Germany’s Holocaust memorial, a solemn maze of concrete grey slabs in central Berlin commemorating the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, split public opinion when it was erected five years ago.
But now, ahead of next month’s anniversary, the splits are all too real as a viciously cold winter, inferior building materials and possible building flaws have resulted in cracks in more than two-thirds of the 2,711 columns.
“Can the Holocaust memorial still be saved?” asked mass circulation Bild recently.
The head of the foundation that manages the memorial, which stretches over 19,000 square metres (205,000 square feet) at a site close to the city’s famous Brandenburg Gate, said a committee of experts was looking into the problem.
The committee’s report should “help to clear up what caused the cracks and who is responsible for them, but also to work out an appropriate method of repairing the damage,” Uwe Neumärker said.
“We’ll find a solution. Whatever happens it will be repaired. But we don’t know exactly when. We have to wait for the results of the report,” said Leonie Mechelhoff, the foundation’s spokeswoman.
The cracks in the columns, which vary from ankle height to 4.7 metres, “are not dangerous,” said Mechelhoff, adding she was confident the monument would be restored quickly to its former state.
But the fissures are the latest in a series of controversies to dog the memorial, situated near the site once occupied by Adolf Hitler’s chancellery and the bunker where he committed suicide.
Construction of the memorial was delayed in 2003 when it emerged that the company which made an anti-graffiti covering for the blocks had also supplied Zyklon B, the poison gas used in the Nazi death camps.
When the memorial was unveiled on May 10, 2005, some critics questioned why it did not also pay tribute to the Nazis’ non-Jewish victims.
The memorial’s architect, Peter Eisenman, said he did not want names on the blocks because he feared that would turn the site into a graveyard when he hoped it would rather be “a place of hope.”
Eisenman was also conscious of the dangers of cracking and had originally intended the columns to be made of natural stone, which is less likely to split.
However, due to the higher costs involved, concrete was used instead and the construction work entrusted to German firm Geithner.
The concrete used was not supposed to crack, but Joachim Schulz, an expert in the material, told AFP: “You cannot stop cracks appearing in concrete, you can only reduce their size.”
However, “a new procedure was used which had not been sufficiently tested, and that was risky,” he added.
In addition, the slabs were made of “non-reinforced, hollow concrete”, making it more vulnerable to cracks, added Schulz, who said it would be “difficult” to repair the columns.
Indeed, the first attempts at “papering” over the cracks in recent months have proved disappointing, on an aesthetic level as well as on a practical level.
“It’s a shame that this problem is attracting all the attention,” said Mechelhoff. “We would have preferred the slabs to be intact” for the fifth anniversary of the monument’s opening, set to be marked by a host of events.
One tourist wandering around the strangely disorientating concrete jungle said he could not believe the damage was so extensive after so short a time.
“I had heard about these cracks,” said Andreas Fink, a tourist from Munich in his mid-forties. “I thought they would be worse, but it’s still crazy after such a short space of time,” he said.