Commemorating to Forget, Part 1

If you’ve never seen the movie The History Boys you absolutely should.[1]

The History Boys.

The History Boys.

One specific line in the movie has always stood out to me, in fact it gave me the idea for my senior thesis in undergrad.  At this point in the film the teacher and his students are looking at a British World War I memorial.  The teacher, Mr. Irwin, gives his students an atypical explanation of the purpose of memorialization:

It’s not “lest we forget,” it’s “lest we remember.”  That’s what all this is about—the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

Irwin tells his class that without the monuments to the dead, the British might remember that collectively their country was as eager for World War I as anyone else.  Instead, they can use their memorials and monuments as a way to focus their memory on the death and destruction of the war, and ignore their complicity in allowing it to happen.  The event itself is remembered and memorialized so that the details and potentially difficult truths surround it can be forgotten.

After I returned from Poland I had to write a reflection on some issue that I grappled with during my time there that was due today.  Like any good student I waited until this morning to start on it (don’t judge me).  In reflecting on my time in Poland I was reminded once again of the use of memorials to shape memory and of commemorating to forget.  While commemoration and memorialization of the Holocaust is important, both Jewish and non-Jewish commissioned commemoration in Poland seeks to glorify or commemorate some aspects of these years while ignoring or obscuring others.

*A caveat before I go on, this criticism does not solely apply to Polish commemoration of the Holocaust.  It most certainly also applies to American commemoration of these events and likely — though I haven’t studied them — Holocaust memorials across Europe.*

Commemoration and memorialization produced under communist rule is obviously guilty of seeking to shape memory.  These monuments vilify the “Hitlerites” and mourn the victims.  On the site of the Płaszów concentration camp in Krakow, the original memorial erected in the 1960s merely states “In tribute to martyrs murdered by the Hitlerite genociders, 1943-1945.”

The front of the Communist-era generic "victims" of the "Hitlerite genociders."

The front of the Communist-era memorial at Płaszów.  Photo courtesy of Grant Harward.

There is no mention of who these “martyrs” were or why they were killed.  Communist-era memorialization commemorates the dead, but obscures their identities.  Those who were murdered by the Nazis were not individuals.  They were not Jews, Roma, homosexuals, or Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They were, purely and simply, opponents of fascism.  And while it is undeniably true that millions of Poles who opposed the Nazis were murdered, characterizing all the victims as such was a clearly calculated move by the communist government.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial, built in 1948 is also guilty of this attempt to shape memory, although not by the communists.  The immense memorial has only three lines of text “The Nation of Israel to the Martyrs and Saints.”  Instead of words, the focus is on the images.  The front of the memorial glorifies the resistance fighters.  These men are strong, heroic, and they are ready to fight.  Literally sculpted so that they leap out of the monument, these figures are clearly meant to inspire awe and reverence with their determination to resist even in the face of certain death.

Detail of the front of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial.  Photo courtesy of Grant Harward.

Detail of the front of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial. Photo courtesy of Grant Harward.

This image is juxtaposed with the image on the reverse of the monument: an inlaid frieze of victims headed to their death.  These individuals, rather than being glorified and carved out of the stone itself are diminished in importance by being carved into it.  They are not the fighters and they do not resist but instead walk mournfully to their deaths.

The frieze on the back of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial.  Photo courtesy of Grant Harward.

The frieze on the back of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial. Photo courtesy of Grant Harward.

The difference in these two sides of the memorial are striking and is not at all coincidental but once again illustrate a clear agenda. This immediately post-war memorial exemplifies the insistence of Israel and many Jews at the time of its construction, to glorify and accentuate the legacy of Jewish resistance and uprising in an attempt to combat characterizations of the Jews as going to their deaths like lambs to the slaughter.

Recent commemoration is not immune to commemoration to forget either.  The survivor’s park in Łodz celebrates resistance and survival: a monument to Żegota, the underground resistance organization to help Polish Jews; a huge memorial to the Polish “Righteous Gentiles” who saved Jews; the names of survivors from Łodz inscribed on the borders of the garden path; and of course the quintessential Jan Karski bench.[2]

Memorial to the Polish "Righteous Among the Nations" or "Righteous Gentiles."

Memorial to the Polish “Righteous Among the Nations” or “Righteous Gentiles.”  Photo courtesy of Grant Harward.

These memorials convey a message about the heroism of individuals who chose to resist the German occupation to help Jews and of admiration and awe of those survivors who overcame the odds and the German determination to annihilate the Jews.  Resistance and survival are rightly commemorated, and yet their commemoration allows for complicity and indifference to be ignored.

In stark contrast to the communist-era memorials, and probably in response to them, many memorials constructed since the fall do say why the victims were murdered: because they were Jews.  In attempting to highlight the Jewish narrative of the Holocaust, these memorials hide the existence—whether intentionally or unintentionally—of other victim groups.  They consistently ignore or trivialize the fact that while the Jews were the primary target of the Nazis, there were also millions of non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  Though there are some, like those at the deportation square or cemetery in Łodz, which commemorate other victim groups, many contemporary memorials are only one step up from their communist-era counterparts: they tell part, but still not all of the story.


[1] You could also probably see the play, but I’m not sure the line I love is in there so that doesn’t prove my point.

[2] Karski was a famous Polish resistance fighter who smuggled himself into the Warsaw ghetto in order to accurately report the conditions to the Polish government in exile.  It’s a “thing” in Poland to have memorials to Karski that are a bench with a statue of Karski and a place for someone to sit next to him.

4 thoughts on “Commemorating to Forget, Part 1

  1. I’ve loved reading your posts from your trip (and beyond). This post made me think of the memorial art project that’s going in Germany lately called Stolpersteine. http://www.stolpersteine.com/

    The artist places small golden cobblestones in front of Holocaust victims last known residences with their names, approximate birth and death dates, and possibly even where they died. I haven’t experienced them yet myself, but I’ve heard that more and more are appearing and you can’t help but stop, read them, and think about the individuals that once walked those very same streets.

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and wisdom!

    • Oh yes, I’ve heard about this project! I’ve heard some people criticize it saying that the cobblestones are too small and that you don’t really notice them, but that seems like on an individual level. On a collective level, especially if many are starting to appear and in concentrated in specific areas, I imagine they must be incredibly powerful.

  2. Pingback: From Auschwitz to Skokie | Commemorating to Forget, Part 2

  3. Pingback: Laura Ashley Pearce | Commemorating to Forget, Part 2

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