I will always remember my 2016 visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center. And that’s the point.
It’s 180 meters long, mostly subterranean spike-shaped museum thrusts out of the Mount of Remembrance’s western slope, a literal light at the end of the long, dark tunnel. It offers a powerful, singular, undiluted experience.
Transiting the entire length of its serpentine walkway, and taking in its exhaustive collection of artifacts, videos, pictures and historical narratives, was excruciating. Why? Primarily because of one man’s face who appeared around almost every corner, Adolph Hitler. Evil personified, at every turn.
With each pass through the museum’s center, I could see the light getting closer. But then I would enter yet another room, with another display of yet more Nazis and more undiluted evil. About two-thirds of the way through, I’d had my fill. Rather than stopping to consider each room’s displays, I scanned them while walking steadily toward Yad Vashem’s open end. Finally reaching the stark opening, I contemplated the valley below and tried to intellectually unpack the experience.
At first blush, it seemed the museum gave Hitler far too much exposure. His ubiquitous presence was unnerving, and unnecessary. Everyone knows Hitler was a monster the likes of which earth has, fortunately, only rarely seen. But as time went by, I began to understand the purpose behind the in-your-face presentation of humanity’s systemic, coldly efficient inhumanity, and I adopted a more visceral understanding of the exhortation to “never forget.”
Flash forward to this past June 25, and former Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris pens a letter to the editor of this paper, in which she contextually posits that rather than destroying monuments from our past we “use this opportunity to review the true history each statue represents and educate today’s societies about the impact of the actions represented.” In other words, we would be better served to remember our imperfect past, than to seek its erasure.
I complimented her with an online comment on what I considered a thoughtful and conciliatory perspective on a subject of growing contentiousness. Soon thereafter, however, a contentious commenter equated memorializing Confederate Civil War soldiers to Adolph Hitler, and castigated Farris as a racist for suggesting that contextualizing their historic memorials with interpretive additions explaining their history in full context might be a reasonable alternative to their wholesale destruction. It was an ad-hominem attack upon an individual whose decades-long community service, open mindedness and civic leadership speak for themselves.
More to the point, it was the kind of “cancel culture” assault to which our society turns more and more as its default mechanism of disagreement. By seeking to destroy the memorials of the past, today’s radicals claim superior morality and enlightenment to those who erected them, those represented by them, and those who argue for their preservation. The truth I fear is far more pernicious. By creating division through the unilateral destruction of historic edifices that contribute to our collective, contextual memory of our imperfect past, they seek not to find morality or enlightenment, but to wipe the slate clean.
Once the removal of our imperfect past has been achieved through undemocratic means, these radicals will have a clear path to impose their own form of autocratic imperfection, without historic context, or comparative, rendering unnecessary debate and deliberation. Why else would some of these radicals seek to tear down statues honoring those who fought to end slavery as well as those who sought its preservation?
In Boston, petitioners seek the removal of a replica of the Emancipation Memorial because it doesn’t represent our current collective understanding of equality among racial and ethnic groups. The statue shows Abraham Lincoln standing over a kneeling freed slave with broken shackles on his wrists, a representation that online petitioner seeking its removal to a museum, not its destruction, Tory Bullock describes as “…us still beneath someone else … Know your place because that’s where you belong.”
Tory Bullock doesn’t need me to tell him he is exactly correct. The Emancipation Memorial accurately reflects the truth about conditions for freed slaves. From Lincoln’s 1865 Good Friday assassination, through the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson legalization of “separate but equal” segregation, until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 — exactly a century later — black Americans were almost universally viewed as less than equal in their own nation. Today, racism’s viral curve may have been flattened somewhat, but our long slow climb toward true equality not only in law but in our hearts and minds remains far from complete.
Which is exactly why historically contextual monuments and memorials should remain. The undiluted honesty of our past’s imperfection, displayed for example through statues the likes of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and other treasonous Confederates, is not lost on thinking individuals. Their monuments, and their Confederate flag that should likewise be relegated exclusively to historic artifact status, provide a stark and necessary message to everyone who would delude themselves into thinking that their ideas and leaders are sure to be more perfect than the ideas and leaders who came before us.
At Yad Vashem, Israel got it right. The preservation and continued reinforcement of historic lessons through all means is our primary mechanism for understanding that some history, beginning with slavery’s ruinous racist legacy, and ending with the Holocaust, must never be repeated.