BOOK REVIEW / Double monuments to the rhetoric of ruins: 'The Texture of Memory' - James E Young: Yale, 27.50 pounds
Saturday 24 July 1993
It is estimated that over dollars 300m has just been spent on three recent Holocaust memorials in Washington, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. As many as four million 'pilgrims' visit annually the best-known killing fields or memorial sites of the Holocaust. Polish towns and villages in particular have learnt to rely on this burgeoning 'memorial industry', which attracts both investment and tourism.
What especially interests Young is the variety of ways in which the memory of the Holocaust is represented in such memorials. His book is divided into sections on Germany, Poland, Israel and America to emphasise the radically diverse natural and political agendas which have shaped the kinds of images and narratives used to denote the past.
For Young, there is not a simple relationship between historic events and present-day memories of them. Instead, he emphasises the extreme plurality of the 'buildings and designs by which every nation and people house remembrance'.
Rather than a unified view of the Nazi atrocities, each country in this lavishly illustrated work is shown to institutionalise its own version of the 'Holocaust'. Beginning with a study of East and West Germany, there is a fascinating exploration of the difficulties inherent in Germany's post-war task of producing memorials to its own debasement. After all, as Young astutely comments, 'only rarely does a nation call upon itself to remember the victims of crimes it has perpetuated'. There are, he declares, few, if any, national monuments to the genocide of the American Indians, or to the millions of Africans enslaved and murdered. Yet Germany has been expected both to memorialise the Holocaust and to build a civilised nation-state on the 'bedrock memory of its horrendous crimes'.
What Young reveals is that Germany's schizophrenic relationship to its past has been restated in an equally ruptured series of national monuments - or 'countermonuments'. One of the many interesting examples of a German anti-memorial is the disappearing black pillar against fascism designed by Jochen and Esther Gerz.
Built on behalf of the city of Hamburg in 1986, the Gerzs designed a 12 metre black pillar, made out of aluminium, on to which the local populace were encouraged to etch graffiti. Once a section is covered in etchings, the pillar is partially lowered into the ground. Instead of displacing the obligation to remember on to their monument, the Gertz's 'counter-monument' returns the 'burden of memory' to its visitors. This results in a bizarre annual civic ceremony in Hamburg: the local population turns out in 'good faith to cheer the destruction of a monument against fascism'.
By far the most moving section of The Texture of Memory concerns the 'rhetoric of ruins' in post-war Poland. As Young poignantly remarks, 'of Jewish life in Poland, only the fragments remain'. Former death camps, closed synagogues, abandoned ghettoes and grievously neglected Jewish cemetries make up Young's landscape of suffering. The 'memorytourist' in Poland is invited to 'mistake the debris of history for history itself'. In Treblinka, 17,000 granite shards are 'set in concrete to resemble a great, craggy graveyard'.
Young astutely charts the 'memory wars' in Poland which are caused by Poles and Jews bitterly contesting each other's versions of the past. In a country largely without Jews, he argues, it is inevitable that Holocaust memorials will reflect the dominant national concerns of contemporary Poles. For this reason, Young throughout writes an ever-changing 'biography' of all of the monuments under discussion (as opposed to thinking of them as timeless objects). He is particularly perceptive, in this regard, on the history of Nathan Rapoport's Warsaw Ghetto Monument. In 1988 a ceremony at this monument began with Solidarity commemorating the the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and ended with the strike at the Gdansk shipyards.
When it comes to Israel and America, however, Young is much less audacious in his account of the memorialisation of these two countries. He rightly points to the ambivalent need to 'remember and forget' in Israel - a country that has a selfproclaimed redemptive relationship to the Holocaust - which can result in Israel schoolchildren marching triumphantly into Auschwitz-Birkenau with flags held high. At the same time, he tends to accept at face value the invented nature of a 'common' Israeli national identity (around Holocaust memorial days and National Holocaust museums). But even 'invented' national identities have invidious consequences which Young shies away from exploring.
According to Young, every major American city now has a Holocaust memorial with dozens more in the planning stages. At its opening of the national memorial to the Holocaust in Washington DC, Elie Wiesel and other prominent Jews urged President Clinton to intervene on behalf of Bosnian Muslims. With visitors to the Washington museum given identification cards - so they can 'be' a victim for the day - Holocaust memorials in America are almost 'plural' enough to take account of American as well as European history.
But as The Texture of Memory makes astonishingly clear, such plurality tends to be subordinate to particular national agendas. A national museum on the evils of the British Empire is impossible to envisage in London, just as a memorial to American Indians is unlikely to be seen in Washington. History, as always, is written by the victors.
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