Americans love to commemorate events of the past. We have a multitude of national holidays set aside for various presidents' birthdays, we dedicate entire months to celebrating historical movements, and we have no shortage of exhibits and attractions in remembrance of events or individuals. Take the 100th birthday of the Titanic this year — aside from the permanent and popular attraction in Pigeon Forge, museums across the country featured interactive exhibits where visitors played the part of a historical person on the ship, finding out at the end of the exhibit if their character lived or died. These exhibits were designed to add a level of personal connection to the commemorative event, to make it more than mere historical fact, and to emphasize the need to remember the Titanic.
But the question raised about such exhibits is a question of appropriateness. Does the adoption of a character turn the commemoration into more of a game than a somber remembrance of those who died? Is it right for us to claim that we feel what they felt?
These are questions of the politics of memory, questions that debate how and why we should commemorate certain events and who should do the commemorating. And the difficulty of memory politics is that it is almost impossible to please everyone who has a vested interest in the event being celebrated or remembered.
America is not the only country facing these challenges. Germany and Poland along with other parts of Eastern Europe have perhaps a heavier task at hand when they seek to honor and remember those who died in the Holocaust almost 75 years ago. There has always been a significant amount of debate over Holocaust commemorations in these countries: whether the German government should sponsor a memorial, whether Christians should establish a museum, or whether emphasizing an emotional and visceral response to the tragedy is more appropriate than simply presenting the facts. As with the Titanic exhibits, the question is not about the need to remember the Holocaust, for no one would deny the importance of keeping those who died alive in public memory. The question is about finding an appropriate way of doing so.
Of all the places I have visited that are dedicated to the remembrance of the Holocaust, the most effective was my visit to Auschwitz this summer. There are no contrived games to play, no issues of sponsorship, no undermining of fact or emotion in favor of the other. In fact, Auschwitz achieves a remarkable, and extremely powerful, blend of fact and feeling. You are at once assaulted with the vast statistics of death and the visual evidence of that death as you enter rooms filled to the brim with victims' suitcases and shoes. There is no time or space in the mind of the visitor to contemplate the philosophical issues of memory politics. There is only the memory, and that memory stays with you long after you leave.
This issue is one that we should keep in mind at UT as we plan events, celebrations, and exhibits in commemoration of various events or people. There is a fine line between trivializing the issue by emphasizing the human aspect over the facts and vice versa. A balance of statistics and emotions is perhaps the least controversial and most effective way to remember those worth remembering. It is my hope for this year that our various student committees dedicated to discussing issues on campus will remember that it is not about the spectacle but about the topic at hand, and that effective communication and commemoration relies above all on an appropriate presentation.
— Sarah Russell is a senior in history. She can be reached at email@example.com.