10th July 1998
Never forget to remember
Stare at a word for long enough and it becomes meaningless. An awkward jumble of syllables collapses at the spot where the sensible word stood. I’ve experienced this countless times since childhood, and like dejá vu it is always disconcerting. Maybe it only happens to me. Maybe it indicates latent dyslexia. But it’s just happened again.
I was staring at the word ‘monument’ when it tumbled down. I had wondered if, sometimes, it could mean “of one mind, single-mindedly”. (It’s a thought – Mono + mental). A trip to the dictionary pieced the word together again – ‘monument’ derives from the Latin ‘monere,’ to remember, plus the suffix ‘mentum’ which transforms a verb into a noun, and action into an object.
Literally, ‘monument’ means ‘memory made tangible’. And that is a chilling definition of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, Berlin’s monument to the Holocaust. I visited the site a few weeks ago when I was in the German capital for a television special, but it was difficult to see much of this major extension to the old Berlin Museum, in the Kreuzberg district.
What fascinated me was the architect’s technique in shaping the building. He took a map of Berlin and marked the homes of celebrated Jews whose work had affected German culture. Then he marked random addresses of people called Berlin – which is, of course, the most common Jewish name in the city.
Pairs of homes were joined by lines. Where the lines crossed the proposed site of the museum, a wall was built. The technique is akin to ley-lines, the paths of energy which flow between ancient sites and sacred places. The result is chaotic – a collision of edges and corners, jagged spaces and sheer surfaces. A building where conventional sense has lost its meaning, like a word that collapses when we stare too long.
Descriptions of its interior are terrifying. A staircase sinks into the ground, passing through six voids, like a descent into hell. Two paths open up into the basement, instantly reminding me of the dual files into which newcomers to the concentration camps were sorted – those who marched straight to the gas chambers, and those who marched to a living death.
When the memory is madness, the monument must take leave of reason. Libeskind signs off from any kind of thought which can be expressed in words with an exitless void, walled by measureless slabs of concrete and lit by a single ray of light so slender as to be virtually extinguished.
It’s a long, cold memory. Reviving, and looking around my room in Sonning, is like waking up in a different lifetime. Maybe that is possible – I was born in 1946, conceived a few months after the Allied liberation of Sobibor and Auschwitz. If my soul was reincarnated, very likely it was made available by Zyklon B.
What evils will demand monuments in this lifetime? What atrocities too hideous to forget, for fear of being repeated? There have been so many since 1946…
What we need is a monument to keep us from forgetting the current moment. We can recall the past, but we always ignore the present. We need a monument, something which is forever shouting, “Remember what you are doing, right now! Remember yourself! Stop walking around in a haze of amnesia, like you can’t remember all the wrongs that surround you! Remember everything can be better! Remember to act! Remember NOW!!”
These monuments should be everywhere. There should be one, vast and massive and huge, in Jerusalem. Something so enormous that every Jew, Muslim and Christian in the city would remember it every minute of the day. Something to remind us and spur us into hope and action.
A monument to remind us – if we don’t stop sleep-walking, the atrocities will engulf every one of us, and swallow the whole world.
A monument that screams, “Remember your senses! Remember RIGHT NOW!!!”
Motivational Inspirational Speaker
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