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Haunting Questions as Holocaust Memorials Speak of Unspeakable Crimes

March 19, 1994

Undated (AP) _ ″Remember the days of old, consider the years long past; ask your father, and he will inform you; your elders, and they will tell you.″ - Deuteronomy 32:7.

″Do not forget.″ - Deuteronomy 25:19.

--- By ANN LEVIN Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Remember. Never forget.

For Jews, the act of remembrance is an imperative, the subject of frequent and stern exhortations in the Old Testament. But in the years since World War II, there has been little consensus about how to remember the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi German state.

With thousands of monuments, preserved ruins, plaques, museums and study centers around the world now devoted to the Holocaust, a new show at The Jewish Museum attempts to answer the question of how and why society speaks of such unspeakably horrible crimes.

The exhibition, which includes more than 200 photographs, videos, architectural models and designs of memorials in Europe, Israel and the United States, opened March 13 and remains on view until July 31, when it travels to Berlin and Munich.

In the catalog’s sometimes brilliant essays, intellectuals and artists outline the problems attached to remembering the Holocaust:

-how some Jews are uncomfortable with the way the Holocaust has overshadowed the rich history of earlier Jewish civilization;

-how concentration camp survivors prefer realistic art and sculpture to depict their suffering, which critics often find too sentimental or kitschy;

-how Jews and non-Jews sometimes feel that the Holocaust has become a cudgel the Jewish community uses to enforce group solidarity, whip up support for Israel, raise money and inflict guilt on the rest of the world.

Divided into six different thematic clusters, the exhibition also focuses on how place affects the quality of a memorial: whether it rises from the ruins of death camps in Germany and Poland, the semiarid hills of Jerusalem or the Mall in Washington, D.C., just 400 yards from the Washington Monument.

Some contemporary artists, especially in Germany, even rebel against the whole notion of institutionalized memory, believing that monuments shamefully relieve the public of its duty to remember.

Thus, when conceptual artists Jochen and Esther Gerz won a competition in Harburg, Germany, to design a public art project against fascism, war and violence, they designed a 39-foot lead column that would tower over, then eventually sink into, the town’s bustling center.

The monument was lowered into the ground in eight ceremonies from 1986 to 1993 until it disapppeared on Nov. 10, 1993, the 55th anniversary of Kristallnacht, that infamous night when synagogues and Jewish businesses were looted and destroyed by the Nazis.

A sign next to the sculpture explains why the artists built a monument to disappear: ″In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.″

The show also explores how the Holocaust has come to command so much attention in the United States, a country that is 97 percent non-Jewish. The timing for such a discussion is perfect, given the opening last year of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the huge interest in Steven Spielberg’s ″Schindler’s List.″

Curator James E. Young and James Ingo Freed, who designed the Washington museum, argue that Holocaust memorials belong on American soil as a kind of reverse testimonial to what can happen when the ideals on which this country was founded - liberty, refuge, pluralism and democracy - disappear.

In Amsterdam, not far from the Anne Frank House, another type of memorial was built in 1987: a monument to commemorate the gay victims of the Holocaust.

Since then, the Homomonument - a large, marble triangle evoking the pink triangular badges gays were forced to wear by the Nazis - has become a place to mourn AIDS victims, proving, as Young says, ″that present life is lived as a constant negotiation with memory of the past.″

No exhibition would be complete, of course, without a discussion of the way the Holocaust is woven into the fabric of life in Israel. Initially, some of Israel’s founders including David Ben-Gurion wanted to banish the Holocaust from public memory, seeing in its helpless victims the Zionists’ worst nightmare of a stateless people.

But within a few years of Israel’s independence, the Knesset, prodded by survivors and relatives of victims, ordered the construction of the Yad Vashem memorial complex in the hills of Jerusalem. ″The one suitable monument to the memory of European Jewry ... is the state of Israel,″ the newspaper Davar declared in a 1951 editorial.

Since then, Shoah - the Hebrew word for Holocaust - has been paired in Israeli iconography with redemption, a story that begins with the death of European Jews in the Diaspora and ends with the rebirth of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

In that scenario, the victims of the Holocaust compel the need for Israeli fighters. And that mythology continues today, with parallels drawn between Israel’s conflict with the Arabs and its near-destruction at the hands of the Germans.

Finally, the exhibition concludes with a replica of a souvenir kiosk that asks what it means to be a tourist at such horrific sites of evil as Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps. It is an unsettling question, for which Young provides at least the beginnings of an answer:

″The art of memory neither begins with a monument’s groundbreaking nor ends with the ceremonies conducted at its base. Rather, this art consists in the ongoing activity of memory, in the debates surrounding these memorials, in our own participation in the memorial’s performance.

″For, in the end, we must also realize that the art of memory remains incomplete, an empty exercise, until visitors have grasped - and then responded to - current suffering in the world in light of a remembered past.″

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