Memorials and Monuments

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Memorials and Monuments

What should memorials of mass murder or genocide accomplish? Are they intended to honor the dead, even if, all too often, there are too many to name? Are they meant to provide a place for people to gather, mourn, and find solace? Or is their role to document the events and perpetrators of the crime and contextualize the crime in history? Is their ultimate goal to shift the focus from mass murder to future peace? For many faced with the grim task of building such memorials and monuments, the answer seems to be some or all of the above. And it is often the case that what is omitted from the memorial may be more telling than what is included.

Naming the dead is a time-honored way of acknowledging their sacrifice, because in a sense any mass memorial is also, in part, a cemetery. An important precedent was set by Sir Edwin Lutyens's World War I memorial, Thiepval Arch in the Somme, which contains the engraved names of soldiers lost during that war, listed by military unit on the interior of the memorial's massive arches. Maya Lin followed this practice, listing the names of dead or missing soldiers in order of their death or disappearance on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. People respond to this display by touching the names and leaving objects at the base of the memorial walls. This has led later memorial and monument designers to incorporate provisions for public response. Thus, listing the names of the dead is a major component of the 9/11 memorial project in New York.

Without names, and sometimes even with them, relics of the dead are considered powerful memorials. In Rwanda, where over 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were murdered in April 1994, skeletons were stored for a time in schools and churches as grim reminders of what occurred. The Roman Catholic Church in Ntarama has become a memorial, for it contains the remains of people who died there during the killings. At Hiroshima, where the United States dropped its first nuclear bomb in 1945, ashes of the deceased are incorporated into in a central mound in the Memorial Peace Park. For the 9/11 memorial in New York, an underground chamber has been designated to hold cremated remains of those who perished, as well as portions of the physical structure of the World Trade Center Towers, known as the slurry wall. Relics of structures, such as A-Bomb Dome (previously the Industrial Promotional Hall) in Hiroshima, prove to be lastingly evocative structures, providing physical evidence of past destruction in a radically altered present.

Without physical evidence, the deceased, like the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, are often honored by eternal flames. Sometimes a single such flame stands for many or even all of the victims. Alternatively, the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial complex in Jerusalem, has the names of the 22 largest Nazi concentration camps inscribed on the ground, and the name of each camp serves to stand for the victims who were murdered therein. In an attempt to encapsulate memory in a variety of expressive forms, Yad Vashem also includes a history and an art museum, a hall of names (a constantly updated record of those who died in World War II), a separate Children's Memorial, a synagogue, a Memorial Cave, and an archival library.

The desire for green places to mourn the dead and soothe the living, an essential aspect of established cemetery practice, is incorporated into many genocide memorials as well. Hiroshima's memorial complex is also a park. Jerusalem's Yad Vashem has many outdoor spaces and paths for walking from one structure to the next. The above-ground portion of New York's 9/11 memorial will include a landscaped park or garden.

Museums have taken on a critical function for remembering and contextualizing genocide. Holocaust Museums in many cities are frequently intended to serve also as memorials, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Serving as a national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history, it also is considered a national memorial to the millions murdered during the Holocaust. It combines its scholarly function with collections of artifacts (including a very moving collection of victims' shoes), films, photos, and oral histories.

Memorial museums and memorial complexes try to encapsulate the horror of genocide in a variety of ways, but sometimes it is the single symbolic structure or the individual work of art that resonates most. In a residential section of Berlin, removed from the memorial building activity of the center, an apparently innocuous bronze sculpture of a table and two chairs stands in the middle of the Koppenplatz, in a quarter where Eastern European immigrants once lived and where Jewish institutions co-existed with their Christian counterparts. This is Karl Biedermann's sculpture, called The Abandoned Room (Der verlassene Raum), and in it one senses rather than sees its underlying strangeness. The chair and table are just slightly larger than life, and there is a second, overturned chair lying on the ground. Nearby there is an inscription written by the Holocaust poet Nellie Sachs. Like Baroque still-life paintings with their abruptly overturned crystal goblets and pewter bowls, these simple pieces of furniture, as well as their location in an otherwise normal residential site, suggest a life suddenly interrupted. Part of the first large East German Holocaust memorial project, commissioned in 1988 but realized only in 1996, the sculpture and accompanying inscription commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht and recalls the Jewish citizens of Berlin prior to World War II. It is an effective memento mori sculpture, evoking not only thoughts of the fragility of earthly life, but also the eerie sense of individuals who have apparently vanished without a trace.

Even more profoundly disturbing is Israeli sculptor Micha Ullman's Library (1994–1995), situated in the Bebelplatz in Berlin. This work marks the site of the infamous Nazi book burning of May 1933. A bronze plaque on the ground quotes the German poet Heinrich Heine: "Where they burn books/At the end they also burn people." Immediately adjacent, flush to the ground, is a glass-covered view into a subterranean but glaringly lit room with floor-to-ceiling walls of empty shelves painted a stark white. During the day the now scratched viewer's portal is often fogged, rendering the empty library all but invisible, and many people stroll past without noticing, or even walk right over it. At night, however, people are drawn to the light that emanates from the sculpture. Thus, the very ground of Berlin, like the unconscious mind, seems to suppress trauma during the day, only to release it, hauntingly transformed into the night.

SEE ALSO Architecture; Memory of Survivors


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Senie, Harriet F. (1999). "In Pursuit of Memory: Berlin, Bamberg, and the Specter of History." Sculpture (April):46–51.

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Young, James E. (1993). The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Young, James E., ed. (1994). The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History. Munich: Prestel-Verlag.

Harriet F. Senie

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Memorials and Monuments

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