coffee-table memories

Tragic memories bear as many meanings as the events they recall. For most, these layers merit a magisterial display, in the harsh granite of a commemorative museum or a florid and somber ceremony. The act of memory also makes its day-to-day appearance between these pompous intervals: a carefully mounted photograph of the dead, pre-death, a passed-down recipe or prayer or nightly recollection. Or, a coffee-table centerpiece:

“The book, more art than literature, consists of the single word “Jew,” in tiny type, printed six million times to signify the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust. It is meant as a kind of coffee-table monument of memory, a conversation starter and thought provoker.”

In her New York Timesreport, Judi Rudoren traces a familiar debate: as a literary memorial, does the book, titled, “And Every Single One Was Someone,” honor the dead and grant meaning to the living? The discussion is as conclusive as a monologue by Tevye, Sholom Aleichem’s bumbling Yiddish milkman. On the one hand, the repetitive text of Phil Chernofsky, who compiled the memorial, conveys the scale of suffering during the Holocaust; on the other, the text anonymizes as it identifies the dead. Nowadays, official Holocaust memorials invest in both. The main tour of the Washington, DC-based U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum distributes individual biographies of the Nazis’ Jewish victims as visitors enter, and concludes with an impersonal pile of the victims’ stolen shoes. On its third floor, visitors descend from an expansive corridor of lost Eastern European villages to a “tower of faces,” a personal portrait of the Holocaust’s human destruction. Like the atrocity itself, memory is a wearying exchange between identity and anonymity, expression and belonging.

This conversation is as vibrant among the society of an atrocity’s perpetrators as among its victims and survivors. At The Atlantic, Emma Green captures this dilemma in response to a new book by Yascha Mounk, a German Jew:

“In one way or another, Germans define their ethnic identity in the context of the Holocaust. Ironically, the common response seems to rely on a nationalistic impulse to deal with Germany’s crimes of nationalism: By treating Mounk extra-carefully, his peers set him apart from other Germans; in setting him apart from other Germans, they reinforce the us/them mentality that undergirded the Holocaust in the first place.”

Mounk’s social crisis would have been familiar to Jews before the rise of Nazism, as it is to those in contemporary Germany. In her review, Green ultimately settles on the public importance of careful pluralism. Far from uniform, Germany’s public sphere comprises many private spheres–German and Jewish and provincial and cosmopolitanism–that work, though not always together, to create the nation’s fragile society. As Green frames it, Mounk’s story underscores the “other hand” of Chernofsky’s memorial project. Though Europe’s six million died as Jews, they also died as Jews, ish: Poles and Germans and Byelorussians whose identities were complex and personal, rather than simply common.

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