A Culture of Remembrance
I spent three days last month in Berlin with my IJM colleagues Terry Tennens, Caroly Houmes and Dietmar Roller (chief executives of IJM UK, Netherlands and Germany respectively). The last afternoon, after Terry and Caroly had departed for home, Dietmar took me on a walking tour of central Berlin. We were walking down Friedrichstrasse when he stopped me and pointed out three small 10x10cm brass plates embedded in the sidewalk, containing a few terse details about some former residents of the home we were standing outside:
Here lived/Arthur Kroner/born in the year 1874/humiliated/disenfranchised/escaped into death/April 2, 1943Here lived/Meta Kroner/born in the year 1905/deported 1943/murdered in/AuschwitzHere lived/Charlotte Kroner/born Leichtmann/born in the year 1882 /humiliated/disenfranchised/escaped into death/January 31, 1943
Later, I learned that the creation and installation of these Stolpersteine—literally, stumbling stones-- is a project of a German artist Gunter Demnig. The project commemorates people who were persecuted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945—Jews, Roma, homosexuals, members of the political and religious resistance, Jehovah’s Witnesses-- and since 1996 has led to the installation of more than 6,000 Stolpersteine in Berlin and more 56,000 of these memorials across Europe.
The project has been called the "largest decentralized memorial in the world.” Demnig installs most of the stones himself, and the project has more or less taken over his life. When asked why he does it, the artist responded: "Six million is an incomprehensible figure, but to carve the name of a single person on a single marker is to say, 'Look, this individual lived -- lived right here at this actual address. He or she looked out this window or stepped out that door every day. This was someone just like you or me. Not just an anonymous victim of history.’”
After I returned to Canada, I sought to learn more about the individuals who lived at Friedrichstrasse 54, Arthur and Charlotte Kroner and their daughter Meta. From the "Stolpersteine in Berlin” website, I learned that the Kroners were magicians, members of the thriving artistic community on Friedrichstrasse, and owners of the famous Zauberkönig, or "Magic Kingdom”.
Their magic shop was expropriated by the Nazis in 1942, and Meta was arrested and transported to Auschwitz in 1941 or 42. And then, from the tribute read on the day of the installation of their Stolpersteine, I learned this about the deaths of Arthur and Charlotte: "With their daughter in the hands of Nazi thugs and their magic shop expropriated, Charlotte and Arthur were humiliated, desperate and unable to dispel the fear of deportation and the hunger, pain and misery it would bring. They were driven to take their own lives.”
Gedemütigt/Entrechtet/Flucht in den Tod
After he pointed out the Stolpersteine to me, Dietmar went on to say that Germany has created a "culture of remembrance”. I could not at that moment have defined what is meant by a culture of remembrance, but I could certainly see it on our walking tour— the bricks inlaid in the streets and sidewalks that trace the route of the Berlin Wall through the once-divided city, the historical displays surrounding Checkpoint Charlie, the graffiti written on the stones of the Reichstag by conquering Russian soldiers in 1945 and preserved in the restoration of the building after reunification to house the Bundestag, the German Parliament.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is perhaps the emotional heart of this culture of remembrance, having just recorded its five millionth visitor since opening in 2005. It has been said that the Memorial fulfills the function in Germany of a modern national memorial— and I would say "modern international memorial” -- "admonishing all visitors to an ongoing reflection on the causes of the breakdown of civilization in the twentieth century”. But all the monuments in the world are worthless if the memory-driven implications of past events do not continue to reverberate in people’s hearts and minds.
It’s easy to go through the motions of remembrance by visiting a monument like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, and feel excused from any additional responsibility toward the past, present or future iterations of the currents that swept us toward those awful historical events.
So what is a culture of remembrance truly? The Polish scholar Piotr Kopiec says, "It is… the whole of undertakings, institutionalized or not, that contribute to strengthen both collective and individual memory about past experiences, in order to use these experiences to construct the future.” And the stories that emerge from the installation of the Stolpersteine certainly seem to help to preserve and strengthen memories of individual victims of the Holocaust. Demnig quotes a rabbi who once told him, "a human being is only forgotten once his or her name is forgotten."
At International Justice Mission, we seek to develop a culture of remembrance among the world-wide community of justice-seekers by naming our clients (using pseudonyms, if they are minors) and helping them tell their stories to the world (always with their consent) We seek to counter the facelessness of the everyday violence that afflicts billions of the world’s poorest. Like the inscriptions on the Stolpersteine, we state the facts unambiguously, but without lurid detail:
Yulisa/from Bolivia/age 5/sexually assaulted by her uncleMien/from Cambodia/age 14/sold to a brothelJuliana/from Uganda/age 70/attacked with a machete in an attempt to force her out of her home
Of the three, I’ve only met Juliana but I’ve told Yulisa and Mien’s stories so often that I feel as if they live in me. By telling their stories and those of so many other IJM clients, we affirm the dignity and worth of those who have been told in a thousand ways that their suffering does not matter.
As Gary Haugen, founder of IJM says, "We overcome the humiliation, loneliness, indignity, and despair of those who suffer not only under the oppressor’s abuse, but under the oppressor’s aggressive lies – the lie that no one will believe their story, that no one cares about their story, that nothing can be done about their story.” And in telling their story, we are connected to the reality of injustice in a way that overcomes the barriers of distance, vagueness, remoteness, and emotional numbness, and we are connected to the intimate human drama of one suffering individual after another.
They are not just anonymous victims of violence. We can give you statistics—an estimated 36 million people in modern slavery globally—or we can tell you one person’s story. A culture of remembrance needs both—as we need both the Holocaust Memorial and the Stolpersteine. The Christian community has fostered a culture of remembrance, of calling to mind on a routine basis our history of acting out our alienation from God and each other, followed by God’s gracious intervention to save us from ourselves. And so, in the Anglican Church, we prepare ourselves for communion by confessing:
We acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy Divine Majesty. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings. Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, forgive us all that is past…
As a teenage boy sitting in my parent’s church, I used to despise the old men of the church who told their stories again and again of being rescued by God after having wandered away in sin. Now I know that they knew something I didn’t. Every personal story of rescue and redemption is a Stolpersteine—not just an anonymous statistic in God’s great rescue mission. The inscription on my Stolpersteine could read something like this:
Ed Wilson/born in the year 1953/trapped in a desolate pit of self-centredness
An authentic culture of remembrance will stimulate personal reflection on one’s own humanity, including the abysmal depths of inhumanity to which my fellow human beings plunged during the Holocaust on a scale difficult to grasp either then or now—depths which terrifyingly have been plumbed again in our generation with genocides in Rwanda and Burundi and the present risk of genocide facing the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in Burma and Assyrian Christians and Yazidi in ISIS-controlled Iraq and Syria.
The artist David Sittler writes, "Remembrance also consists of ‘having to think of the unthinkable, learning to speak the unspeakable, and trying to imagine the unimaginable’”. Being human means acknowledging that I could just as easily have been one of the German soldiers who came to enforce the expropriation the Kroner’s magic shop as Arthur Kroner who took his own life in despair. But my story doesn’t end with me trapped in a pit of self-centredness, nor does the confession in the Anglican liturgy end with the words. "Forgive us all that is past”:
Forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honour and glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord.Ed Wilson/born in the year 1953/ trapped in a desolate pit of self-centredness/ but God made his steps secure.
And as a result of their courage, Yulisa, Mien and Juliana’s stories have a different ending than they might have:
Yulisa/from Bolivia/at age 5/sexually assaulted by her uncle/now experiencing healing through trauma-focused therapy/uncle sentenced to 10 yrs in prisonMien/from Cambodia/at age 14/sold to a brothel/rescued and restored/now married and saving to buy a houseJuliana/from Uganda/age 70/attacked with a machete in an attempt to force her out of her home/attacker sentenced to 6 yrs in prison/ now living securely in her home
I hope that in our personal relationships, our communities and our nation we can support a culture of remembrance around victims of violence that honours the depth of their suffering as much as it celebrates their rescue. As you hear or read their stories, be prepared to feel at least a twinge of the terror, despair and betrayal they experienced on a daily basis. It won’t be easy, so embark on this journey with caution—but this is where millions still live, routinely facing real, personal, brutal, pervasive violence.
Children die in forced labour slavery; thousands of young girls are still trapped in sex trafficking. We’re trying to change all this, and we can, and we will—but hope exists in dialogue with despair; grace that forgets where we came from loses its gratuitousness and becomes an entitlement. We can use the remembrances of our own and others’ suffering to construct a future where slavery is no more and children are protected from the risk of sexual exploitation.
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. (Psalm 40:1,2)