Of all European cities, Berlin is arguably the best suited for a discussion on remembrance. A visit there a few years back, taking in the Wall, the Holocaust/Roma/Sinti and other memorials and museums, gave the theme an added resonance for me. Despite its growing reputation as a ‘cool’ city break destination, Berlin’s past is everywhere present.
But why remember? Why the need for Memorials and Days of Remembrance? Can we not just draw a line under the past, forgive and forget and get on with the difficult enough business of living in the present? And mention of forgiveness reminds me of a comment made by my great friend, the late Fr Des Wilson, who once said that the people who were best at forgiving were those who did not forget since they knew how much forgiveness was going to cost them. That’s why remembering the past, dealing with its tragic events and healing its memories, poses the greatest challenge to peacemaking in conflict situations.But remember we must, because remembering is a moral obligation. We owe a debt to the victims of war and violence by telling what happened. By remembering and telling, we not only prevent forgetfulness from killing the victims, twice, we also prevent their life stories from becoming commonplace. As the Auschwitz survivor, Primo Levi, said “it did not matter that they might die along the way; what really mattered was that they should not tell their story”. (Survival in Auschwitz). And we are witnesses to “their story”.
We not only commemorate the victims but we also stand as representatives of those who stood by them, and still do, when it comes to discrimination against any ethnic group. When the basic human rights of one group are violated, no group is safe. The French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, argues: “there are perhaps crimes that must not be forgotten, victims whose suffering cries less for vengeance than for narration. The will not to forget alone can prevent these crimes from ever occurring again” (The Symbolism of Evil).Remembrance and Memorial ceremonies are part of this narration and a recognition that commemoration to be meaningful needs to remember the past in order to shape our common future. Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright, said: “The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread. When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard”. (Bertolt Brecht, Selected Poems).And so we need to go often to where that silence is, to bring back the voices of those decreed to be of no account, those separated from us as “others”, then and now, as less than human. Once the concept of “otherness” takes root, the unimaginable becomes possible. Indeed, we must never tire of giving voice to that silence and symbolic resonance to memorial events which condense and synthesise, both in time and memory, the horrors of which Brecht spoke. In short, by remembering and retelling, we present the testimony of the active witness, instead of that of the bystander.