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Long-delayed Holocaust memorial done

Thursday, December 16, 2004

BERLIN -- A crane hoisted the last of thousands of charcoal-colored slabs into place at Germany's national Holocaust memorial Wednesday to commemorate the 6 million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis.

The event signaled a symbolic end to a 15-year battle over the building of the project -- which has been tangled in debates about financing, artistic vision and Nazi-era guilt.

But backers of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe said Wednesday they expected differences over its meaning to continue even once it is finished.

"The argument presumably goes on," Parliament President Wolfgang Thierse said, standing in front of the 2,711 stark concrete slabs stretching over a plot of land the size of two football fields. "The fight hasn't damaged the memorial," he said.

The entire monument still requires more work -- including the paving of paths and finishing of an information center -- before it is officially opened by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on May 10, 2005.

In March, Berlin Jewish groups demanded that architect Peter Eisenman, who is himself Jewish, resign from the project, claiming he told an anti-Semitic joke.

"I've learned that jokes in one country aren't jokes in another country," Eisenman said from the podium Wednesday.

Last year, it was disclosed that the memorial stones have an anti-graffiti coating manufactured by Degussa AG, which co-owned the maker of poison gas for the Nazis.

There also have been years of arguments about the design, financing and politics of the project.

"I thought at many moments we would never build this," Eisenman said. "I'm very thankful this has come to a conclusion, or that it's starting another phase, let's say."

A crane dropped the last of the slabs -- which range from less than a foot to 15 feet tall -- into the final space, where it would later be cemented into place.

Eisenman has said the undulating rows of closely spaced slabs set slightly below street level were designed to evoke the feeling of being trapped that Jews felt when they were sent to Nazi death camps.

The uneven field of concrete blocks sits in an area heavy with German history. Near where Nazi leader Adolf Hitler died in his underground bunker in 1945, the area was also part of the Berlin Wall's no man's land during the Cold War. The glass-domed Reichstag parliament building and newly refurbished Brandenburg Gate draw visitors to the neighborhood, and the new U.S. Embassy is being built across the street.

With the work nearly completed, Jewish leaders have begun to worry that the monument in what was the heart of the Nazi capital may draw extremists looking to make headlines.

Interior Minister Otto Schily and Jewish leader Paul Spiegel said in comments published Wednesday that they believed there should be a ban on demonstrations near the monument once it has opened.

"It is worth wishing that Nazi marches around the memorial be prevented. A demonstration ban could make this legally secure," Spiegel told the Leipziger Volkszeitung daily.

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