Handling Memory through Public Memorials

By Deborah Sue-Ho

As Central European countries attempt to recover from the events of the Holocaust, several of the governments are challenged with how to remember the events. They erected Holocaust memorials, which we expect to either preserve the memory of the victims and their families and/or to carry a narrative that would discourage anti-Semitic and racist sentiments. Unfortunately, some government sponsored memorials perform these tasks poorly, making the reason for building them controversial.

If we suppose the purpose of the Holocaust memorials is to remember the lives lost, we are sure to be disappointed. These memorials are constructed without acknowledging the desires of the victims’ families and communities. It is difficult to preserve the memory of the victims, especially while blatantly ignoring the requests of their families or communities.

The creation of the Unnamed Library Memorial at Vienna, Austria, for instance was built “in commemoration of the more than 65,000 Austrian Jews.” It was designed by a non-Jewish artist, who was selected through a competition. A few prominent Jewish Austrians were included in initial talks, where it was decided that something should be done to commemorate the lives of Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. When consulted, the local Jewish community claimed to prefer for government funds to be used for projects that would benefit the present community. The building of this memorial continued anyway.

The construction of the Lety concentration camp memorial near Prague, Czech Republic was also done with limited involvement from the families of the people it should commemorate. Building a memorial at this site is appropriate, because it is the actual place of internment and, later, death of Romani victims. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that Roma communities were involved in the building of the memorial. Like the Austrian Jewish community, the local Roma community was eventually consulted. It requested that the pig farm near to the memorial be relocated. Like the situation in Vienna, this community’s desire is yet to be fulfilled.

Lety Concentration Camp Memorial. Near Prague, Czech Republic.

Perhaps the involvement of these communities is not necessary in the creation of memorials. The purpose of these memorials might be to remind the country of the tragedy and to keep the Holocaust as a cautionary tale. Regrettably, some memorials carry false narratives that exclusively blame the German Nazis, while others do not handle the memory of the events sufficiently. These stories usually do not acknowledge the local perpetrators, making it easy to ignore the need for tolerance.

The “Memorial to the victims of the German Invasion” in Budapest, Hungary, is a prime example of a memorial with a false narrative. In this monument, Hungary is represented by the Angel Gabriel and Germany is represented by the eagle. This imagery suggests that the German Nazis are the main aggressors against Hungarian Jews, though there were only about 200 German Nazis who had entered Germany just some months before the war ended. This narrative also does not mention the Arrow Cross Party’s efficiency with deporting Jews to death camps, like Auschwitz, and the local Hungarian collaboration that made this possible even before the presence of Nazis in Hungary. Because this official narrative is promoted by the government, Hungarians today are not expected to reflect on their intolerance. Instead, large campaigns like “Don’t Let Soros Have the Last Laugh” are part of political efforts to exclude organizations and policy supported by George Soros, Hungarian-American philanthropist of Jewish origin, and to spread anti-immigration sentiments. One of these posters was vandalized with the words “Smelly Jew.”

“Memorial to the victims of the German invasion.” Budapest, Hungary.

Another memorial, which may not serve as a lesson in tolerance is in Bratislava, Slovakia. This monument does not include a narrative that attempts to rewrite history. Rather, the narrative tells less of a story. The monument includes the star of David to show solidarity to Jews or the Jewish community and is situated at the former site of a synagogue. We might assume that it corresponds to Slovakia’s acknowledgment that there was once Jewish life at that site, especially with the image of the synagogue drawn on the wall near to the monument. However, only the word “remember” is inscribed on the statue. There is no further information to help the viewer understand whether it is in memory of the synagogue which once stood there or to remember the devastating blow of the Holocaust. Slovakia too has struggled with its tolerance, even declining recently to accept a small quota of around 900 refugees from war-ridden Syria and making the naturalization process tedious.

Holocaust Memorial. Bratislava, Slovakia.

To commemorate life, there should be some representation of what was. By giving only the story of how these lives ended, we belittle the victims’ experiences and their humanity before their gruesome end. The memorial in Budapest, Hungary, at the Danube tells a real story. People did leave their shoes there and were shot into the Danube river by Arrow Cross Militiamen. Though it focuses more on their deaths, their lives are somewhat represented by the shoes. The artist did his research and replicated the style of shoes that could possibly have been worn by the victims. There was more intent here because he added a small part of those who the victims were. The shoes tell the story that these were all kinds of people, from different walks of life, who were shot into the Danube; they show they had individual lives before they died.

Shoes on the Danube. Budapest, Hungary.

Another commemoration site which has worked toward including parts of the possible lives of the victims before their deaths, was the memorial done in Wroclaw by the families of male Polish officials and elites, who were imprisoned and murdered on Soviet command. This is the Katyn memorial in Wroclaw depicting a crying mother holding one of the men killed by a bullet wound to his head, with the angel of death leering above them. This monument was done in good taste because those affected by the killing of these officials were involved. It was also done by a Polish artist. To this effect, this memorial is much more representative of the lives lost.

Katyn Memorial at Wroclaw, Poland.

Perhaps it is not the place of the government to commemorate the lives lost in tragedy or there should be more local involvement in the creation of these memorial sites. Otherwise, the sites seem to represent false tolerance and fake sorrow. They are, more or less, a distraction from the inefficiency with which minority groups are handled by government. In the past, this same inefficiency resulted in the marginalization and eventual annihilation of many communities.