I had the opportunity recently to visit the Holocaust Memorial in Washington Park. As a rule, Im not fond of these sort of public statements.
Occasionally they work, as in the case of Washington D.C.s Vietnam War Memorial. The dark open scars running across the manicured green of the mall and the black marble holding the names of the thousands who lost their lives in that awful and senseless war fully captures the devastation wrought on a distant Southeast Asian nation and on our own national psyche. It is a brilliant confluence of politics and art.
More often, however, official memorials end up being more about codifying official lies. Take, for example, the ridiculous statue honoring the men of the Oregon Volunteer Regiment that served in the Spanish-American War. While that poor volunteer atop the column eternally advances towards our courthouse, we are left with the names of obscure places at the monuments base that represented our efforts at nation-building in the Philippines a goal we claim to have successfully achieved in 1946. Its a story few adhere to now with the exception of The Oregonian, which recently ran a disturbing story comparing our nation-building in the Philippines with our current efforts in Iraq. In truth, our nation-building consisted of betraying our Philippine allies who did most of the fighting against the Spanish followed by a ruthless war against those same allies in order to prevent Filipinos from achieving self-rule. Thousands of Filipinos died, hundreds of villages were destroyed and the seeds of hatred of U.S. imperialism were deeply sown.
Fortunately, our Holocaust Memorial runs more towards its Vietnam War Memorial cousin in both its emotional and intellectual impact. The approach to the memorials wall, symbolizing the railroad that delivered the millions murdered by the Nazis, is littered with bronze castings of eyeglasses, a suitcase and other personal belongings people were forced to abandon at the gates of this man-made hell. One side of the wall holds a narrative of events in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. For official history, this doesnt do a bad job of explaining how things went so very wrong. Recognition was given to the earliest victims of the Nazi death camps: the trade unionists, communists, homosexuals, developmentally disabled, the physically disabled and gypsies.
Still, there were disturbing absences. There was no mention of the United States refusal to take action once it had learned of what was happening to the untermensch under the Reichs control. Nor does the memorial explain that the Nazis achieved power not through the ballot or with bullets, but by a cowardly bourgeois parliament handing over the nation to this collection of thugs in exchange for security. Nor is their mention of the devils deal German industrialists cut with the Nazis break the trade unions for the plant owners and the Nazis can pursue their Aryan silliness to their hearts content.
Perhaps this is too much to ask of our memorials. Maybe we should just be content to stir peoples emotions and minds and let them draw their own conclusions. I want to believe that. Yet the entire time I was at the memorial, I didnt see anyone note the irony in the memorials juxtaposition to another monument that in its way marks another, even larger, holocaust.
There, across the road stands Sacajawea, pointing to the West Hills and the ocean that lay beyond. Her ability to provide a lingual link between the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the native nations through which they passed was instrumental not only in the expeditions success but its survival. In return, her work triggered the trans-Mississippi destruction of thousands of Native Americans and hundreds of First Nations.
So do we stop building memorials? I think memorials continue to play an important role in public recognition of painful moments in our history. But these memorials serve more like beacons than repositories. They serve as a point from which we start to find the truth about our nation and ourselves. It is up to us to ensure that those beacons and the ones to be built are accurate guides in the darkness.
But the real burden is on us. We must pursue truth beyond the light cast by those beacons. We must ensure, furthermore, that truth prevails over lies. Only then will we avoid becoming the source for yet another bleak memorial to intolerance and cruelty.
P.S. Weve got some exciting events coming up. We hope youll join us (and, frankly, we could really use the money right now) DM.
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2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: November 18, 2004