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Respectful Remembrance

It’s officially our last evening abroad. We’ve spent this week in Paris and Amsterdam soaking up the cultures of the cities while analyzing their complicated histories. I’ve been reflecting on the things we’ve seen this week and I have had so many conflicting and complicated responses to the memorials and museums we have visited. For example, in Paris we went to the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Deportation. This memorial is dedicated to the French people who were deported during the war, many of whom wholly trusted their government to take care of them but were, in turn, betrayed. At the entrance to this memorial, there is a crypt with beads lining the walls as far as the eye can see, each bead representing a person who was deported. At the entrance to this crypt, organizations often place wreaths or other tokens of remembrance. On the day we visited, there were a few wreaths at the entrance, and all of them featured the French flag. I was both appreciative and truly so angry about this symbol of nationality laying in front of this sacred place. Many of the beads on the wall only exist because they put too much trust in their homeland. They wanted the French government to fight for them but they didn’t; that is the very reason they were thrown into the horrors of deportation. I was frustrated to see the colors of the French flag so boldly presented in front of a shameful part of its country’s past. However, on the other hand, I’m glad that the people of France are recognizing their history, even this complicated and ugly part. It’s often so easy to brush the bad things under the historical rug and rely on oral histories to carry on the parts of our past we don’t want enshrined in a museum; however, when we refuse to accept the realities of our actions, we can’t learn from them. 

Similarly, in Amsterdam we visited the Hollandsche Schouwburg which was a deportation center in the Netherlands. Many Jews were held there awaiting a train to a German extermination camp. In one of the exhibit rooms, there’s a blank book and some pencils. Guests are invited to share reflections of the museum and memorial. Some classmates and I flipped through the book and each page was covered with “never forget” or “never again.” After walking through a space where thousands of people literally awaited their deaths, these sentiments seemed hollow. There is so much more to Holocaust remembrance than “never forgetting.” The likelihood that something like the Holocaust would happen again in the exact same way is slim to none. What’s more important is that we remember the atrocities committed against the Jewish people, remember how easy it was for someone like Hitler to take power and convince people he was morally upright, and remember all the little details that people discounted as not important that we now recognize as warning signs of what was to come. 

I have never faced the complicated realities of how the German invasion and Holocaust manifested in the actual lives of people during the war until now. Standing in the places where these atrocities took place, places that now seem to blend in perfectly with the backdrop of these modern cities, showed me what I know must be only a glimpse of the disbelief victims of the Holocaust felt. It doesn’t seem possible that such horrible things could’ve ever happened, and I can’t imagine having to comprehend that it was happening to me.