Today is Memorial Day, which raises the question of remembering, and why we might care about it at all. Human beings are, in large part, constituted by memory of the world and how we've come to be at the place we find ourselves. So, I thought I'd offer a reflection on memory I did some time ago. It still seems worthwhile to me. I'll let you be the judge of that, though.
"But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children"(Deut. 4:9)
I went to Washington, D.C. some time ago. While, I wanted to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum, commemorating the historic struggle and plight of the Jews (as well as the Gypsies, homosexuals, disabled, and political dissidents) at the hands of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Government. I called three weeks in advance to get tickets. The museum, apparently, is always packed.
As I looked at the exhibits, I found myself overwhelmed by the amazing capacity of human beings have for inflicting cruelty—the beatings, the shootings, the intentional starvation, the gassings, etc. I saw the pictures of human beings acting like monsters by treating other human beings like cattle and thought them disgusting, appalling. But what affected me even more than the horrifying violence of the Germans (and the equally horrifying apathy of the rest of the world) was an eleven-year-old boy in a yarmulke (skull cap) who stood next to me in front of a wall. He just stood there.
Tiles made by children adorned the walls. Some of the tiles had religious symbols on them, some had stick figures with tears rolling down their cheeks, some had pictures of a sunrise. The two tiles that struck me, however, sat close to each other; they said: “Never forget!” and “I’m sorry!” The first was painted by a sixteen-year-old boy, and the second by an eight-year-old girl.
Can you imagine? A sixteen-year-old boy, who probably had trouble remembering what he had for breakfast, made a solemn vow never to forget what happened almost a half century before his birth. Can you imagine? An eight-year-old girl apologizing for something that happened before her parents were born? And me, a middle-aged man, standing next to an eleven-year-old boy in a skull cap—both of us in tears over something that happened years before either of us was born.
I could not stand there long. Finally, I shook my head and left. The young boy stood there, tears streaming in silence.
I was struck by the fact afterward that these were kids, that someone had taught these children that life did not begin when they were born, nor will it end when they die. Someone taught them that they bear a certain responsibility for remembering, for standing guard against the horrors that human beings can inflict on other human beings. Someone taught them that they are a part of a huge tapestry that spans human history—not just the tiny fraction of time they are there to see. Someone taught them to remember.
I say someone taught these children to remember because we have to be taught to accept our share of responsibility for things that happened before we were born (if only because the people who perpetrated these crimes were our fathers and mothers, our cousins and friends, and if we had been there we might have been the ones closing the doors to the gas chambers); we have to be taught to weep because both the people who died and the people who killed are us; we have to be taught not to forget.
If you ever get to the Holocaust Museum, go to the tile wall and look for a little eleven-year-old boy in a skull cap, tears engraving timeless tracks in his cheeks. I’d be willing to bet he’s still there. The world is counting on it.