This weekend I visited the New England Holocaust memorial (NEHM) in Government Center. It was not my first time there, but after reading this week’s readings I was able to look at it with new eyes. In my mind, it is an impeccable memorial- 6 hollow glass towers, inscribed with 6 million numbers.
Martia Sturken talked about the memorial as a “screen” for the public. The New England Holocaust Memorial sent a clear message as a screen. It is made of glass, completely transparent. The transparency of the memorial implies that there is nothing to hide, and the 6 towers stand quite tall and loom over the viewers, imposing the sense of scale necessary to such a tragedy. However, the memorial is also contextualized, because as large as it seems, it is housed in the shadow of tall buildings all around it, giving the viewer a sense of perspective as if to say this is but one of many moments in our history.
What I found interesting was how the nature of the situation created a liminal memorial. Sturken discusses the differences between monuments and memorials, noting that generally speaking, memorials commemorate the dead while monuments underscore a unity of purpose and celebrate success. The NEHM, I think, while choosing to be called a memorial, definitely embodies some of the architectural traits of a monument, though a modest one. The tall towers are antithetical to Lin’s highly controversial and now archetypal low-lying memorial. However, a similar purpose is achieved. The memorial is to those who died, and by commemorating them (here as only numbers) the designers create a network of connections that radiates from the site and flourishes into a tangible legacy of those who died as well as those who survived. In addition, the memorial insists that you enter it, to feel the heat coming out of the grates at the bases of the towers and to read the inscriptions of poetry or a story and of course the legions of numbers.
What I found most powerful perhaps was the use of numbers, which masterfully perverts the Nazi’s use of them to dehumanize their victims. The numbers act as signifiers, the same role as names, and here are effective because while the scope of the dead is in some cases well documented, in others whole villages will go unaccounted for. In embracing that number, each of the dead is reborn with a powerful sense of individuality and permanence etched into that glass with the finality appropriate of such a moment of our history. It thus avoids the problem of who to put in, who to leave out, and whose name has to be all the way at the top where no one can see it.
Overall, I found this memorial very moving, and I was not alone. It seemed like such a normal day until I arrived, but the NEHM was capable of stirring something deep inside of everyone there. You could see it in their eyes the way they stepped so cautiously, fearful to disrupt such hallowed ground. I almost forgot I was in the middle of Government Center, thousands of miles and an ocean away from where this happened, not to mention more than 60 years. The memorial, true to it’s name, is something like the arousal of a deep memory- one that does not belong solely to the viewer or survivor but to all the living who care to see it. It offers a story, a history, and nothing more. Stepping under those towers was like walking through a series of crucibles, each engraving a deep scar on your mind to remind you that it was there, as you are inside of it, and so the memory of the dead lives on inside of you. This process is central to the promise the many made after the holocaust- to never forget- and the NEHM succeeds in upholding that promise.