By Laura Pearce, 2013 AJC Fellow
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.” -Tom Irwin, The History Boys
The film adaptation of the Broadway play The History Boys, about a group of unconventional teachers and their students, forces the audience to question the purpose of commemoration and memorialization within contemporary society. The above quote is from a scene in which the class is discussing a British World War I memorial during which the teacher, Mr. Irwin, tells his class that without monuments to the dead, the British might remember that collectively their country was as eager for World War I as anyone else. Instead, he suggests 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.
In thinking about the memorialization of Holocaust memory I encountered during the Fellows Program, I was reminded once again of the use of memorials to shape memory and of commemorating to forget. This idea is not specific to Poland or even Europe at large; I would apply this same idea of commemoration through forgetting and shaping memory to examples of Holocaust memorialization in the United States as well. But as I toured Poland as an AJC Fellow, I noticed this same pattern: commemoration projects were admirable, yet certain sites glorified or commemorated some aspects of these years while ignoring or obscuring others.
Commemoration and memorialization produced under Communist rule immediately appears to seek to shape memory. These monuments vilify the “Hitlerites” and mourn the victims. On the site of the Płaszów concentration camp in Kraków, the original memorial erected in the 1960s merely states: “In tribute to martyrs murdered by the Hitlerite genociders, 1943-1945.” Similarly, in the tiny town of Szydłów, the Communist-era memorial reads: “In tribute to those who fought, died, and were murdered, 1939-1945.” There is no mention of who these “martyrs” were or the reason for their victimization. These Communist-era memorialization examples commemorate the dead, but obscure their identities as Poles, Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Based on these Communist-era portrayals, these individuals were simply opponents of Fascism.
Another example of this is the immense Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial, built in 1948, which reads simply: “The Nation of Israel to the Martyrs and Saints.” The monument image is striking: strong, male resistance fighters, and a token woman with child in the background. 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. This image is juxtaposed with the image on the reverse of the monument: an image 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.
In stark contrast to the Communist-era memorials, and I think often in response to them, many memorials constructed since the fall of Communism do indicate why victims were murdered: because they were Jews. In attempting to highlight the fact that Jews were systematically victimized, 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. We visited a few sites memorializing non-Jewish victims, like the deportation square and cemetery in Łódz. Yet for the most part, many contemporary memorials are not so different from their Communist-era counterparts: they tell part, but not all of the story.
The nature of memorialization is limiting: monuments and plaques can only ever tell part of the story. Complexities and controversies are not easily illustrated through monument iconography and minimal text. As an aspiring museum professional I am in favor of museums to fill this gap. Yet not all museums achieve this; even the notable United States Holocaust Memorial Museum glorifies American liberation and downplays American policies that left victims of Nazism with no refuge. In a number of museums we visited in Poland, the memory of the Holocaust and the pre-war contribution of Polish Jews is commemorated, while conveniently omitting less savory aspects of the history of Jews in Poland.
Dąbrowa Tarnowska, for instance, has a museum within a former synagogue, which is impressive even when compared to former synagogues in Kraków that likely have many more visitors. While it highlighted the interconnected lives of Polish Jews and gentiles in the city and surrounding area throughout its history, the exhibition neglects to discuss the two pogroms against the area’s Jews that took place around the time of the First World War.
While not all museums are capable of incorporating all of the complexity of a given event, they do serve an important purpose in the field of memorialization. While engaging with these spaces as an Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow, I examined how institutions can tell the same story differently.
To me, successful examples of commemoration do not obscure or forget details and unpleasant truths, but instead present a whole story, including its complexities.
Laura Pearce is an aspiring museum professional who recently completed a Master’s Degree in Public History at Loyola University Chicago. After receiving her undergraduate degree in history from DePauw University in 2010, Laura taught with Teach for America in the Mississippi Delta. She has interned at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. In graduate school, she participated in oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors and conducted interviews with the children of survivors. Currently, Laura is working with the Chicago Cultural Alliance to create a digital archive and with the Legion of Young Polish Women to create an online exhibit to commemorate their 75th Anniversary.
The Auschwitz Jewish Center is operated by the Museum in Oświęcim, Poland. For additional blog entries by and about the Auschwitz Jewish Center, please visit mjhnyc.org/tag/ajc. All Summer 2014 newsletter articles are found here.