June 10, 1999
A Way of Remembering
(News item: On June 25, the German Bundestag will vote whether or not to go forward with a plan to build a Jewish monument in Berlin. The design, by American Jewish architect Peter Eisenman, was selected by a five-member committee; they considered 25 invited submissions. According to Professor James Young, an American Jew and the only non-German and Jewish participant on the committee, there is a strong likelihood that the Bundestag will vote to approve.)
I don't mean to be a skeptic, but I have come to wonder what precisely are the reasons for constructing another Holocaust memorial. In Germany's favor I would assume there is a desire to pay homage to the Jews murdered during Hitler's reign, and not incidently to discover as well how to deal with the nation's memories of shame. Hence the artistic rendering, the visual symbol for all to reflect upon.
Not to place too fine a point on it, I realize that my enthusiasm for this expression of national remorse is somewhat tepid. My preference would be to see Germany, and the U.S. too, consider another form of action, one that might resonate for generations to come. (More about that later.)
At present, both Jews (particularly in America) and Germans have undertaken a number of serious efforts to grapple with the Holocaust, in part to achieve openness and in part to reach for some kind of individual and national closure. The American Jewish Committee, for example, has joined with Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation to promote visits and dialogues and cultural exchanges between Jews and Germans on an ongoing basis. Meanwhile, the German government has played host to Jewish journalists (myself included), inviting us to meet and talk with Jews and non-Jews of our choosing. There are all sorts of multifaceted exchange programs and, on the part of Germany, an active relationship with Israel.
We Jews in America, on our side, have gathered video testimonies from survivors, created curricula for teaching the Holocaust in schools and been busy erecting (educational) museums and monuments. Now the Germans will add still another Jewish memorial, this one to be built close to Berlin's center; one more gesture of good will.
Is this the answer, the closure and expiation that Jews and Germans seek? I think not. There is no gainsaying the virtue and benefits of all these endeavors. But I doubt they will provide the relief we want. I find myself disturbed that the Berlin monument in remembrance of the Jews will be designed by Peter Eisenman, an American-Jewish architect. Could they not have chosen a German architect to grapple imaginatively with remembrance, and to participate in a national process: something akin to an all-consuming dialogue within Germany about the necessity and value of creating such a space --even if the culmination of such a national discussion ended with a negative decision?
Nor do I believe that permanent, inanimate visual sites tend to produce catharsis. There are exceptions -- namely, the Vietnam War memorial in Washington. But even here I question the meaning and impact of the space two or three generations down the road. Today we look for the names of friends and relatives who died in Southeast Asia; we trace the letters at the memorial with our fingers as though touching their faces one last time; and we weep for their and our loss.
But who will remember the names and faces 50 years from now? And who will connect, then, with the Jews whose lives were snuffed out so wantonly and violently by the Third Reich? Or acknowledge the savagery and responsibility of the German oppressors? I think of the lifeless statues in the small towns of New England and the South that honor those who died in the Civil War, and how we pass by them with barely a nodding glance.
Perhaps that is what we desire in the decades ahead: the memories and the pain and the shame buried with the dead. After experiencing all the dialogue and the videos, the educational programs and the psychotherapy, finally relief. The days of remembrance put behind us once and for all.
I realize that is not an outcome I would encourage. I do not want an end to the memory or to the pain. All problems are not soluble, and all endings are not happy. We learn to live with our scars and to accept, sadly, the inability to achieve closure. Indeed, it may be important for us to keep the wounds fresh and alive so that we never forget them.
I wish the German government had invited playwrights and directors and acting companies to compete instead of architects and artists. They could have produced pageants and plays and monologues, scenes and dramas that actors from this time forward would perform for us -- in large stadiums for the whole community (somewhat like the ancient Greeks) and in small village squares. Some of the plays would involve the audience, suddenly become chorus and/or players; and some would simply have us serve as witnesses,moved to tears for the tragedy that took place once long ago, and which we never have been able to repair. --Gene Lichtenstein
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