genocide, war, and terrorism in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Oklahoma City, and on 9/11 remind us of our responsibility to transmit to succeeding generations our thoughts on these terrible events. Those of us engaged in commemoration and memorialization, especially those engaged in creating, preserving, managing, and interpreting memorial sites, should read this book.

Ron Johnson
National Park Service (Retired)