Auschwitz and Memory Culture
While the COP24 delegation was in pilgrimage at Auschwitz, something a young German friend told me a few years ago kept echoing through my mind: “Marc, Germany is a memory culture.” I had no idea what “memory culture” meant, and so he explained. Creating a memory culture means neither keeping alive, as if they are true, the messages of hate that motivated great injustices and even horrors of the past, nor erasing them entirely, but working to interpret, reconcile and heal.
The guides at Auschwitz are so deeply trained. and they, it seemed to me, are participating in creating a memory culture. What I further realized is that, because people are coming from all over the world, in enormous numbers (1.5 million in 2014), the guides are helping create not just a Polish memory culture, or a German memory culture (what my friend was talking about), but rather a world memory culture.
The Auschwitz site and the associated museum opened as a major entry in the creation of a world memory culture almost immediately after World War II, in 1947. The site and museum was largely staffed in those early days by survivors of the death camps. They dedicated themselves to making sure that the world did not forget the atrocities committed at Auschwitz.
This quiet, persistent, intelligent work of conservation, interpretation, and curation contrasts starkly with the frantic efforts of the fleeing Nazis to erase the evidence of their crimes. While they were not ultimately successful in obliterating their record of crime, work continues to this day to bring back into the light the names of over one million Jews murdered by the Nazis, out of the estimated total of 11 million Jews killed. I have no doubt that the patient work of truth-telling will, in the end, win.
I returned to Katowice after our pilgrimage to Auschwitz filled with thoughts and feelings that will stay with me, that will need absorbing and taking into my soul, inner work that will go on for a long time. For the moment, it is glaringly obvious that widespread, intense memory work is needed in the environmental and climate change areas. When we deny the massive, cumulative effect of human extractive practices and consumption over the centuries of the Industrial Era, and yet complacently enjoy the comforts we have received, our unjust inheritance, we are working to willfully forget rather than build a constructive memory.
I write this on the second Sunday of Advent, when the candle we light is called that of the prophets, when we are called to heed the words of God’s prophets, I will hold in my heart, as an antidote to fear, that the light of truth, so painful at times, is also the light of love. The more I can face God’s truth, revealed by God’s prophets, the more I am enabled to receive God’s love.
Diocese of California