Imagine somebody goes to the cemetery, digs out your grandmother, takes some of her half decayed fingers and puts them in a pillar. As a memorial, for or against something. Does it sound macabre? Outrageous? Disrespectful? It is.
Why would it be otherwise if artists claim that they have drilled for ashes near a former Nazi extermination camp – and then set up an installation in Berlin in which they allegedly flowed? Because it was not a grave? And not your grandma? Or because it's about a good thing?
Among other things, the Center for Political Beauty intends to recall how the Weimar Republic once disempowered itself and thus warned against current fascism. Some may think that such drastic measures are appropriate for the fight against law. Lea Rosh, the initiator of the Holocaust Memorial, praised the installation, for example. Yes, remembrance culture is complicated, there are no simple and unambiguous answers. That's why I can say: I see it differently.
Jewish graves are for eternity
Meron Mendel, the director of the Anne Frank educational institution, criticized on Twitter the "instrumentalization of the remains of murdered persons" as "perhaps well intentioned but fundamentally wrong." He is quite right: Six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, almost the entire European Jewry was wiped out by the Nazis and their helpers – systematic, industrial, efficient.
But that alone does not account for the unique horror of the Holocaust. It was not "just" the murder. It was the thoroughness with which people were gradually taken from everything: their home, their family, their freedom, their hope, their dignity, their lives. And after death it went on: In Judaism a cremation is strictly forbidden. The law of religion stipulates that a corpse must be treated respectfully and completely buried – within 24 hours after death. Jewish graves are laid out for eternity, they must not be moved, leveled or reassigned.
The Nazis knew that, too. For them it was important to deny the murdered Jews even this last dignity – forever. Their dead bodies were ravished, burned, buried. To this day, they have no graves, no names and no eternal rest. One last dehumanization.
It is right to talk about it. It is right to ask what happened to the ashes of the murdered, as the Center for Political Beauty claims its action. It is true that all around the extermination camps are the remains of the dead, anonymous, often unnoticed.
But to talk about making it a topic is also possible without playing with the idea that the remnants of dead Jews are incorporated in a column near the Reichstag. The ZPS action makes the victims of the Shoah an object again, dehumanized, without a say, to props in a production. Especially as the Center for Political Beauty also offers plastic-cased soil samples on its homepage.
The supposedly good thing
It is unclear whether the ashes in the column and the soil samples actually contain human remains of Shoah victims, as the ZPS first said. It basically does not matter because any discussion about the exact location and composition of the samples misses the heart of the problem.
Be it in fact or symbolically – the activists have appropriated the dead, regardless of the feelings of the Jews in Germany, the survivors and their relatives. So regardless of the people whose grandmothers and grandfathers are concerned here.