Memory's Touchstones

Article excerpt

Whatever resolution will be found to the controversy over the proposed Berlin monument commemorating the murdered Jews of Europe, it is already clear that, in large-scale public efforts of this kind, the process itself is becoming as important as the outcome. A kind of virtual monument has already been built, the residue of all the planning, scheming, competing. Regardless of the result, it will carry for a long time marks of the original debate.

This may not be a bad thing at all. For while I personally enjoy looking at those strange stones which mildly disturb a crowded city landscape, suggesting like ancient tombs that the busy passerby should pause and reflect a little, it remains true, as Robert Musil pointed out, that these urban sculptures soon become invisible. Legends keep some of them interesting--or exile does. After the communist regime was toppled in Hungary, Budapest erected a sculpture garden at a safe distance from the city, to accommodate the gigantic statues and tableaux that used to tower over it. They dwell there, absurd, larger than life, in decent, self-supporting retirement (there is an admissions fee).

The future may not be easier on democratic monuments. The passage of time is cruel to memorial sculptures, whatever their politics. Yet a memory of the original public controversy may preserve interest in the final product, in the ingenious memorial which might never have been built because of conflict about its necessity or adequacy. A veil of words and discourses bestows meaning on constructions always relatively meaningless for the human eye, or it will make that meaning more enigmatic--like Christo swathing the Reichstag in white gauze.

Such considerations, of course, do not in any way release us from thinking about creating a responsible public memory through ambitious national memorials or other kinds of pedagogy.

My own preference is to strengthen public memory through literature and history, in the schools and universities. All the more so in Germany: readings, research, visits to the memorial sites and museums, listening to survivor testimony--these must be the principal means. Yet so much depends on the teachers, who themselves have not been formally trained to teach the Holocaust, or Jewish history, and often prefer to avoid an episode so devastating to Germany's national self-esteem. Even devoted and well-educated teachers find it a formidable task to transmit knowledge of the Holocaust to the young, who are very vulnerable to shock, and for whom bad teaching on these issues merely activates strong psychological defenses. Tokenism, the symbolic inclusion of a subject in the curriculum, or a sentimental emphasis on extant cultural relics from kiddush cups to cemeteries, results in a veneration of ruins that is no better than discharging guilt onto the financing of memorial cement.

To be truly effective, education must be both cognitive and emotional. This challenge is particularly daunting in regard to the Holocaust, and not in Germany alone. German youngsters should not be taught the historical and political facts differently because they are German. But they may have grandparents who were involved, and even in the future Germans may react more strongly than in countries that have a less direct responsibility for the infamous events under scrutiny. Surely the emotional charge, the Betroffenheit, will always be greater among them. They will need more time to reflect, to absorb what they have learned, to find a way of expressing what they feel. This is where a memorial can play its part, but only if its symbolism and ceremonies are integrated with research and continuous thought. Education's dual aim--to give an affective edge to intellectual recognition and to provide a creative outlet for the emotions--has relevance beyond the young, for any person, of any age, who cultivates a civic consciousness.

To be effective, a national memorial must create a place of assembly, as well as one of reflection, prayer, and personal emotion. …