Berlin and Brent Staples

2009 January 6
by Andrea Vásquez

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Thanks to all staff who were present when I showed photos of my December trip to Berlin. I found the staff response and discussion really thoughtful and illuminating. If you didn’t already read Brent Staples, “The Disciples of Hatred… “ NYT, 12/22/08, you may be interested in this piece that discusses the use of photographs by Nazi hunters as compared to postcards created from lynching photographs. I’m sure most of you saw the N-YHS exhibit “Without Sanctuary” (don’t recall if we went to this en mass). In Berlin, although not impossible, it would be difficult to go about ones business without coming across a memorial, monument, museum, or public display of some sort on Nazi and Holocaust history. In contrast, Staples tells of how in 2000, when the creators of “Without Sanctuary” tried to bring the exhibit to Atlanta they were not able to do so because, “Influential Atlantans equivocated…’There were concerns that people in crowds were still alive. And of course, family members and relatives of those people might come in and have to say, ‘That’s my dad’ or ‘That’s my mom.'” (The exhibit did go up four years later at the MLK Historical site.)

Topography of Terror, Berlin 2008

The Atlanta exhibit was visited by 3x as many people as in NYC but, of course, one could easily not attend and so not be confronted with these images. This is one of the things they grapple(d) with in Berlin. How to build memorials so that they could and would not be avoided? They have attempted to do this in many different ways. As one 40ish Berliner told me, he brings his children to play at the huge memorial in the center of the city and when he feels they are ready, he will bring them downstairs to see the extensive exhibit documenting the extermination of the Jews. Of course, he is the same fellow who said that he had never been to the “Topography of Terror,” an exhibit built on the remains of the Gestapo HQ which was only a block away from his tourist shop, because “it is not good for me.”

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2009 January 7

Kerry James Marshall’s 2002 triptych, “Heirlooms and Accessories,” is an apt supplement to Andrea’s (and Brent Staples’s) observations about commemoration and home-grown atrocities. Using one of the most infamous lynching photographs, showing an enthusiastic white crowd in Marion, Indiana, in August 1830 gathered about the corpses of two African-America teenagers, Marshall zeroed in on the faces of three white women in the crowd and reinstalled their isolated portraits in ornate lockets (set against faint reproductions of the full lynching photograph). As Marhall commented in a recent interview, the work is “a reminder that these people are accessories to a crime in the first place, and that the heirlooms and the things that their offspring inherited from them were inherited from them because they were engaged in this kind of violence.” Implicating the white spectators at the lynching and the past purchasers of the souvenir photographs taken of the event–and disseminated as picture postcards–Marshall’s triptych is a powerful, critical commemoration of that particular atrocity and the larger atrocity of lynching. But, paradoxically, I can’t provide a link to the work itself because it doesn’t seem to be available online, although many, many other examples of Marshall’s art are easily googled. Which leads me to ask this: can we find examples of public commemorations of “domestic” atrocities in nations that, unlike Germany, were the victors? Are there any publicly-sponsored memorials of genocidal campaigns or atrocities in “unconquered” nations?

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