A Memorial Field

While in Berlin recently, I had occasion to visit the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and Information Centre.” Initiated by Leah Rosh and Eberhard Jäckel, this work was designed and built as the “Holocaust memorial for Germany.” It is composed of a series of stelae of varying heights on a field of hills, with the consequence being that you do not know from afar whether a seemingly tall stele is near or far from the ground.


It is hard to describe the feel of the monument. At the edge of it, people mill about, sitting on stelae eating snacks, visiting, arguing, and doing all the things people do in a park. But as soon as someone stands on one of the stelae, a security guard summons them down again.

Eventually I made my way to the middle of the field. Here, the columns were quite tall. People who were laughing and joking on the edges became a bit more taciturn here. It was a bit eerie, but even more off-setting was hearing the crying of children who invariably became disconnected from their parents. One child had crashed into a corner of one of the stelae and was inconsolable. Knowing the occasion for the memorial simply set me on edge.

Underground, beneath the memorial, is an information centre, which requires a security check. No one said a word after making it through the checkpoint, reading bits of history, fragments from letters, stories of families etc. The material was not unknown to me but I read it a bit differently after wandering through the stelae. It seems that the field set me askew, so that facts I knew before bore a new and more ponderous weight.

To say that the memorial is “effective” is to do it a grand disservice. Such language seems too utilitarian, and presumes a goal that is achieved: an item to be checked off of the “to do” list. No, this memorial is not done. It is still churning in me: stelae talking to my soul and silence waking me. I will be sitting with this one for a time, mindful that some lessons are not meant only to be learned but but to be lived resolutely – day in and day out.

Siege Song

Monday night our book club had the rare opportunity of having an author in  attendance.  Tamas Dobozy was with us as we discussed his acclaimed book Seige 13.  The book narrates the experiences of the Hungarians who endure the brutal occupation of Budapest in 1944.   Dobozy spoke of his experience as a child of a survivor, and as a member of the Hungarian expat community in Canada.  He gave us some background to the book, and as we queried him on the occasion of its writing, and the manner of its genesis, he spoke eloquently of the strange place of being in a community that has known trauma, and knows how to suppress it.

 

He spoke of the power of narrative as a tool to orient survivors of horrors.  He spoke of the gratitude of his community for his telling of the tale.  He, and we all, spoke of the manner in which communities suppress how they both have been done wronged and what they have done wrong.  Regarding the latter, he spoke of the manner in which Jews, the Roma, and homosexuals were betrayed in the era under consideration.  Evil endured and evil perpetuated – alike – were left unspoken.

 

Along the way, I asked him about the role of song, and the role of artists in the time leading up to the siege, and the time after.  He spoke of the heroic example of Bartók, who eloquently and passionately bore witness to the wrong of abuse both endured and perpetuated by the Hungarian people.  Bartók refused to be honoured by any plaque, or street name, or bust in his home country as long as fascists or communists were in charge.  During the war he escaped to the USA, where he died.

 

As I walked home afterwards, I wondered: how is it that artists are so often able to see clearly what others cannot, or refuse to see?  How is it that they find the courage to speak out when others keep quiet in the face of what they know should not be countenanced?  What well-spring of courage do they access that others of us seem to miss out on?  What do they imbibe while working at the arts, at what many consider to be decorative excess to the real stuff of life?

 

Of course there are always many unsung heros in times of siege and reigns of terror.  Quietly, many a mite has gnawed at the might of empires.  This must be recognized, but still, still, we do well to listen to our bards; to look deeply into the masterpieces of our contemporaries; to pay attention to our poets.  All of these have courage with their ear to the ground.  Here they hear slow trains coming, some of which have designs on deportation.