Each Passover, my family gathers together to retell the story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. The Seder contains myriads of precise rituals conducted according to the instructions of an ancient manual, the Haggadah. These unusual practices are intended to draw us out of the quotidian, filling us with curiosity and, hopefully, driving our attention to that which we may take for granted, our freedom. With the topic of liberation drifting between us and my paternal grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, sitting at the end of the table, not a Seder goes by without conversation turning to their personal emergence from servitude and oppression.
This year, as I sat across from my grandfather, Siegmund Listwa, he began to tell me stories of his experiences directly following his liberation. Freed from the camps, but deeply scarred and without any knowledge of whether the rest of his family had survived, my grandfather moved restlessly between the cities of Central and Eastern Europe.
As I spoke to my grandfather, I noted the overlaps between his post-war travels and my own recent trip through Central and Eastern Europe. However, while the cities he saw bore the fresh wounds of the suffering and displacement that had occurred there, the cities I visited showed no scars, or at least hid them well. Instead, the histories of these cities and the people who once inhabited them were to be found in various museums and memorials. While I am fortunate to have two grandparents who can share their memories of the Holocaust with me, for most others it is these public markers of memory that have the most profound shape on their understanding of these events. This places upon the governments and local organizations that create these monuments an essential responsibility to the victims.
In each of the cities I stopped at, I took the opportunity to see how that charge was being carried out. In Budapest, for example, I was struck by a row of iron shoes that lie in unique pairs facing the Danube River. The shoes commemorate the Hungarian Jews who, in the winter of 1944-1945, were shot on the banks of the river by the Arrow Cross Party, the ruling Hungarian national socialist party that was aligned with the Nazis. In three places along the length of the sculpture, a plaque reads “To the memory of victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45,” emphasizing the Hungarians responsible for the tens of thousands who were murdered during this short period of time.
Not all the monuments I saw, however, took so seriously the responsibility to honor the victims. Just a few minutes’ walk from the sculpture of the shoes, I came upon a classical colonnade at the edge of a cobblestone square. Like a Roman ruin, some columns were broken, and in the middle stood a mournful, winged figured, the Archangel Gabriel. In his right hand was a globus cruciger, a globe topped by a cross, a Christian symbol of authority here being used to represent the sovereignty of Hungary. The globe seemed to slip from the angel’s hands—a consequence of the fierce eagle of imperial Germany swooping down with its talons extended. Along the display was inscribed “Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation.” The symbolism of the memorial was clear to me: the victim of German occupation was none other than Hungary itself, here embodied through the imagery of Christianity, the country’s dominant religion. In this representation two things were entirely washed away: the identity of the victims, particularly the many who were Jewish, and the responsibility that Hungary and its citizens have for their deaths.
Facing this monument was a sort of a counter-memorial, one that sought to challenge the whitewashed message contained in the colonnade. With personal items—suitcases, photographs, books—and individual narratives printed on laminated cards, this informal memorial gave face and voice to some of the half a million Hungarians who died in the Holocaust. Signs and banners countered the implied message of the monument, demanding the Hungarian government to accept responsibility for its role in the murder and persecution of its Jewish citizens.
The counter-memorial reflected the controversy that has arisen after the monument had been installed, just a couple years ago, by the government of Hungary. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who leads a right wing collation government, has defended the monument in a letter, saying that “we cannot undertake responsibility for what’s not due,” arguing that mass murder and deportation would not have occurred without the German occupation. In the same letter, he wrote that the victims, whether they be “orthodox, Christian or infidel,” fell at the hands of the “German empire.” In the picture he paints, Nazism and its racist/anti-Semitic ideology, Jews, and Hungarian responsibility are absent.
Such a piece of public art cannot simply be about history—it is also a political statement about the future, a forward looking claim about the obligations that arises in relation to human tragedy, whether it be the refugee crisis in Europe, the disappeared in Mexico, or the discrimination of blacks in America. Like the Passover Seder, memorial art has the power to make us see differently, beyond the everyday and into the dialectic between the abstract idea and the realm of experience, as events and symbols intertwine. The result is a sense of empathy that carries through time and across worlds, forming the basis for confronting the humanitarian crises of the present.