Memorializing the Holocaust -- the Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meanings by James E. Young

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James E. Young. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meanings. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. 416 pp.; 121 b/w ills. $35.00

In no other place nor time did one witness a phenomenon so sudden and so complex: never were so many human lives extinguished in so little time, and with such an equally lucid mixture of technical intelligence, fanaticism, and cruelty.--Primo Levi

In The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, James Young convincingly demonstrates the plurality of meanings hidden in many Holocaust memorials. Indeed, to read his text is not only to discover the wide range of forms imagined by artists to honor the memory of victims of the Holocaust but to see the meaning of these forms become denaturalized. Through a topological and semiological analysis of the ways the Holocaust is memorialized in countries close and far from what he calls "the topography of terror," Young deconstructs "the physical and metaphysical qualities of the memorial texts, their tactile and temporal dimension" (p. ix). He questions the validity of memorials, their capacity to preserve the truth. His thesis is that since memorials are so untrustworthy, the best way to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive is through the countermonument, a conceptual artwork showing the impossible task of objective memorization.

Were it not for the multiple meanings that can be read into artistic productions, this publication and the discipline of art history would not exist. Memorial texts in the form of monuments encountered in public spaces are often thought to be an exception to the ideal of artistic polysemy; for monuments to the heroes of revolutions, the dead soldiers of world wars, the victims of the Holocaust--to take the most obvious examples--are commissioned to communicate a specific moral message: to prevent new generations from forgetting the sufferings endured by their fore-bears, and to teach lessons of courage, of tolerance, of vigilance.

But, as President Ronald Reagan unwittingly revealed when he laid a wreath at the German war memorial at the Bitburg cemetery, a "lieu de memoire"(1) intended to preserve in the public mind the memory of those who died to save their country can contain alarming subtexts. At Bitburg, Young reminds us, Waffen SS men, Hitler's closest lieutenants and cruelest agents of his racist policies, are buried next to regular German soldiers, including Jews from World War I, thus erasing the singularity of the sinister SS from collective German memory. The SS are represented as universal victims of war on a par with those they sought to annihilate. Young approaches memorials to the Holocaust in the same mood of suspicion.

In Poland, where the Nazis built most of the extermination camps after they had taken over the country, the former extermination camps have been turned into memory sites of martyrdom for Jewish and non-Jewish Poles alike. The unembellished ruins of former death camps, together with symbolic though nonspecific abstract artistic monuments, such as Wiktor Tolkin's giant and somber "gate of hell" at Majdanek, and Adam Haupt and Franciszek Duszenko's installation of seventeen thousand tombstonelike granite shards around an obelisk at Treblinka, serve this purpose.

In Germany and Austria, two countries particularly reticent to face their past--Germany for obvious reasons, and Austria because Hitler's entry there in 1938 met acclaim and the Jewry of that country was wiped out--ambivalence reigns. Unable to erase the traces of the few death camps erected on their soil, governments have turned them into impeccably neat public parks with re-constitutions of some of the structures, making them landmarks like any other attraction for the tourist trade. Because these camps were primarily for political prisoners, and some Jews were transported there from elsewhere late in the war, the twenty sculptural monuments at Mauthausen each memorialize the deeds of political prisoners of a different nationality, with one monument for Jewish victims. …