Never Forget, Never Again: Holocaust Memorials Are Reshaping Our Conception of Mass Murder, Prejudice, and Morality by Raising Awareness and Demanding a Permanent Place in Our Collective Memory. but Is That Enough to Help Stave off Future Genocides?
Svoboda, Elizabeth, Science & Spirit
IT IS DIFFICULT FOR ANY MUSEUM to truly touch all those who approach its doors, to draw them in, reach their hearts and minds, leave them with a personal impression of an event or time or place that is larger than they are. But ascend the ridge on the western edge of Jerusalem, feeling your legs shake in the unforgiving heat, and you will experience for yourself just a fraction of the suffering Jews endured as they sweltered in cattle cars en route to Auschwitz or hauled blocks of granite at Mauthausen. It is enough to help crystalize the horrors of the Holocaust--and at the same time, it is not nearly enough.
After reaching the top of the bank of hills, visitors descend into canyons dug into the area's original bedrock, which resemble the basement foundations of ancient ruins. Inscribed on each canyon wall are the names of small and large European Jewish communities exterminated during the Holocaust--5,000 in all. For the 2 million people who visit each year, Yad Vashem, Israel's 100 million dollar homage to the victims of the Holocaust, is a memorial touchstone, emphasizing the tragedy and scope of Nazi crimes against Jews so effectively that their obliteration from cultural memory is almost unthinkable.
By contrast, the small monument at the Umschlagplatz--the square in Warsaw, Poland, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were rounded up and then deported to the Treblinka death camp--is the memorial equivalent of a neglected garden. Shining in the sun from a distance, it's an apparently solid edifice of black and white marble. But close inspection exposes the striking exterior as a facade. The tiles that make up the monument's outer facing are barely half an inch thick, and some are beginning to come loose from their mortar foundations, revealing a filler of dirt and formless rock chunks. Dandelions sprout from cracks in the surrounding pavement. "It's falling apart," one Polish man explains to his companion. "The builders didn't use high-quality materials in the first place, and the site hasn't been maintained."
At the location of the former death camp at Chelmno, where between 170,000 and 360,000 Jews, mostly from Poland, were forced into vans and killed by carbon monoxide poisoning, the dwindling importance of remembering the past is even more apparent. The small memorial museum, located near cremation pits still flecked with bone fragments, is only slightly bigger than a walk-in closet. Its display cases, which contain but a small fraction of the personal effects of those murdered and the lists that consigned them to their fate, are covered with a fine layer of dust. Picking up a pen to sign the exhibition's guest-book, I notice that the only other visitor that day, a man from Canada, had written in a despairing scrawl, "Has Everyone Forgotten?"
Ask monument designers and stewards why Holocaust commemoration is significant, and you get a stream of straightforward and eminently practical answers: Memorials provide spaces for people to contemplate and question near-incomprehensible events; they are places of worship and mourning for those who have lost family members or friends; they provide a context in which survivors can feel comfortable revealing long-concealed truths about aspects of their experiences to their loved ones.
As the note in the Chelmno guestbook suggests, however, there's a seldom-acknowledged subtext to the visual language of memorials. In many ways, it's the scope, originality, and condition of a society's Holocaust monuments--and not its cloying official pronouncements about remembrance--that provide a realistic depiction of its attitude about Nazi crimes against humanity. These characteristics are concrete, physical evidence of the meaning a society ascribes to these transgressions, the condemnation it reserves for them, and the lessons it hopes to learn from them.
James Young, chair of the department of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, recalls how the memorial at Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp, evolved in tandem with the prevailing political landscape in Poland. …