Memorializing the Holocaust
Janet Jacobs, author of Memorializing the Holocaust: Gender, Genocide and Collective Memory , discusses the memorials and monuments to the Holocaust at Ravensbrück, Germany.
Sixty six years after the end of World War II, the observance of Holocaust Memorial Day stands as an important cultural marker of the tragic and violent genocide that has, for more than half a century, shaped the collective consciousness of post war Europe. This act of public commemoration has emerged out of a memorial landscape that since the 1950s has provided the memory frames through which death, suffering and ethnic terror are remembered. Just as Holocaust Memorial Day brings the past into the present, memorials and monuments preserve the collective narratives of loss, shame, guilt and despair that are the ever present reminders of the Nazi regime. Among the most moving of these memorials is the national monument at Ravensbrück, Germany, a concentration camp site that was originally conceived and built to house women prisoners. Over the course of the war, 130,000 women and children were housed in the over flowing barracks, few of whom survived. Among the women imprisoned at Ravensbruck were resistance fighters from Europe and Scandinavia, as well as Jewish, Sinti, and Roma populations. Thus, this site of terror stands as a monument to the far reaching cruelty and persecution to which women from diverse backgrounds were subjected.
As a war memorial, Ravenbrück is among the most evocative sites in the post Holocaust memoryscape. Situated at the edge of Lake Schwedt, a vast expanse of water that contains the ashes of the dead, the camp lies close to the picturesque town of Fürstenberg. Within the many and varied texts of memory at Ravensbrück are the sculpted figures of women prisoners who stand at the doorway to the crematorium, who tower over the camp grounds (left), and who reside in the surrounding forest. The road leading to the memorial is marked by a bronze sculptural tableaux of three women carrying the body of a dead child on a stretcher. In this re-created scene of death and child loss, each of the three women in the 'Group of Mothers' (below) strikes a dramatically different pose, embodying the motifs of grief, emotional devastation, and maternal strength that have come to characterize women’s memory at this powerful memorial site. With pathos and anguish, the 'Group of Mothers' tells a war time story of maternal strength and the tragedy of maternal loss, signaling to the visitor that this memorial site takes, as it's starting point, women's vulnerability during times of war and ethnic violence.
Once inside the camp, the prisoners’ art reveals the other atrocities that the inmates endured. In stark and unsparing imagery, the prisoners' drawings illustrate the over-crowded barracks, the arduous work details, the daily line-ups, the torture of the victims, and the presence always of death. These artistic renderings comprise another text of memory, one that conveys the sense of threat and danger that permeated the culture of the camp and the everyday lives of the inmates. As a site of memory, Ravensbruck has come to occupy a special place of commemoration, remembering with dignity and respect those who resisted, those who were sent to their death for their Jewishness, and those, primarily Sinti and Roma women, who were forcibly sterilized. As the Holocaust is recalled and mourned each year, the women of Ravensbruck tragically remind us of the power of intolerance in a world that remains haunted by a genocidal past that has already been repeated, albeit in different forms and spaces, in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur.
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