Whenever I travel to a foreign city I always revisit sites of trauma relating to my Jewish heritage. After performing this ritual so many times I have begun to stop questioning the reasons why I make these trips. This demonstrates how the notion of ritual “has the illocutory force of authority itself” (Feuchtwang 282). Whether I visit a concentration camp or the remains of a Jewish ghetto I hear the same story over and over. The story is about the repeated attempt for members of society to commit genocide of the Jewish people. The various symbolic objects that I view attempt to convey the “horrified understanding of how the Holocaust and other genocides happened, in the hope, however forlorn, of preventing them from ever happening again” (Feuchtwang 288).
Memory as Renewal: Dachau Concentration Camp
One of the most compelling holocaust memorials that I viewed in Europe was at Dachau concentration camp outside Munich, Germany. At the camp, visitors can follow the paths that the Jews took on the way to their deaths. For example, one can see the area in the bushes in which they were lined up before they were to be shot. People can also see holes in the fence of the bullets that were shot. Along this walk the memorial appears almost out of nowhere, arising from the bushes. The design looks as though it might be made of grey cement and seems to resemble a tombstone. This is symbolic of the Jews who dug their own graves before their deaths and were buried without any identification. On top of the tomb is a rectangular shape with the words “do not forget” in three languages: German, Hebrew and English. On top of that is a circle with a Menorah on top. I think that one of the reasons that this memorial is compelling to its viewers is because of its modern design. The shape of the menorah is similar to the architectural designs within postwar synagogues. The updated and polished aspect of the memorial evokes a message of passing down our rituals of remembrance. By inserting it in a space with rich greenery it symbolizes the rebirth and renewal of the Jewish heritage. It does not allow viewers to try to dislocate from the event by placing it far past in the history. It suggests that every generation must consciously work to “remember” the trauma that occurred.
Memory as Testimonial: Anne Frank House
The Anne Frank House recreates Anne’s memory by showing viewers the places where she and her family hid during the Holocaust. It attempts to instill remembrance, while enacting a form of pedagogy. As I walked through the physical spaces in which Anne lived, I read quotes of Anne’s diary relating to each spot. For example, in the area of the “Secret Annex” where Anne and her family hid, a quote is written by Anne in 1942: “During the day our curtains can’t be opened, not even an inch.” This demonstrates how “practices of memory are linked to truth and testimony” (Rotherberg 163).
The space is haunting because it provides traces of Anne Frank’s innocence and youth. It causes viewers to identify with her and the everyday life that she lived. For example, when visitors go into her room they can see it decorated with images of popular culture such as famous film stars. When viewers enter the family room, they see markings on the wall measuring the growth of Anne and her sister Margot. By presenting these commonplace details it contrasts with the fact that the events that occurred were so unthinkable. By recreating the house as Anne lived it presents an eerie feeling of unfinished business and points to the premature nature of her death.
Anne Frank House
Memory as Isolation/Fragmentation: Berlin
Having been primed with vast experience with Holocaust memorials, I find myself deeply uncomfortable encountering memorials that do not fit within the previous taxonomy. Since I have been indoctrinated into the specific ritual, I expect to enter a space with intense emotions and engage in a cathartic experience. This provides me with closure at the end of the experience so that I can “forget” until the next memorial. However, this was not the case when I viewed the holocaust “countermonument” in 2011. My friends and I were taking a walking tour of the Berlin, viewing a diverse array of street art, funky sculptures and abandoned warehouses. After a lunch break of bratwurst, our tour guide led us into what we thought was an ugly cement park. As I walked in between the cement blocks, my feelings quickly shifted from the collective group excitement and curiosity to fragmentation and confusion. I had spent most of the tour side by side with my friends, commenting to one another our analyses of interesting sites. The holocaust memorial, however, does not provide enough space to walk next to another person; it leaves you no choice but to separate yourself from the group. In a big public space such as Dachau or the Anne Frank House, I usually look to other people to know the appropriate way to react. If I see others publicly crying and grieving then it will trigger me to do the same. At the holocaust memorial I was unable to rely on outside images as symbols of the event. I was left with my personal thoughts, which took the form of awkward and uncomfortable feelings. This represents the goal of current German artists who argue that “conventional memory seals memory off from awareness altogether” (Young 96).
walking tour of Berlin
my walk through the memorial
Memory as Disavowal: Shoah Memorial
My most recent pilgrimage was to the Shoah memorial on Monday. When I arrived at the memorial, I was confused at where to place it among all of my past experiences with Holocaust memorials. The Shoah did not have an explicit emotional rhetoric (Dachau, Anne Frank House) but it was also not abstract or oppositional (Berlin). Before entering, I engaged in the familiar ritual of viewing names of people from France who were deported. Once I went inside, I was shocked at the absent space and lack of information. The Shoah seemed to pose as a museum, but made minimal reference to the detail of events that occurred during the Holocaust. In addition, it felt suspicious to me that the memorial had only recently opened in 2005. This caused me to feel that the museum was used “to order and regulate social relations in different ways” (Bennett, as cited in Thomas 214). It makes me think of our class discussion yesterday of how memory needs to take the form of materiality to be believable. It seemed that France was engaging in the performative act of creating a memorial with the motivation to move on.
wall of names at the Shoah
Whether these memorials conjure feelings of sadness, anxiety, confusion, alienation, anger and/or isolation/fragmentation, I always leave the ritual with a void that is unable to be fulfilled. This represents the inadequacy and instability of the ritual memorial practice itself. In addition, the fact that I favored the explicit memorials of Dachau and the Anne Frank House may be rooted in the impulse to remember so that I can quickly forget. The diversity of these memorials shows that there is no “right way” to symbolize the trauma of events that can never be adequately represented to begin with.
Feuchtwang, Stephen. “Ritual and Memory.” Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates. By Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarz. New York: Fordham UP, 2010. Print.
Rothberg, Michael. “”Between Auschwitz and Algeria: Multidirectional Memory and the Counterpublic Witness.” Critical Inquiry. 33 (2006): Print.
Thomas, Julie. “The Manipulation of Memory and Heritage in Museums of Migration.” Heritage, Memory & Identity. By Helmut K. Anheier and Yudhishthir Raj. Isar. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011. Print.
Young, James E. “Memory, Countermemory, and the End of the Monument.” At Memory’s Edge. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2000. Print.