Is there such as thing as too much memory?
August 14, 2004 8:40 AM   Subscribe

Munich Bans Memorial Plaques Munich has decided to ban memorial plaques to Jewish, Sinti and German citizens deported and murdered during World War Two. Jewish leaders, fearful that the plaques would stir up anti-Semitic fervor, supported the ban. These plaques are the work of a German artist, Gunter Demnig. ”He first had the idea in the early 1990s when he was unveiling a memorial for the Sinti and Roma victims of the Holocaust. “An elderly woman approached him and insisted that "no Gypsies ever lived here". "It is so easy for people to deny something. I wanted to ensure that this would not happen," he says. (BBC).” This reminder of the holocaust brought to mind the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, as well as the Viet Nam Memorial and the AIDS quilt -- monuments that really changed me.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk (21 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm still a bit new making posts. I don't want to incite a bashing session on Germans. I'm genuinely interested in the question, is there such a thing as too many memorials?

Are there any memorials-- actual or virtual-- that made a lasting impression, (positive or negative) on you?
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 8:44 AM on August 14, 2004

This is a great idea, and even the fact that they'll be walked on works. There seems to always be this tension in Germany between recognizing what was done, and not talking about it anymore and moving on. Munich, WTF?

The AIDS quilt, the telephone poles and walls plastered with "missing" flyers right after 9/11, those MIA bracelets during Vietnam when i was young, the Anne Frank house, The empty theater in Amsterdam where people were held before transport, the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin, and the Jewish cemetery in Prague....
posted by amberglow at 9:32 AM on August 14, 2004

There seems to always be this tension in Germany between recognizing what was done, and not talking about it anymore and moving on.

The last time I was in Rotterdam I walked by a train station that was a central point for the deportation of Jews. There was no sign, no plaque. I took a couple of pictures.
While walking slowly around the small station, putting my hand on the wall, two young Dutch mothers walked past, one with a stroller, and muttered something about "dead past."
posted by the fire you left me at 9:52 AM on August 14, 2004

Way to let the anti-semites win, Munich.
posted by rainking at 9:52 AM on August 14, 2004

We should never forget. I question why the jewish voice counsels against - I think that's pandering to latent racism in Europe (we Brit's are far from immune to anti-semitism).

A plaque outside every ex-jewish home, and on buildings like the train station, is the least we can do - esp. when militant Islamists are on the asendant in some cities.
posted by dash_slot- at 6:32 AM on August 15, 2004

Now, there are more than 3,600 stones across Germany in 45 cities.

I noticed these "Stolpersteine" in Berlin when I was there two years ago, though I didn't know an artist had put them there. I found Berlin's sidewalks generally very interesting to look at, beautiful and spooky. These small plaques are nice, and very sad. (A couple more pictures. And here are pictures of all the Stolpersteine in Freiburg.)

By the way, I can also understand that there's a tension in Germany between paying homage to the victims and wanting to move on, already. But I don't see the problem with these.

In Paris, since 2001, big black plaques (example) have been appearing on the facades of every school from which Jewish children were deported, both as a way to remember what happened and in an attempt to "fight racism in all its forms." These plaques are quite powerful, but listing the actual names would be even better, I think.

(Similar sidewalk art technique, less heavy subject: Homage to Arago, in Paris.)
posted by Turtle at 7:25 AM on August 15, 2004

Beautiful project. Munich should embrace this, and make sure the desecration does not happen. In fact, they should fund it. It personalizes the victims of the Holocaust. 11 million murders is hard to get your head around, but seeing the individual names at their former homes makes it very real.
posted by theora55 at 7:59 AM on August 15, 2004

I was in that Pinkas Synagogue a few months back -- when you're actually inside it, seeing the thousands of names on the walls is very moving. Not to mention, when I was there, there was a woman, slowly painting on more.

I was with a school history trip, a "Third Reich tour" (no, seriously) of Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland, including visits to Berlin, Prague, Oswiecim (in German, Auschwitz), and other key places in the Holocaust. I have seen enough Holocaust memorials to last me a very long time. The most upsetting one, in my opinion, was the main Auschwitz camp itself (it's actually at Birkenau) -- it was completely covered in snow, with a few long-destroyed buildings (the gas chambers) and a row of memorial plaques in lots of different languages. The contrast of the calmness of the place with the knowledge of what happened there really does something to you.

Anyway, odd as it might sound, I don't think it's a good idea to have stones everywhere marking houses that were home to Jews and Gypsies. People already know. People already remember. When I was in Berlin, they were in the middle of building an absolutely enormous new memorial. There are all sorts of museums and other memorial projects.

Talking to Germans about the Holocaust (in German, natch), it was clear that they felt incredibly guilty about it, despite the fact that only two of the people I talked to could even have been alive at the time. Our tour guide for the Nuremberg trials court seemed particularly distraught, perhaps because he had to explain how the senior Nazis had stood up there and tried to deny responsibility for the whole thing.

I'm rambling, but what I'm getting at, I think, is this: how would you feel if your town was full of memorials to events that you had no control over, and feel permanently guilty about? If your ancestors committed a horrible atrocity, and every day it was becoming harder and harder to avoid thinking and talking about it everywhere you turned?

The Germans already know very, very well what their grandparents did. It's important to remember, but it might also be nice, occasionally, to forget.
posted by reklaw at 8:22 AM on August 15, 2004

All world-class cities are full of those things anyway, reklaw, and most are just walked right by and almost always ignored. These stones are not obtrusive, and are meant to be walked over.

The fact is that as the last survivors and perpetrators and soldiers die off, the world is forgetting what happened. Our own new WW2 memorial in DC was created for just that reason.
posted by amberglow at 8:38 AM on August 15, 2004

Earlier this week, I met up with a friend and his wife and our conversation turned to Holocaust remembrance and the entire tourism angle. Of the three of us, no one really wants to visit the site of a concentration camp or atrocity. There's an attitude among some people who find it very important that we find kind of ghoulish - the "I want to see the inside of the ovens" mentality (this phrase was evidently overheard at some point).

That said, I think the plaques are an excellent idea. I can imagine putting them outside homes and stores that were owned by people sent to the camps. The image of someone pulled away from their home or business by force or even just disappearing, is a stronger message in showing how everyday life can be ripped apart.
posted by mikeh at 9:06 AM on August 15, 2004

This is pathetic and sad. The best that can be said about this is that German (and French) actions of this kind are not so much anti-Jewish as they are non-specific passivity and denial; really the same passivity that leads to opposing just war, such as in Iraq, or the former Yugoslavia; or robust measures by Israel to kill terrorists.

These days, I'm very appreciative that my grandparents and greatparents fled Europe for America.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:16 AM on August 15, 2004

...uhh, yeah, Paris. Moving right along, then...

I think those who object to the plaques are taking the wrong message from them, and that this 'take' stems from the pathology of nationalism. These people seem to view the memorials as a constant reminder of guilt - the guilt not just of specific people who lived at a specific time and did specific crimes, but the guilt of a nation - and just as nationhood transcends time, so does the stain of this guilt. Is it any wonder they feel shamed, and that this expresses itself in a desire to 'return' to a pure state, in which reminders of 'their' culpability disappear? And so, the circle is completed: nationalism helped lead people to crimes, and after a polite interval, it seeks to erase the crimes - and in so doing, to complete the erasure of the victims.

Sure, it would be nice to live in a world without reminders of past wrongs. But I have to think that those who are offended by such reminders are in a sense socially ill: they identify with the guilt, rather than the victims. If they saw themselves primarily as humans, rather than members of a national group, they might feel honoured (rather than threatened) to take part in remembering the lives of those who were killed. Passing the site of a primary school whose Jewish kids were annihiliated might then become an enriching, human experience - you are living with memory, and in solidarity with the victims, rather than living with shame.
posted by stonerose at 9:37 AM on August 15, 2004

It's not only a Jewish issue. In the neighboring Dachau Concentration Camp, built in 1933, there were more than 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries imprisoned. The first prisoners were political opponents of the regime: communists, social democrats, members of the trade unions and a few members of the conservative and the liberal parties. Also, the first Jewish prisoners were imprisoned in Dachau because of their political beliefs. In the following years new groups of prisoners were deported to Dachau: Jews, Homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovahs' Witnesses, Clergymen and others, and after the beginning of the war prisoners from Poland, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and so on. A large number of prisoners were misused by SS doctors for medical experiments. There were high altitude experiments, cooling and freezing experiments, a series of malaria experiments and others. An unknown number of prisoners died excruciating deaths.
So-called invalid transports began in January 1942. More than 3000 prisoners were taken to the former sanatorium at Hartheim castle near Linz, and murdered there with Carbon monoxide.
posted by semmi at 9:44 AM on August 15, 2004

This is heartbreaking. I think the stones are a brilliant work of art...and much more personal and meaninful, IMHO, than some of the big memorials.

These are a reminder that those masses of people we hear about were in fact, lots of individual people, with homes and jobs and lovers and children. That these people were rounded up because they had the wrong ideas, the wrong beliefs, the wrong gods.

We, as humanity, owe it to ourselves to never allow a government, party, group of people ever have that sort of power again. We need to be reminded what happens when common people refuse to see the evil rising as long as it doesn't touch them. We must remember that hatred and belief in superiority are easier than love and equality.

In my opinion, these stones aren't a "Jewish" thing...they're a humanity thing...
posted by dejah420 at 9:58 AM on August 15, 2004

And so, the circle is completed: nationalism helped lead people to crimes, and after a polite interval, it seeks to erase the crimes - and in so doing, to complete the erasure of the victims.

That's not it at all. There are loads of memorials already. No-one's saying "hey, tear down all the memorials, we'd all like to forget that now!" It's just, you know, the building of new memorials has to stop at some point. The whole thing is going towards (to coin a phrase) overmemorialisation. Hey, I've got a neat idea -- let's put a stone on every house as a memorial! Let's write it all over the pavement! Let's write it on every brick of every building! Let's take an hour -- no, two! -- out of every day to all remember the Holocaust!

At some point, it is too much.
posted by reklaw at 10:03 AM on August 15, 2004

I made this post because I do have a degree of ambivalence. I truly value traces of the past-- memorials, cemeteries, public art, old building, perhaps because I was raised in a part of the U.S. that was largely unsettled by Europeans until the mid 19th century.

I recognize that Europeans bear the weight of history more than we North Americans. What I like about the Pinkas Synagogue, the AIDS quilt and these plaques, is that they aren't about bad guys, they simply honor the dead. I am interested on how we can remember the millions of people who disappeared in 10 years as people, not events.

I think the question of memorials is universal. Anyway, thanks for all the good comments, and the pictures, too.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 10:07 AM on August 15, 2004

I'm genuinely interested in the question, is there such a thing as too many memorials?

I like the idea of memorializing the existence of average individuals. On the other hand, some of the larger memorials seem merely to perpetuate German guilt and Jewish victimhood, without a realistic appreciation of the achievements in political and social liberty of Germany since then, and the great Jewish revival, its strength and many life affirming contributions in art and science.
posted by semmi at 11:49 AM on August 15, 2004

Some of the big memorials that I know (the beautiful statue on Mamayev Kurgan in Volgograd; the WWII memorial obelisk in my home town; the memorial in DC; and many others) are very endearing to me, as they are works of art and public places and are meaningfully, sorrowfully, and beautifully evocative of the events which we should never forget. Now, I understand how some big monolithic WWII monuments can be very imposing and guilt-reinforcing for the new generations in Germany, and I don't think making new big overtly symbolic monuments is very appropriate for Germany anymore - perhaps some less direct art is more appropriate.

As for commemorative plaques, I don't think there can ever be too many - heck, there was an enormous number of politically charged plaques made during the Soviet rule, and I don't think many of those should come down. Plaques serve as very valuable historic material for me, and I have yet to see a plaque which I'd rather wish was not there (although I guess there were some old Soviet ones, but they're all torn down by now).
posted by azazello at 1:01 PM on August 15, 2004

I think I'm with you, Azazello. I always want to know more about the places I live and visit.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 2:46 PM on August 15, 2004

Those memorial stones remind me of New York, actually. Within two days of 9/11, the corners of many sidewalks throughout Manhattan (and maybe other boroughs, I dunno) suddenly had "W.T.C. R.I.P." stenciled on them in red white and blue paint in small letters. They were meant to be walked upon, and remembered.

Similarly, within a block or two from my apartment here in LA, someone wrote "World Trade Center, R.I.P., 9/11" and similiar things in wet cement, and it's now a part of our sidewalks. I think I like these kinds of populist grassroots memorials even better than some of the big ones, like the LA Holocaust memorial, also within a block or two of my apartment, which is big and imposing and usually inaccessible behind locked gates.
posted by Asparagirl at 12:34 PM on August 16, 2004

Interesting link, gesamtkunstwerk. I find private in-home memorials sad because they feel like anchors, keeping everyone back. I find public memorials, if done well, useful and necessary, but I can see how people would feel/fear them an anchor.

>made a lasting impression, (positive or negative) on you?

Le Centre d'Histoire de la Resistance et la Deportation, 14, avenue Berthelot, Lyons. They house the museum in the former Gestapo headquarters. (Apologies. It's a French-language link.)

I was trying to think of local Toronto memorials but I'm cmoing up short. There is the sidewalk plaque to the Rupert Hotel/Roominghouse fire at Parliament and Queen.

And the house and storefront in the Gerard/Broadview neighbourhood that seem to be tributes to someone, I believe a child, killed in a car accident by an intoxicated driver: brightly coloured exteriors, boarded (but painted) windows, writings such as Dead children can't hug their teddy bears. The store and house are eye grabbing and (maybe) touching, but I think the money could have been spent on making change. But I donno.
posted by philfromhavelock at 1:25 PM on August 16, 2004

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