ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Today Germany unveiled a memorial in central Berlin to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Politicians, Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors attended the dedication of the monument, which was designed by American architect Peter Eisenman. As Kyle James reports from Berlin, today's ceremony ends 17 years of debate about how Germany should mark the darkest chapter of its past.

KYLE JAMES reporting:

Just a stone's throw away from the buried ruins of Adolf Hitler's bunker, a group of young musicians from Poland and Germany perform next to a forest of gray concrete slabs.

(Soundbite of music)

JAMES: Parliamentary President Wolfgang Thierse opened the inauguration of what is officially called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Mr. WOLFGANG THIERSE (Parliamentary President, Germany): (Through Translator) It is a recognition that this reunited Germany admits to its past, and does that by remembering the greatest crime of its history in the center of its capital city.

JAMES: The memorial takes up a city block in what used to be no man's land next to the Berlin Wall. It's made up of more than 2,700 concrete blocks, or stelea. They range in height from a few inches to about 15 feet, are spaced about a yard apart and tilt at irregular angles. From a raised viewing platform, the monument looks like an undulating gray ocean, but according to the monument's New York-based architect Peter Eisenman, the memorial's effect is most powerful when people walk inside of it.

Mr. PETER EISENMAN (Architect): People feel dizzy walking in it, you slide, you tip in the ground. And the physical experience that we wanted of uncertainty, of instability, certainly is present.

JAMES: As visitors walk into the memorial, the sounds of the city largely fade away, and it's easy to lose one's orientation. Eisenman has said it should reflect the fear that Jews felt as they were caught up in the Nazis' killing machine.

Mr. EISENMAN: Primo Levi said this in his book on Auschwitz that the people, as they grew less and less alive, went down into a kind of abyss. And when you go down into the field, when you leave the ordinary and the street and go down, you get the sense of moving into an abyss.

JAMES: For some, Eisenman's design was too abstract, and the government was afraid people with little knowledge of the Holocaust wouldn't understand it, so they built an information center under the memorial. According to historian Jurgen Lillteicher, who helped design the center, it attempts to put names and faces on the Holocaust.

Mr. JURGEN LILLTEICHER (Holocaust Historian): We focus on individual stories in the Room of Names. We did research on 800 biographies, and we tell it from the victim's perspective.

JAMES: Victims like Thibeau Rote(ph), who was born in Romania.

(Soundbite of memorial exhibit recording)

Unidentified Man #1: Thibeau Rote was murdered immediately upon arrival by suffocation in the gas chamber. He was five years old.

JAMES: The memorial has been controversial from the start. A citizens campaign was launched in 1988 to build it, but it was only in 1999 that the Parliament voted to spend the $35 million on its construction. The memorial has been criticized as a waste of money, ugly and is faulted for neglecting the other victims of the Third Reich. Rafel Zeligman(ph), who emigrated from Israel to Germany in the '50s, is a vocal critic.

Mr. RAFEL ZELIGMAN: Why only for the Jews? Why not for the Gypsies? Why not for the handicapped? Why not for the homosexuals? They are, I think, all victims of the Holocaust, so they should have a monument together.

(Soundbite of ceremony)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language)

JAMES: At today's ceremony, the criticism was held in check and there were few dry eyes. It ended with a speech by Sabina van der Linden, a Holocaust survivor. She said the monument doesn't mean today's Germans are guilty of the deeds of their parents and grandparents, but that they have taken responsibility for the memory of their elders' crimes. For NPR News, I'm Kyle James in Berlin.

(Soundbite of ceremony)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: You can see photos of the new Holocaust Memorial at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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