Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a city’s downtown in miniature, large concrete blocks surging both waist-high and overhead and threaded through with weaving sidewalks. As the name suggests, it’s one of Berlin’s most prominent memorials to the victims of the Holocaust, flooded with tourists and locals alike; I visited it as a tourist myself this summer as I vagabonded my way through Europe. Note: Because my family is neither Jewish nor particularly German (despite my grandmother’s roots), I don’t want this article to be misunderstood as me co-opting another culture’s national or ethnic identity for my own use but rather as a catalyst for my own contemplation.
It was strange to be somewhere that both celebrates and mourns life on such a communal and fundamental scale, especially when I’m usually worried about life in the personal, micro sense. It felt inappropriate to listen to my “april is the cruelest month” Spotify playlist (melodramatic title borrowed from TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land”) there, because the songs on it are so internally focused, inflating individualized experiences into a whole world of nothing but emotionality. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews felt like an inversion of that — not necessarily mournful, but public, with every visitor’s thoughts coalescing into a blur that made the individualized indistinct.
I read an article in The New Yorker that claims the memorial is inadequate — evocative of death, certainly, but unspecific and an eyesore. What surprised me most about this memorial — what caught me off guard — was the noise and the movement; when I visited a memorial to victims of war crimes in the Croatian town of Vukovar, the room was dimly lit, lined with photographs of the victims and arranged around a circular, symbolic flame. It felt weighted.
When I think about memorials, I think — like in Vukovar — of quiet, of deference, of solemnity and drawing in on oneself. The memorial in Berlin was the opposite: children playing tag between the concrete blocks, a teenage guy and his friend climbing up two columns for a selfie, tourists perching on the shallower blocks for a swig of water. Part of me recoiled, felt something that insisted “blasphemy,” but it clashed with a kind of tender-hearted delight — delight at the undeniable joy and silliness and, yes, gravity and respect, that people were so clearly experiencing — and perpetuating.
Life is about variety, yes? About change and community and complication and cataclysm, and part of me rejoiced in the fact that a memorial prompted by death can, in turn, inspire life. There’s something profoundly healthy about that, something that champions growth and healing and the end of abusive cycles, and that is the best kind of hopeful.
This is not to say that more somber memorials prolong pain or stagnation; I was simply struck by this strength in acknowledging the past and using it to build the future, in categorically refusing to indulge in historical revisionism.
It reminded me, actually, of the Roman emperor Diocletian’s palace in Split in Croatia, which is a former imperial fortress that has been absorbed into a modern city center. I know there’s a faction who would criticize that as a failure of conservation, but it’s conservation through incorporation, bringing people into conversation with their history instead of distancing themselves from it via entry fees and metal detectors. It’s JG Ballard’s short story “The Drowned Giant” in the best way, the cannibalization of the giants of the past for the furthering of the future — modernism not as condemnation, but as celebration. There’s something deeply prophetic about making the past personal, of respecting what has been without rejecting what could be.
But how is this relevant? Why am I writing about this on the Stanford campus in California, months after I visited all these places?
For one thing, I think there’s a bizarre atemporality in living at Stanford. Despite our eternal emphasis on legacy — on being part of decades-old institutions (like The Daily), on accomplished alumni, on being a forward-thinking force in the technological world — there’s a sense of standing still, particularly as classes and clubs and construction whirl around us at hyper speed. Perhaps it’s also to do with California’s lack of seasonal change, but I feel that time tends to bloat, bubble-like, around us, making each week melt into the next until, suddenly, our four years are over — at which point the bubble pops.
The effect of this is that we — both as individuals and as an institution — romanticize. We romanticize our college years (“the best years of your life!!1”) and Stanford romanticizes (and revises) its own image (see: Admit Weekend), which means that we never actually honor our own histories, on both the personal and public levels. Rather, we insist upon our own infallibility, because to admit otherwise would be to acknowledge a past in which we were not perfect. For a lot of us, that’s a difficult task.
Stanford is an institution characterized by the people who populate it — by that impeccable collection of shiny-cheeked students and proficient professors and administrative members who (pretend to) have an encyclopedic knowledge of campus. As such, it’s our responsibility to foster honesty. After all, I doubt that the initial designs of either Diocletian’s palace or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews intended to invoke the extraordinariness of the everyday in the way that they have; it’s the public opinion on these monuments that has lent them such personal promise.
There’s a culture of denial — a denial of failure or flaws — here at Stanford, a culture in which we feel the need to scrub ourselves clean, to “start anew” over and over and over again if we don’t steadily succeed. Those instances of imperfection are seen as shameful, erased from Facebook timelines and resumes before anyone knows any better.
For another thing, I’m quite terrible at finding silver linings, but I still look for them anyway. (The clichéd joke is that the optimistic view of pessimism is that you’re always either right or pleasantly surprised.) I don’t like doing things wrong, so I tend to view my phases — I’ve been a teacher’s pet, a Comic-Con-going geek, a choir kid — as Russian nesting dolls, selves within selves that I can throw out once I reach the largest (or latest) one so I can avoid any lingering ugliness.
There’s a reason I was so enamored with the remnants of Diocletian’s palace, and it wasn’t just because “Game of Thrones” used it in filming: It was so heartening to think of the bones of my life as a skeleton of my future self rather than as the bodily remains of a previous me that I no longer recognize.
That’s not how either life or time works, though. Being so concerned with the perfect narrative — with selling a story of myself without acknowledging any screw-ups — means I don’t have one at all. As much as we enjoy narrativizing our lives — making sense out of it, clustering lines, making decisions, organizing the world — it’s not truthful. We deny ourselves the chance to live our lives when we’re so intensely devoted to what they will be in the future. I’m so concerned with consequences years down the road — years, decades, memories away — that I don’t let myself have anything at the beginning of it; the end of the road, then, is not going to be nearly as interesting as I want it to be.
As is the case with me, though, there are multiple faces to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Another part of me therefore wants to draw attention to the fact that the blocks get higher — and you consequently go deeper — as you continue towards the middle of the memorial. It turns the structure into something bordering on suffocating, evocative, perhaps, of the easy downward slide from intention to inaction. The undulating pathways reminded me of water, of committing suicide by walking, clear-eyed, into the ocean, arms outstretched — the way that, should we all continue to wipe our lives clean, we’ll end up drowning in the things we can’t change.
Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.