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Honoring the spirit of hallowed places

By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published July 31, 2005

Do you know how to behave? How to act in a somber place such as a cemetery or a church that has become a tourist attraction? I thought I knew what was "acceptable' conduct, until one hot day last month in Berlin.

I was returning to my hotel after sightseeing and came to the landmark Brandenburg Gate. Adolph Hitler found it a perfect backdrop for propaganda films.

I saw a throng of still and video photographers, in a semi-circle, focusing on a black-haired man whose back was to me. He was making grand gestures with his arms as he changed positions.

As I got closer, one of several men in black suits stepped toward me. He told me that I had to walk to one side of the photographers, not toward their subject.

"Who is he?" I asked.

"That is David Copperfield, the magician," the man said with some awe. "Later this year, he will make the Brandenburg Gate disappear." Amused, I circled behind the photographers and took a photo of the magician myself.

I walked another couple of blocks before remembering I had wanted to see the Holocaust memorial, open just three weeks. It had taken 17 years for national officials to agree to any such memorial, to choose a site, select the design and finally build the monument.

Located one city block from the Brandenburg Gate, it also is quite close to the long-buried remnants of Hitler's command bunker.

The first day the memorial was open to the public, someone scratched a small swastika on it.

The memorial's designer, American architect Peter Eisenman, previously had told the media that he realized neo-Nazis might target it. But Eisenman said he considers graffiti a form of protest, or release, that is a part of life.

Life, death and isolation

This memorial is remarkable at least as much for what is not there as for what is: There are no haunting columns, no moving words on scrolls of polished marble, no faces of grief on statues. There is neither a front nor a back to it - it is open on all sides.

Precisely aligned in rows across the equivalent of a large city block are upright gray slabs, or stele. There are 2,711 of these slabs, but the number has no reference point to the Holocaust; it is simply how many fit Eisenman's design.

There are no names or religious symbols on them; the memorial is not supposed to represent a graveyard. The slabs have the same length and width but are set at varying heights. Because the land has been graded to undulate in small hills, some stele rise just a few inches above ground, while others are higher than 7 feet.

Visitors choose where they want to walk through the rows and where to leave. Eisenman hopes people will feel a sense of insecurity, of being distant from the city that is all around but not easily viewed - an isolation that those selected for death in the Holocaust must have felt.

Before the memorial was dedicated, Eisenman said he wouldn't mind skateboarders or children playing hide and seek among the stele. But he had emphatically rejected food vendors or souvenir stands nearby.

How to behave?

When I reached the memorial, I chose a row and walked among the stele.

Within a few minutes, I saw a teenage boy nearby who was ducking his head behind one of the slabs, to hide while he smoked a cigarette. He saw me, said something to two girls nearby, and stepped on the cigarette next to the base of the slab. The three teenagers hurried off.

A few more strides amid the stele and I heard the laughter of younger children, then saw one trotting along, smiling. I didn't notice any adults nearby who might have restrained the playfulness.

I thought: Why have these people come to a place created to remind visitors of unspeakable genocide, if the visitors cannot show respect?

I was close to an outside row of slabs and turned to leave. A few yards away I again saw David Copperfield, now with a smaller herd of photographers.

I immediately walked over to him - no bodyguard stopped me this time - and said, "You shouldn't be here . . . this is a memorial to victims of the Holocaust."

Gesturing toward the stele he said, "I know, I have people here."

"You shouldn't be using it for publicity," I replied. "Tell the cameramen to leave."

"Believe me," Copperfield said, "they won't listen to me."

"Then you should come back later, alone."

With nothing more to say, we both turned to go.

On the way to my hotel, I realized the posing for photos was like the awkward scene reported many times by visitors to the Pearl Harbor memorial near Honolulu: Japanese tourists lining up, smiling, in front of signs on land and even at the memorial erected above the sunken battleship USS Arizona, from which 1,177 bodies have never been removed.

In turn, that reminded me of the boorish tourists who ignore the "No Photography" signs in churches around the world that have become attractions.

Reverence has many faces

Back in St. Petersburg, I reflected on the scene at the Holocaust memorial. I could come up with nothing in my experience to match it.

The lack of respect in Berlin is so different from the scene at what is probably America's most famous monument to the dead: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial - "the Wall" - in Washington. There, people leave flowers, dog tags, military medals, mementos recalling time spent with the comrades, pals or relatives whose names are engraved on the wall. Visitors often just touch their fingers to the names they know.

Viewing these actions, even someone with no ties to the dead veterans can feel emotion well up.

Nearby, at the relatively new memorial to our Korean War dead, the sentiment is different. The sculptor created a small group of combat soldiers on patrol, their faces showing fear as well as determination. They are caught in a life-or-death situation over which they have no control.

Visitors walk around the grouped statues and from those faces they understand the anxiety of all combat veterans.

Just a couple of miles away is Arlington National Cemetery, our nation's most famous graveyard. Many tourists with no connection to the men and women buried there come to honor the sacrifice signified by the rows upon rows of crosses and Stars of David, stretching so neatly, and so far, across the green lawns.

Although it has been 17 years since my visit, I can recall the overwhelming feeling of loss at the Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Here are buried about 500,000 people, from among the 800,000 who died during the German Army's 900-day siege of what was then called Leningrad.

The horrors of the siege - starvation, freezing to death - are recalled in a small museum, near an eternal flame. Funereal music plays over loudspeakers and within the cemetery is a large statue of a grieving woman, representing Mother Russia. Beneath more than 180 raised mounds, which represent different periods of the siege, are the victims.

The thought of anyone smiling, eating, or posing for photos at these places is incomprehensible.

Part of the news

That June night in Berlin, I sent an e-mail to my wife, relating my day of sightseeing and the odd meeting with Copperfield.

When I logged on to the computer the next day, my wife had sent an e-mail directing me to a Web site. There, I found a page from a national German newspaper. It had gossip about Hollywood stars down one side and across the bottom. But most of the page was filled by photos of Copperfield - and me.

In the top photo he has one hand on the upper edge of one of the slabs, over which he is peering. There is a caption between that picture and another photo. I'm at the left in this bottom one, and Copperfield has one arm toward me, seemingly ready to touch me - or ward me off.

Translated, the captions for the photos describe the morning round of photo stops by "the master of the illusion." The caption continues:

"All of his gestures and posing were done with an eye for the camera . . . An observer of the scene (me) approached him and asked if he wasn't ashamed to be misusing the memorial to advertise himself. At that moment the master of magic would undoubtedly have liked to make himself disappear."

But remember, architect Eisenman had said even skateboarding and graffiti at the Holocaust memorial would be acceptable. So, is using it as a place to sneak a smoke or to publicize a TV show just the wider fabric of life we now are to tolerate?

Send me your thoughts on this, addressed to Behavior, St. Petersburg Times, Newsfeatures Dept., P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Send e-mail, with Behavior in the subject line, to jenkins@sptimes.com I'll publish a sample of your comments next month.

- Robert N. Jenkins can be reached at 727 893-8496 or jenkins@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 29, 2005, 14:47:25]

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