Watson Kelly's picture

History Viscerally

Two more days spent together and very much the feeling of spending alone in reflection as well. It is appropriate that I waited until after visiting the Memorial to the Murdered Jews (a title as awkward as my feelings there but more on that later) before completing this blog. How does one "experience" the Holocaust in a city where its history in some ways began? 

The Jewish Museum Berlin was a place I visited with my students last summer during my Holocaust in History tour, and I am so sorry I couldn't have had Olaf speak with my students. We were so aimless and disoriented last summer that only now do I truly understand how to prepare a group for their experience there. And it is those feelings that still permeate my thoughts two days later. How does one "experience" an event such as the Holocaust through a museum? I realize I am quite fortunate working for what I consider still one of the greatest museums in the world: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was why last summer I did not like the exhibits of th JMB and felt while some were good, they were so secondary to the architecture that I was frustrated. Also having students and parents with me who had pretty violent physical reactions to the place, it was with great trepidation that I entered again at all. With Olaf's help I can appreciate the rationale of the artistic installations. The hallways purposely tilted and bent toward unimaginable futures. The exhibits you see tucked in the architecture where still the space abides. That's the visceral experience of this museum. I still stood in the corner of the Auschwitz art at the end of that twisted hallway like I did last year, but standing in the corner looking straight up, I understood a bit what the artist intended: no where to go, can't climb out, feeling of nothingness. And still I could not walk through the garden without becoming so ill I had to sit down. But Olaf showed us the olive trees above, which I did not see before. Life seemed to go on but never did you feel comfortable, never again feeling what life was like before. And watching only some of our group able to walk in the "Fallen Leaves" chamber, debating whether he or she could walk over their faces knowing that's what the artist intended (with sound); that was a powerful moment of realization. Was it disrepectful to try to replicate a Holocaust "experience" instead of showcasing artifacts like USHMM? Can you memorialize viscerally? I still wrestle with this two days later. 

While there were many other things to blog about in between, to connect then I turn to the memorial from last night. Here again I brought students last year but we were told to skip underground and instead we walked through the blocks before going to see the memorial to the homosexual victims across the street. This time, however, there were a cacophony of voices debating the use of the blocks that I once again thought of experiencing the Holocaust. Does not life indeed go on? Shouldn't you be able to picnic on the past? Is there a line between sitting on a block and jumping between them or playing hide and seek in them? Honestly the memorial below was not so impressive because I actually teach a timeline activitity with some of those same photographs. It is wonderful and personalize, but it was not unique to me. 


So do we feel the past? Should we feel the past? That is what I wrestle with on the Sunday morning. I loved the connections internationally over the past few days, and I relish in the new films that have gotten me thinking about lesson ideas. But as someone associated with a museum, today I think more about feeling the past than anything. 




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