The air is stale. It catches in the throats of the onlookers, whose nervous exhalations come out in thick, gray puffs of winter air. Thousands of meticulously cut concrete slabs of various heights and shapes stand on the unevenly sloped, winding ground. Upon the first step into the eerie structure, a silence falls upon each person. They all take in the smooth, unforgivingly dark surface of the pillars surrounding them. They can’t hear the sound of their own feet or heavy breath as they look to the grayscale sky above, clear as a warped conscience and seemingly frozen in time.
After a solemn minute or two, something changes in them all. What moments before seemed an ode to those lost, a devotional graveyard to finally allow six million some rest becomes in a flash a twisted playground. The sound of clomping feet bounces from one stone to the next, coagulating into a near-tangible entity in the sky above. The padding and clomping, running and stomping encourages more and more pairs of lively tourist feet to join in.
Next come the cheers and cries of misplaced emotion. So-called adults take their clomping feet for a boisterous run, hiding and seeking one another. The once ominous, respected symbolic stones become elements of the game. A plethora of people weave through the blocks, dipping under selfie sticks like it’s the limbo to escape their jeering friends who laugh while trying to catch them in the newfound maze.
And the stones, themselves, may not be perfect, but at least they stand tall. They are ones for the memory and a reminder of time. How we’ve gotten to this spot, today, acknowledging the millions lost so that we may now stand and laugh and play the hunt. 52.5139° N, 13.3787° E. Here, there is stone-cold proof, standing sky-high, that there were times when we had none of that.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe rests in the open air around the heart of Berlin while its skeletal, cemeterial air produces no aortic beats. The memorial, as many like it, has become a destination more than a sanctuary. When one looks around the space, there is a clear distinction between the mourner and the marauder. One comes to remember, with squeezed eyelids and praying hands. The stale air is choked right out of their lungs, hushing them. The other visitor is here on a memory raid, with a band of fellow thieves around them. They run their hands along the cool stone as they rush past, giggling as they escape their seekers or stop to take a selfie.
In the past few months, during my study abroad program at Emerson’s Kasteel Well in the Netherlands, I have found myself in similarly upsetting situations at various memorials or museums. Each place is well-intentioned. From the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to the Anne Frank House, each place stands still in time while visitors are enveloped in the places’ metaphorical arms. Once the light of modern day shines through, in the form of extended selfie arms and gift shops and chilling giggles of grown men and women, doubt bounces around the walls of my head.
It is important for us, in 2017 and beyond, to remember the atrocities of our past so as to keep them from happening again. We know this; we’ve built the memorials, monuments, and museums. What we’re fighting against in the quest for remembrance, though, is our own modernity in comparison to the times we are immortalizing. We, the 21st century people, are bombarded with flash photos, instant-memorialization in the form of social media postings, and commodification culture from the moment we’ve left the Twitter feed-free womb. And the gift shops at the end of memorial tours, like that of the Anne Frank House, don’t help to quell our capitalistic instincts.
People pat the dried tears rimming their eyes in the Anne Frank House bathrooms, then shuffle out the door and make their way towards the exits. Fresh Amsterdam air is much needed after the harrowing experience of the Franks’ hidden annex. They cannot escape without going through the gift shop first. And there’s not only Anne Frank’s book for sale, which is truly all that should be there, but posters and toy models of the hiding place and other gaudy collectibles that turn crying eyes wide and dry.
Are we here as mourners, or marauders?
Art by: Hayley Joseph