In Fitting Memory: The Art and Politics of Holocaust Memorials

In a century repeatedly marked by terrible atrocities, the gruesome sequence of events that today is known as the Holocaust stands out as perhaps the emblematic act of mass murder. A shorthand label such as “the Holocaust” scarcely suffices to evoke the scale and depth of the horrors to which it is applied. 

At its core was what the perpetrators euphemistically referred to as the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe.” Official state policy in Nazi Germany consigned between five and six million European Jews to “special handling” through ghettoization, starvation, execution, deportation, gassing, and cremation; thus was an entire civilization destroyed.

With the end of the war came the impulse to memorialize the victims of Nazi genocide and honor the heroes who resisted the onslaught. Initially, these efforts arose from the ranks of the survivors themselves in the form of eyewitness testimonies, published memoirs, and memorial books about their hometowns (the yizker-bikher). Some also erected monuments at mass graves and in former ghettos and concentration camps. 

The sense of urgency to mark the Holocaust increased as the actual events grew ever more distant and as the survivors aged. In subsequent decades, numerous memorials, monuments, and museums devoted to the victims of Nazism were built culminating with the 1993 opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

In Fitting Memory was a pioneering research project undertaken by Sybil Milton and Ira Nowinski in the wake of Nowinski’s exhibition of George Segal’s Holocaust memorial, held at the Magnes Museum in 1986. In her introduction to the book that emerged from this project, Milton writes: “The title In Fitting Memory poses the rhetorical questions: To whose memory and how fitting?”

We live “in a historical age that calls out for memory because it has abandoned it,” observes the French historian Pierre Nora. “Museums, archives, cemeteries, festivals, anniversaries, treaties, depositions, monuments, sanctuaries, fraternal orders—these are the boundary stones of another age, illusions of eternity.” Nora refers to these “jealously protected enclaves” as lieux de mémoire (sites of memory), and comments “that without commemorative vigilance, history would soon sweep them away.” These lieux de mémoire are “moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded.”(1) 

Ira Nowinski made four photo-survey trips to Central Europe between December 1987 and September 1989 as part of the In Fitting Memory project. There he visited and photographed many of the “boundary stones” that are associated with the Holocaust including former concentration and extermination camps, ghettos, monuments, and Jewish cemeteries.

How Is the Recent Past Commemorated?
Preservation of former concentration camps is not something that just “happened.” To the contrary: it required deliberate decision-making on the part of governmental bodies or private agencies. In Poland, as early as July 1944, when the Soviet Army liberated Majdanek from the Nazis, the very first such memorial was established at that extermination camp situated on the outskirts of Lublin. Three years later, the Polish parliament proclaimed that Auschwitz would be “forever preserved as a memorial to the martyrdom of the Polish nation and other peoples.” And, in the absence of structural remains at Treblinka (about fifty miles northeast of Warsaw), a sculptural ensemble was constructed as a memorial on its site during the mid-1960s.

Nowinski visited Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, and his photographs document how Cold War politics influenced the contrasting ways in which the recent past was being remembered in the East and in the West. As Sybil Milton observes, “In Eastern Europe the memorials were usually seen as forms of symbolic politics under the direction and financial patronage of the central government. In Western Europe the memorials were usually left to private and local initiative and thus developed in an ad hoc and piecemeal fashion.”(2)

The impulse to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust is not limited to the preservation of its historic sites. Sculptors, architects, and conceptual artists have produced monuments ranging from the striking to the banal, both within the former concentration camps and much farther afield.

How is one to represent events that took place decades ago and very far away? How can they be integrated into narratives that make sense to local audiences of whatever age, wherever they may be? How can historical memory be kept from going stale? Above all, why create a memorial in this place and at this time? These are questions that can prove vexing to the planners and builders of Holocaust memorials, or indeed, any kind of memorial.

“The design and content of Holocaust memorials reflect national differences in historiography, ideology, and culture as well as a variety of styles and traditions of public art and sculpture,” comments Sybil Milton.(3) Nowhere is this observation more apt than with the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, by Nathan Rapoport, which the literary scholar James E. Young describes “as possibly the most widely known, celebrated, and controversial of all” Holocaust memorial sculptures.(4) Unveiled in April 1948, exactly five years after the ghetto uprising, this monument to Jewish heroism soon achieved iconic status, even as it was derided for its adherence to the esthetic norms of socialist realism. 

And yet, as if in implicit rebuttal to Rapoport’s approach, abstraction has been the esthetic vocabulary par excellence of much subsequent sculpture devoted to the Holocaust, at least in the West and in Israel. Strikingly and paradoxically, it is Rapoport’s clichéd sculpture of the fighters and martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto that has emerged as the emblematic Holocaust monument.

George Segal’s Holocaust Memorial Sculpture in San Francisco
Dozens of Holocaust memorials have been built in other places that are very far removed from the sites where the events actually took place. One of these, bearing the simple title The Holocaust, is adjacent to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Within a flat concrete surface, approximately 20 feet square, a fully clothed man stands staring across a barbed wire fence toward the Golden Gate. Behind him are strewn the naked bodies of ten men and women. All eleven figures are cast in whitened bronze, a medium that is familiar to those who have encountered the works of the American sculptor George Segal (1924–2000).

Segal created his sculpture at the behest of then Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s Commission for a Memorial to the Six Million Victims of the Holocaust. The original plaster version of this sculpture was first exhibited at New York’s Jewish Museum in April 1983 and now belongs to that museum’s permanent collection. The finished sculptural ensemble was installed and dedicated in Lincoln Park in November 1984.

Ira Nowinski’s photographs provide a chronicle of George Segal’s Holocaust sculpture before, during, and after its installation in Lincoln Park. Some photos of the partially assembled ensemble, taken in the sculptor’s studio, conjure up a prison-like atmosphere.

Photography and Memory
Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist and survivor of Auschwitz, wrote of his fellow inmates’ perception “that if we came back home and wanted to tell, we would be missing the words.” Photographs, by contrast, “demonstrate what information theory claims: that an image, on parity of scale, ‘tells’ twenty, one hundred times more than a written page… when applied to the ineffable universe of the camps, they acquire a stronger meaning. More and better than the word, they recapture the impression which the camps, well or badly preserved, more or less transformed into grand sites and sanctuaries, make on the visitor; an impression that is strangely deeper and more unsettling for those who have never been there than on us few survivors.”(5) The pictures that Nowinski took of these haunting lieux de mémoire—former ghettos and concentration camps, Holocaust memorials and cemeteries—underscore the perceptiveness of Levi’s penetrating insight.

1. Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire,” in Representations 26 (Spring 1989), p. 7–24.
2. Sybil Milton, In Fitting Memory: The Art and Politics of Holocaust Memorials (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), p. 10.
3. Milton, In Fitting Memory, p. 2.
4. James E. Young, “Introduction,” The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History (New York: Prestel, 1994), p. 25.
5. Primo Levi, “Revisiting the Camps,” in The Art of Memory, p. 185.

The main gate at Auschwitz I, between 1987 and 1989. The motto of the concentration camp system, “Work Sets You Free” (“Arbeit Macht Frei”), is part of the gate’s design. At the right a sign warns about the electrified fence. Before World War II, a Polish army artillery barracks stood on the future camp site. Construction of the Auschwitz concentration camp began in May 1940; the camp continued to function until January 1945. Though Auschwitz I was not an extermination camp, it did contain a gas chamber and crematorium.

The Appellplatz and gallows, Auschwitz I, between 1987 and 1989. Prisoners assembled every morning for roll call at the Appellplatz, which was also where public executions were held.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, between 1987 and 1989. “Prisoner cutlery in a ditch at ‘Canada’ (the name of the former warehouse for prisoners’ personal effects), destroyed by the Germans to obliterate all evidence of Nazi crimes before the arrival of the advancing Soviet army” (Sybil Milton, In Fitting Memory). This photograph was one of several that Nowinski took of these utensils. The contact sheet also contains images of the Birkenau camp (including the ruins of the crematoria) and monuments that were erected there after the war.


Zyklon B canister, Auschwitz, between 1987 and 1989. The SS used the insecticide Zyklon B (“Cyclone B”) to asphyxiate the prisoners whom they herded into the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Its active ingredient was a form of cyanide, hydrocyanic acid. The manufacturer, Degesch, was a subsidiary of the gigantic chemical cartel I. G. Farben. After the war I. G. Farben was broken up and today Degesch is a multinational corporation. As the company’s American subsidiary’s web site notes, “Degesch operates a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. . . .”


The crematorium at Majdanek, Lublin, Poland, between 1987 and 1989. Between 170,000 and 235,000 individuals died or were killed at Majdanek, which was primarily a forced-labor camp but also functioned as an extermination camp. Among these were more than 100,000 non-Jewish Poles and tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war. The crematorium was built in 1943, and contained furnaces, a morgue, and a gas chamber. Majdanek was captured by the Soviet army on July 24, 1944—the first large Nazi concentration camp to be liberated by the Allies.


The “Steps of Death,” Mauthausen, Austria, between 1987 and 1989. “Prisoners … were often required to carry stone blocks weighing from 66 to 132 pounds on their shoulders, while marching at double-time, vulnerable to the shouting, whipping, and abuse of the SS guards. Adjacent to the 186 steps is the quarry rim, which the SS ironically called ‘the parachute jump’ because Jewish and political prisoners were sometimes thrown to their deaths from there into the quarry pit below” (Sybil Milton, In Fitting Memory). Of the 200,000 inmates sent to Mauthausen 119,000 died there.

Mounted photograph of a concentration camp inmate, viewed through a window of the former pathology barrack at Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, Germany, between 1987 and 1989. The more than 140,000 prisoners who were incarcerated at the camp between its opening in 1936 and its liberation in April 1945 were subjected to forced labor, medical experimentation, and mass executions. Thirty thousand prisoners died there.

Ravensbrück, between 1987 and 1989. “Will Lammert’s two bronze statues of women prisoners standing watch in front of mass graves; the statues are facing the lake across the courtyard. The mass graves are located alongside the original camp wall. The names of the twenty countries of origin of the victims are inscribed in bronze letters on the camp wall behind each grave” (Sybil Milton, In Fitting Memory). Lammert (1892-1957) fled Germany in 1933 and found refuge in the Soviet Union. From 1951 onward he lived in East Berlin.

The Treblinka monument, between 1987 and 1989. Between 700,000 and 850,000 Jews were murdered here between July 1942 and May 1943. The memorial was designed by the Polish sculptors Adam Haupt and Franciszek Dusenko, and opened in May 1964. The installation contains about 17,000 jagged rocks —many of which contain the names of destroyed Jewish communities. The “fissure [in the stone] symbolizes the irreparable breach of Jewish life in Poland after Treblinka; it also serves as a metaphor for the broken tablets of Moses” (Sybil Milton, In Fitting Memory).


Warsaw Ghetto monument, between 1987 and 1989. Nathan Rapoport (1901–1987) designed this monument in 1943, while in exile in the Soviet Union. It was dedicated in April 1948, on the fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The sculpture has been criticized for its adherence to the esthetic norms of socialist realism. Rapoport responded: “Could I have made a stone with a hole in it and said, ‘Voilà! The heroism of the Jews’?” And yet, abstraction has been the esthetic vocabulary par excellence of much Holocaust commemorative sculpture.



Berlin, between 1987 and 1989. “We must never forget these places of terror.” The twelve linked shingles resemble signs in railway terminals announcing the scheduled station stops for departing trains. The “stops” listed here are Nazi concentration and extermination camps. In the background is Berlin’s most opulent department store, the Kaufhaus des Westens, or KaDeWe, founded by Adolf Jandorf (1870-1932). In 1934, after the Nazis came to power, KaDeWe’s Jewish owners were forced to sell the store. Jandorf is buried in the Jewish cemetery at Weissensee, in eastern Berlin.


Paris, Île de la Cité, Mémorial de la Déportation, between 1987 and 1989. The underground plaza is surrounded by high stone walls; at one end is a metal grate, evocative of prison bars or sewer grates, facing the Seine. The black metal stakes with small jutting metal triangles on top of the grate resemble barbed pikes and evoke feelings of imprisonment and menace. (Source: Sybil Milton, In Fitting Memory.)


Kraków, between 1987 and 1989. The wall around the Remuh Synagogue incorporates remnants of hundreds of broken tombstones unearthed during the restoration of the cemetery after World War II. (Source: Sybil Milton, In Fitting Memory.) The Remuh Synagogue is named after the great Jewish legal authority, Rabbi Moses Isserles, who lived in Kraków during the sixteenth century. A number of other Polish Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials incorporate walls containing fragments of tombstones that were shattered during World War II.


“The Holocaust.” Plaster maquette photographed in the New Jersey studio of sculptor George Segal, 1984. The sculptural ensemble, in whitened bronze, was installed in Lincoln Park, San Francisco, in 1984. The maquette was acquired by The Jewish Museum in New York.


“In Memory of the Victims of Concentration Camps,” Jerusalem, between 1987 and 1989. This smaller replica of Nandor Glid’s Dachau memorial was installed at Yad Vashem in 1979. The bronze sculpture, with its explicit reference to the European graphic tradition of crucifixions and pietàs, interacts differently with the landscape and sunlight of Jerusalem than with its setting at Dachau. (Source: Sybil Milton, In Fitting Memory.) The housing complex in the background hugs the “Green Line” marking the cease-fire zone between Israel and Jordan from 1949 to 1967.