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What is a memorial?

May 31, 2010

As I walked past the square I noticed a seemingly random arrangement of stones of some sort. While clearly laid out in an orderly fashion each possessed its own individuality, some taller than others, some tilted to the left or right. I asked what the place was and the answer was, “The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe.”

The next morning this same memorial was the first stop on our agenda. As we approached the square I noticed that each stone looked very much like a sarcophagus, but unadorned, with neither decoration nor inscription. It struck me that this seemed like a graveyard. An entire square filled with unmarked graves representing the Jews that had been murdered across Europe.
As I pondered the meaning of the stones having different heights I began to realize that each stone did not represent a single Jew, but many, and that the taller stones represented a greater number of individuals. However, little did I know how many. As I walked through the square I felt the stones grow larger, their shadow looming upon me. The stones which seemed at first only slightly taller now felt immense. I realized that as I walked the ground was sloping down, and the stone which seemed but a foot or two taller from outside the square was really 5 or 10. At the center of the square I felt an immense sense of isolation. Looking around I saw only gray stones. I could hear people wandering in other parts of the square, but I could not see them. I wanted to reach out and talk to someone, to share in this moment, but no one was there.

At this moment, from around the corner of a stone, burst several children playing hide-and-seek. My initial reaction was to be upset, to tell these young Germans that this is a place of death and that they should respect this sacred ground. But I stopped myself, I thought, “Is this really a place of death, or is this a place of life?” is this ground dedicated to the dead, or is it dedicated to the living that WE might remember those who have died? By playing in this square do these children dishonor the dead, or do they honor the value of life? I do not know the answer to these questions.

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2 comments

  1. I had the same reaction to the kids playing in the memorial; that they were perhaps being disrespectful. I’m still not entirely convinced that they weren’t being disrespectful to some extent, but at the same time I think that their actions say a few different things about the memorial. Firstly, I think that it speaks to the the basic humanity of the victims, in that even in a concentration camp setting you cannot completely destroy the innocence of children: kids will play. I think it is pertinant to point out that even Ann Frank had a positive view of human nature in the end. The fact that she died in a concentration camp however speaks to the absolute horror of the holocaust. The second thing that comes to mind when thinking about the children playing at the memorial is what the guide at Sachsenhausen said in regards to the reaction that a survivor of the camp had to similar things going on there: that it was good to hear laughter at this place in which there was so much suffering; that it demonstrated that the world could return to normal and that not all was lost.

    However, I do take issue with both of these points of view to the extent that genocide is still going on in the world and that we have not done much, if anything at all, to prevent it. Remembering the past and doing nothing to stop it from happening again is as bad as forgetting…


  2. Well, the memorial is difficult to grasp. The way you experienced it, is just one way to interpret the meaning of this memorial. I am therefore not surprised that children see it as a welcome playground. Nobody who initiated the erection of this site should complain about it. And in the end, Josh might just be right – by playing in this square, these children might just honor the value of life.



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