The Arts: Memory in Many Forms
Around the world, artists and architects are constructing symbols to the past in glass, steel and stone.
With the opening of Germany’s national Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe last May in Berlin, many wondered whether the Holocaust-memorials boom had finally reached its apogee.
Thousands of monuments, preserved ruins, plaques, museums and study centers devoted to Holocaust remembrance dot European, American and Israeli landscapes. As the last generation of survivors begins to pass on, many seem almost desperate to leave behind a place, an object around which memory of the tragedy might live on. Moreover, as other forms of Jewish learning and traditional education wane among an ever more assimilated generation, the vicarious memory of past catastrophe serves increasingly as a center for Jewish identity and knowledge.
The displacement of 1,000 years of European Jewish civilization with 12 cataclysmic years is not a happy development. But instead of bemoaning the Holocaust-memory boom we need to recognize its place in contemporary life and try to fathom its consequences in the ways we understand and recall more recent mass murders, even genocides—in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, for example. Rather than offering formal critiques of these memorials, we need to examine who visits them and what the sites actually teach us about history and about ourselves.
Memory is never shaped in a vacuum. Both the reasons given for Holocaust monuments and the kinds of memory they generate are as varied as the sites themselves. Some remember war dead, others resistance and still others mass murder. All reflect past experiences and the current lives of their communities, as well as a state’s memory of itself. On a more specific level, memorials reflect the temper of the artists’ time and their architects’ schools of design.
Some memorials are built in response to traditional Jewish injunctions to remember; others, according to a government’s need to explain a nation’s past to itself. Where the aim of some is to educate and inculcate a sense of shared experience and destiny, others are conceived as ex-piations of guilt or as self-aggran-dizement. Still others are intended to attract tourists.
In addition to traditional Jewish iconography, every state has its own institutional forms of remembrance. As a result, Holocaust memorials inevitably mix national and Jewish figures, political and religious imagery.
In Germany, for example, memorials recall Jews by their absence, German victims by their political resis-tance. The new Berlin memorial, a gargantuan, undulating field of stelae designed by Peter Eisenman, had to address a double-edged memorial conundrum: How does a nation remember a people murdered in its name? How does a nation reunite itself on the bedrock of its crimes?
In Israel, Jewish martyrs and heroes are remembered side by side at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and around the country, both seemingly redeemed by the birth of the state. Throughout Poland, countless memorials in former death camps and across the countryside, such as the wall of gravestones near Kazimierz Dolny, commemorate the destruction through the figure of its murdered Jewish past. The mass murder of Jews is recalled as an intrinsic part of Poland’s national landscape of martyrdom, often through images of irreparable breaches and shattered vessels.
As the shape Holocaust memory takes in Europe and Israel is determined by political, aesthetic and religious coordinates, in the United States it is guided no less distinctly by the country’s experiences. Whether on Boston’s Freedom Trail; at Liberty State Park in New Jersey; just off the national Mall in Washington; or nestled in Miami’s community of Latin American immigrants, these sites enshrine not just the history of the Holocaust but also democratic and egalitarian ideals. In such settings, American memory itself is enlarged to include the histories of its immigrants, the recollection of events on distant shores that drove these immigrants to America.
In the end, Holocaust memorials should leave us with more questions than answers: What is remembered, why and toward what social, aesthetic and political ends? And finally, how do we respond to contemporary persecutions in light of the ways we now remember the Holocaust?
Professor James E. Young is chair of the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of numerous books on Holocaust art and architecture.