An Immodest Proposal

Artist's rendering of the proposed national German Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

Artist's rendering of the proposed national German Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

It is undeniably good that the nation of Germany will officially recognize the Holocaust by building a modified version of architect Peter Eisenman’s original plan for a memorial next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Unfortunately, Mr. Eisenman’s vision is insufficient. Extravagant maybe, with its thousands of concrete pillars and underground information center, but insufficient. No matter how well-intended, an object to be gawked at by tourists and an archive to be utilized by scholars can never do justice to the most unjust event of the 20th century. Fortunately, the recently announced delay of the project due to funding difficulties gives us an opportunity to re-conceive it.

The problem is that any pile of stones is passive, or dead, whereas the Holocaust is still very much alive for many people. In fact, I’ve striven — how successfully, I don’t know — to keep it alive for my children. When they were three, I read them Maus, at four Elie Wiesel’s Night. By five they knew that the best wooden toys and tastiest “gummy” candies were frequently made in Germany and therefore forbidden in our house. At six, they’d rather walk than ride in a Mercedes. The Shoah was mother’s milk to my children; the sun rises in the east and the Germans kill the Jews.

Mr. Eisenman’s plan is designed to reflect upon some of that feeling, and so far it has succeeded in its mission precisely because of the intensity of the debate about it that has ensued for more than a decade. Now, ironically, the very construction of Mr. Eisenman’s ideological dream will bring the debate to an end, and I worry that his memorial may provide closure for the wound that I’d prefer remain open.

Apropos, I suggest that a symbolic recreation of the Shoah be enacted, perhaps something along the lines of the Passion Play at Oberammergau, or call it performance art. Each year a Jew should be sacrificed on the altar of Mr. Eisenman’s elegant plaza.

Before rejecting this notion as morbid or preposterous, consider that the avowed purpose of such memorials and museums is to foster “memory.” Indeed, the Berlin project originally included a “House of Remembrance.” Memory is the mantra of all such institutions. Yet memory is only the vestige of experience, which means that only those who were actually there, in the camps, on either side of the barbed wire, can actually, literally, remember. For the rest of us, “remembering” the Holocaust is really an act of the imagination. By ritually killing a Jew, we can share the experience.

Such a sacrifice might seem horrifying, but the benefits clearly outweigh minor moral considerations. The active experience of viewing the sacrifice will subsequently create genuine memories, which will then be reflected upon by generation after generation of genuine witnesses. No more will my father have to lament that people can never understand. From now on, everyone will understand and, yes, remember. Over the long term, the concrete stelae of the Berlin memorial may prove as transitory as the wooden barracks at Auschwitz, but the infinitely greater treasure of memory will remain intact.

It won’t take much; we don’t need six million; we only need a single Jew, as long as he or she is Jewish according to the Nuremberg Laws. I am sure that the Jewish community of Germany would be glad to offer up one of its less valued members to serve this cause each year, but I’d be glad to hear arguments in favor of killing the more prosperous and productive, too.

Of course, many subsequent questions will arise, and I’ve tried to anticipate them, although a duly-constituted professional panel should make the final decisions. For example: How shall the ritual slaughter be fulfilled? Firing squads are too military and beheadings too messy and, besides, too French. Stoning might add a nice biblical touch; on the other hand, the Holocaust is a uniquely modern catastrophe, and most people will immediately support a miniature gas chamber.

I’ll admit there is a logic to the latter idea, but it’s still too literal, too cute. Anyway, it’s the death we care about, not the method. After all, many methods were used during the 1940s and they all worked quite well. Personally, I’d recommend the simple, air-filled hypodermic needle in the heart. It’s quick; it’s clean; and we wouldn’t want anybody to suffer any unnecessary pain. But the specific method used doesn’t make a difference as long as the ceremony is conducted in good taste.

If such an observance catches on, we could expand the program and invite participation by American and Israeli Jews, who are so eager to empathize with their co-religionists of the past. We could hold a yearly competition, an essay contest. We could solicit nominations, with letters of recommendation from rabbis and priests. All of these notions have their appeal, but to my way of thinking a purely random drawing from a list of passports would be most efficient and most effective.

Then, perhaps a random German could be chosen in a similar fashion to administer the injection. Perhaps that German could then be tried and executed. One could go on and on. One could debate the question for another decade. The possibilities are endless. That’s just the point. Human possibilities are endless.