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How Societies Remember History

Memorials are important in shaping how societies remember their histories. Throughout the spring course we took as preparation for this study abroad, we analyzed a number of memorials in different countries. Some became the sites of serious vandalism, some serve merely as objects in the main thoroughfare, and some create powerful and somber experiences for those visiting. After visiting some of the memorials studied in class, I find myself asking the following questions.

What exactly does it mean when there is a beautifully designed memorial for a horrific event? Is it wrong to enjoy being in a well-designed space that was built specifically to acknowledge genocide and remember those who were lost? Is it important that memorials be somber? Or does the memorialization of history require a certain level of forgetfulness or separation on the behalf of the public? A few scenes follow.

Many of the city blocks were bombed, some multiple times, yet there is no way to tell where and how bad the damage was. People live normally – and why should they not? The war is over. There is a memorial on every corner.

On Omaha beach, the sea is quiet and there is a light breeze. It is near impossible to imagine violence. Pont-du-Hoc is the only bombed-out area that has been preserved as it was. It is even difficult to imagine war here.

Upon exiting the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation into a semi-public garden, there is an exercise group making use of a space that just ten feet below, now serves as a crypt and memorial.

There is a line of people waiting to take photos in front of the Anne Frank House, almost every one of them smiles in the photos. People move inside the house without stopping. It is loud. Across the street, a group gathers for a canal cruise.

Reflecting on the entire experience, I have few answers for my initial questions save these parting thoughts. The tragedy of memorials is that they are bound to become non-essential if the personal connection is lost. While the intensity of the space may remain, when the generations that built the memorial and remember the events are gone, the personal connection between society and the memorial weakens. Therefore, it is crucial that memorials and museums collect, share, and prioritize firsthand accounts when they are available. Seeing the photos and hearing the interviews of those who experienced the events does more to connect a person with history than a stone memorial can.