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Note: This is a translation of the original article published in the Publication of the DIG (German-Israeli-Society) Rhein-Neckar on November, 8, 2017.

Logo of the DIG Rhein-Neckar

Where dust is turned to light

The Jerusalem Friedensmal in the Geopark Bergstraße-Odenwald in Bensheim
Turning Point in the Jerusalem Friedensmal

The Jerusalem Friedensmal will be completed this year. It is located alongside the European long-distance path E8 in the Geopark Bergstraße-Odenwald, close to the city of Mannheim. Development and construction has by now lasted for over 16 years. The art installation on a 3,200 sqm plot that holds the 26-meter-wide Friedensmal (monument) in its center has been designed by artist Thomas Zieringer. He has founded the Friedensmal Wendepunkt Association (English: Peace Memorial Turningpoint) in 2001 together with several likeminded people. The association is responsible for the legal and financial aspects of the project. It has by now also joined the DIG (German-Israeli Association). The unusual private initiative has been cause for polarization in the surrounding region, but has at the same time resonated positively with an international audience.

The idea behind this “peace memorial for Germany” was born in 1998. The artist was inspired by the debate surrounding the Holocaust Memorial to construct a Peace Memorial for Berlin. This monument should show what assuming responsibility for the German past might look like. It should be a signal from the German population that true lessons have been learned. The monument would at the same time commemorate the Holocaust and, as a Peace Memorial, signal a positive change in the recognition and understanding of Judaism. However, the artist quickly discovered that realizing his idea without the proper connections in Berlin, as a non-local no less, would be impossible.

Sunset at the Jerusalem Friedensmal
The authorities of the artist’s Southern-Hessian home town of Bensheim finally approved the project. Now it was “only” a peace monument dedicated to everybody. A quiet site of reflection. It should turn into a pilgrimage site situated in a lovely natural setting alongside a hiking trail; neither the context of the German past nor a predominantly Judeo-Christian context existed. A suitable plot was purchased in the Hochstädten district of the Southern-Hessian city of Bensheim, alongside the Bergstraße.
Two years later, interested parties discovered that a former subcamp of a larger concentration camp was located underneath the plot purchased for the peace project. Its existence has been kept quiet for many years after the war ended. It was rather serendipitous that the plot for the
Jerusalem Friedensmal happened to be located here. Suddenly the theme from Berlin was back; how to commemorate the German past. This also complicated matters, as the project was now seen as political and its ideas in competition with the established commemorative culture. The circle had closed, and in this small town in the countryside would now realized an idea that was actually intended to be realized in the federal capital.

Small picture from the Tree of Life within the monument
Vandalism and anti-Semitism increasingly posed a threat to the development of the monument as well. Unfortunately, the well-established stakeholders that deal with Germany coming to grips with its own dark past barely noticed it. Was that because the vandalism was “only” directed towards a Peace Memorial, against the idea of a different-thinking person, of an outsider? Or was it due to a lack of courage in grappling with a difficult theme that society already engaged itself with? Or was it simply not taken seriously, this idea that was born “within Germany’s own borders”?

Recently, a trailer used for construction and to heavy to move with fewer than five people was shoved down the hillside, resulting in great material damage. The police refused to examine the site further. The press work has been difficult so far. Already at the beginning of the project, the editor-in-chief of a regional newspaper told the projects initiator “You will fail; your idea is too demanding for German media.” However, regional media did report on the situation. Another comment from the German media, concerning the national media: “Where is the scandal? Are you famous?”
Working with newer forms of media proved to be equally difficult, but necessary when the attacks started to threaten the existence of the monument, at the time still under construction. A German Facebook campaign for this Peace Memorial proved impossible; it had to be terminated due to excessive antisemitism. A similar campaign on Facebook in Israel and the US was very successful: more than 10,000 people participated in discussions over the span of two weeks. This marked the turning point for the monument project and is the very reason why this Peace Memorial still exists today at all.

Memorial Stone within the monument
This is a monument for life; a recognition of the Jewish cultural influences fits this representation seamlessly, as Judaism is in its very nature a religion of life. Not even the German atrocities of the past century managed to change this. If Germans were aware of the intrinsic connection between German culture and Judaism, they would experience a different and more personal sense of the cultural loss caused by the Nazi regime.
Stone of Encounter next to the Friedensmal (monument) bears the inscription “Yerushalayim”, Hebrew for Jerusalem. The name “Jerusalem” demonstrates an active recognition of also a Jewish root of our culture. Expressing it as such should become a matter of course in Germany. It also calls into mind the values of Yerushalayim, which is more than just the name of an Israeli city. It is a metaphor. The “heavenly Jerusalem” expresses a hope for peace. It does not refer to the world in its current state, but rather encourages people to aspire to it in the way they live, an aspiration that can only come from the heart. The monument is therefore designed to reach the hearts of people.
The project’s claim that “Only remembering doesn’t suffice” draws attention to the interconnectedness of remembering a dark past and signs of hope and new life. Remembering shouldn’t become an end in itself. So it is not a matter of deciding for or against the "memorials of the established culture of remembrance", for or against "this Peace Memorial as a new idea". It is about understanding that both in a totality complement each other so that together they finally reach the heart and mind of the human being. There should not be a "clean break" in people's hearts because they misidentify a positive responsibility for life today as a sense of guilt.

Visitors of the monument in Bensheim-Hochstädten
The German society has started to send far more welcoming signals. Recently, Buber Agassi, the granddaughter of Martin Buber and Israeli citizen, joined the Friedensmal Wendepunkt Association as its 40th member. Prof. Buber Agassi is a sociologist who has worked at universities such as Stanford and Harvard. She wrote a book on the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She was born in Heppenheim in the very area where the Jerusalem Friedensmal was built and where Martin Buber once lived until he had to flee from the Nazis. He went to Jerusalem.

This Monument for peace and freedom is no “Jewish monument”. It would even be a German transgression if a religiously open-minded association would construct a “Jewish monument”. It is in a sense a gesture of understanding, demonstrated by German society – to really understand encounters and admit to these. However, how might German society confront its own encounters that have been set in motion?
Friendliness and gentleness are required. As well as the courage to understand the failures made along the way. Otherwise, nothing will be learned and no understanding will be reached. One can not generally criticize a lack of courage in society and call for civil courage and then have no tolerance for the mistakes that happen when someone or something moves. Although it is important to make clear that the problems with this project were less in mistakes made on one side or the other. The problem was essentially a bad communication. If civic engagement is actually to be promoted, it requires communication structures that honor volunteerism with its burden on the committed.

Below the
Stone of Encounter next to the Friedensmal (monument), visitors can read the inscription “Where dust is turned to light”. The sentence is taken from a poem by Jewish Nobel Prize for Literature winner Nelly Sachs. She survived the Shoah and expressed her feelings as follows in her poem “Chorus of Abandoned Things”: “But who did not shake the dust from your yearning. You who halted there, where dust is turned to light.”  Actually, this sentence, written down only a few years after the Shoah, already sum up the history of this Monument for peace and freedom in Germany.

(Thomas Zieringer)

More informations and images about the project you can find here:

Post Scriptum

Sometimes things happen in life, that are so unlikely, that you wouldn't believe it, would it have been written as a screenplay for a movie: Not long after this article was published, the great Jewish history of our area became known to a wider public. The plane to which one looks from the Jerusalem Friedensmal is actually called "Jerusalem on the Rhine". Here there was a Jewish high culture with the city of Worms in its center in the High Middle Ages, which could even compete with the Jerusalem in Israel. Rashi, the famous commentator of Torah, lived here. When I wrote the name "Yerushalayim" on the Stone of Encounter, I didn't even know about this great Jewish history in our area. The information about the "Jerusalem on the Rhine" came to the public, as an initiative was seeking to gain the status of World Heritage for this Jewish past.

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