I have seen more memorials to dead Jews in the last two weeks than I have in the last 49 years.
My family and I have just returned from a trip to Berlin and Prague. While we were there, we followed the doings in Charlottesville as best we could, feeling far away and heartsick. I could almost understand how New Yorkers who were away from the city on 9/11 must have felt. It was horrid to stand on my street corner and watch the Twin Towers fall, but in many ways, it would have been worse not to be among my neighbors and friends, handing out water and holding each other’s hands.
I returned to America as Confederate monuments were being pulled down and dismantled throughout the South. Having seen over a dozen monuments, memorials, and museums dedicated to murderous history on my trip to Europe, I have thoughts.
Berlin is both a lively, hip city and a massive tribute to loss and death. You can still see the jagged seams of the Berlin Wall, and not just in places deemed official monuments. Thick, ugly slabs of concrete appear, jarringly, in parks and in yards. They’ve been decorated with glorious, bright graffiti, but it doesn’t hide what they once were: barriers that ripped families apart and divided a country. I found the out-of-context, sudden appearances of these slabs to be far more affecting than our scheduled visits to the ones deemed “official” repositories of memory: The East Side Gallery and Checkpoint Charlie. Being prepared for the latter made the experience of seeing them less potent.
I didn’t find either the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or the Topography of Terror Museum all that emotionally affecting—but I found both intellectually powerful. The former, designed by American Jewish architect Peter Eisenman and opened to the public in 2005, consists of 2,711 polished concrete stelae of different heights, placed evenly spaced throughout a 19,000-foot open space near the Brandenburg Gate. Many critics—including one for Tablet, and one for The New Yorker—find the memorial loathsome. (The Tablet piece was called “Blow Up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” which tells you exactly how loathsome.) They feel the monument lacks specificity (who killed these Jews? when?) and is too “cool, scientific, modern, detached: the operational logic of the murderers reified.” The lack of any human figures, names or dates “leaches the moral element from the historical event, shunting it to the category of a natural catastrophe. The reduction of responsibility to an embarrassing, tacit fact that ‘everybody knows’ is the first step on the road to forgetting.” (I respond that Germans are at absolutely no risk of forgetting. The 2001 fundraising drive to build the memorial used the slogan “The Holocaust never happened,” with smaller letters underneath saying, “There are still many people who make this claim. In 20 years, there could be even more.”)
I’d further argue that in context—in a city and in a country that has wrestled endlessly and authentically with its past, a city that contains over 300 memorials to the Holocaust—the memorial works. At its edges, the concrete pillars are low and unintimidating. But as you walk deeper into the forest of columns, they get taller. You can no longer see and hear the busy street around you. It gets dark as the columns loom above you. They recall smokestacks, coffins, a cemetery. They aren’t perfectly straight anymore. Some cant inward a bit over your head, like pushed-sideways stones in a graveyard. The cobbled ground under your feet gets uneven and hilly. Eisenman stated in his project the sculpture “aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” It feels depersonalized and deliberately obfuscating; you worry about getting turned around because you can’t see out. You look for other people inside with you, and feel relieved to see them, and then annoyed when they’re playing hide-and-seek or taking duck-face selfies against the pillars.
Tablet’s writer called a visit to the memorial “a pilgrimage of performative guilt” that “expiates your imagined sins, leaving the real sins, and the potential for real sins, unperturbed.” But not everyone visiting the monument feels such indulgent, fake guilt; they don’t even know what they’re visiting. Or worse, they don’t care. Kids play; millennials duck-face. It’s what they do. That, too, is part of the experience: It’s up to the visitor to create meaning, to put the natural behavior of human beings together with the inhuman messaging of the monument itself. I found myself seething at people’s misbehavior and then pondering my own fury. The pairing of sculpture and people populating it felt very “b’chol dor vador” to me—we’re all capable of joy, silliness, and if we’re not careful, complicity in evil. If you play Pokemon Go at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or at Auschwitz, are you human or inhuman?
I loved the Israeli-born, Berlin-based artist Shahak Shapira’s project “Yolocaust,” which juxtaposed selfies shared on social media (showing people acting narcissistically and frivolously in the monument) with images of the actual Holocaust. Shapira noted that he’d take down the pictures if the people who posted them wrote to him at an address that contained the phrase “undouche me.” Within a week, all 12 people pictured had written to him to apologize for their behavior.
While I was there, though, the selfie brigade was in full force. More somberly, the columns keep getting defaced by swastikas. For all the concern that people don’t or don’t want to know what the memorial is for, it’s clear that others know entirely too well. Eisenman, who was horrified by “Yolocaust,” noted, “A memorial is an everyday occurrence, it is not sacred ground.” Clearly. For better and worse.
Nevertheless, I appreciated the monument’s dispassionate remoteness in juxtaposition with the Topography of Terror. The latter is a massive wave of faces, dates, names, and specificity. It’s exhausting. Located where Gestapo and SS headquarters once stood, the museum traces the history of the rise of Nazism and its aftermath (noting the number of Nazis who remained in public life and even held office after the war); outside the museum, in a gash in the ground near the longest extant stretch of Berlin Wall rubble, is a timeline and snippets of victims’ stories and lives. There is no attempt to hide from responsibility. But because there is so much data, it doesn’t feel moving.
It’s essential, though, that neither monument feels sentimental. The notion of plopping a giant Star of David on the cold, clean columns of the Monument to the Murdered Jews is vile and mawkish, artistically and emotionally. (There is an underground section in the middle of the columns that provides some history of Nazism and its Jewish victims, but I didn’t know it was there, and its absence didn’t affect my experience at all.) And somehow tacking on a “we’re really, really, sorry—sadface!” on the Topography of Terror would feel woefully inadequate; taking ownership by stating exactly what they’d done feels more German and more authentic.
Prague, too, can feel like one big memorial to dead Jews. Once a huge, thriving community, it is now home to only 1,500-2,500 Jews. Four gorgeous synagogues are now museums; a cemetery is thousands and thousands of monuments upon monuments. The walls of one shul are covered with names upon names of the murdered; ownerless sacred texts and ritual objects are in glass cases everywhere. But what’s most affecting is the art by the children of Terezin (Theresienstadt in German)—because it’s so specific and familiar. It looks like my children’s art. The crayon and pencil still look fresh. One child made a “filmstrip,” a long piece of paper with a painstakingly drawn Mickey Mouse cartoon on it, as a birthday gift for a pal. The fact that it’s Mickey—we know Mickey!—is somehow ultra-immediate and heart-stopping. In a few cases, there are photos of the children who drew the pictures—knowing that this smiling, sweet, round-cheeked boy who drew this typical little-kid colorful scribble was headed for a concentration camp is devastating. It’s pain writ so small and so specific, it feels both huge and graspable.
And in both Prague and Berlin, and throughout Europe, there are Stolpersteine (literally “stumbling stones”), little blocks of brass embedded in the cobblestones in front of the former homes of Holocaust victims. The creation of German artist Gunter Demnig, who installs them all himself, Stolpersteine are in sidewalks in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Lithuania, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and Ukraine. As of April 2017, there were over 61,000 of them in about 1,200 places. Tablet’s writer who hated the Memorial to the Murdered Jews loved the Stolpersteine for their specificity … but again, not everyone appreciates them. A couple in Amsterdam issued numerous legal challenges to get one removed from in front of their house. (At various times they said it reminded them of a previous resident’s murder in an uncomfortable way, drew crowds that compromised their privacy, “compromised the atmosphere” of their expensive neighborhood, lowered property values, and reminded them of their dead child.) Munich has no Stolpersteine at all because the leader of the local Jewish community there feels that allowing people to walk on the names of the murdered is a further insult to them. Stolpersteine, like all other monuments to Jews, have been defaced with scratches, black paint, and reminders of the neo-Nazi “14 words.” And again, there are people who simply don’t know what they are. Unlike the Monument to the Murdered Jews, they’re a cinch to step over without seeing. A Times of Israel writer noted in an investigation last week that while most residents of a Salzburg neighborhood knew what the Stolpersteine were, three dozen tourists surveyed did not. Most didn’t see them at all.
I love the Stolpersteine. They remind me of my beloved CHALK, the more recent initiative to write the names and ages of victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in chalk in front of the places they used to live, along with the date of their death: March 25, 1911. The power of CHALK is in both its impermanence (the chalk washes away) and its permanence (we do this every year), forcing us to remember anew. It’s specific in its tribute to these (mostly young, mostly female, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant) victims, but sweeping in its demand that we not become complacent about memory, activism, immigration protections, workplace safety, and labor rights.
Not every memorial works for everyone. We respond to art, discomfort, and demands for action differently. We grieve differently. That’s why we need the Topography of Terrors, the Memorials to the Murdered Jews, the Stolpersteine. There is no right way to mourn or feel.
What we don’t need are monuments to hate. Statues of Confederate leaders and Judensau (traditional sculptures common in medieval European cities that show Jews sucking the nipples of pigs, having sex with pigs, and eating the shit of pigs) belong in museums, but not in town squares or on public buildings. It’s wrong to erase our shameful history … but it’s wrong to celebrate it, too.
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