In my last piece, Letter From Berlin, Part One, I gave an overview, incomplete to be sure, of the history of Germany’s capital.
That might seem out of place in a Canadian magazine dedicated to discussing HIV and AIDS. I would beg to differ, obviously, because Berlin does something quite well that we need to consider: memorialize its past and the victims of that past.
This reflects a shift in the culture of memorials over the last few decades. Consider, for example, the differences between London’s Nelson Column on Trafalgar Square, the monument of Britain’s imperial zenith and greatest victory, and the Cenotaph in Whitehall, symbolic gravestone for The Glorious Dead of the Great War. We have gone from carving the names of great men in marble to the humbler but broader goal of remembering the uncounted dead of our common history. In Ancient Greek, these two forms of built memory have two different names; the heroic monument is a tropaion, the grave marker a stele.
I attribute this to the age of genocide, an age this world has by no means left behind. Any newspaper will tell you that; at this writing, we’re seeing genocidal killing in Syria, Central Africa and Burma, and other places besides. Nor is mass murder or death a thing only of our times; wars, plagues, slavery, too many scourges to count, have martyred this planet since time immemorial. Here in the United States, we still execute people found guilty of certain crimes, in a system so warped and prone to error that it can only be considered malign, a blot on our national character.
Perhaps one day, America will build a structure to commemorate the victims of our system of justice. But these are individual tragedies, not the result of a developed, malevolent plan or the choice of government acting to extinguish human life.
The same cannot be said of the Holocaust or, as it’s more often called within the Jewish community itself due to the appropriation of the term to other mass killings, the Shoah. The sheer scale of that tragedy beggars belief; seven in ten of the Jews of Europe perished in the death factories of the Nazi state. Translated literally from the Greek, ‘Holocaust’ – holos kaustein– is to burn [something] completely, while Shoah in Hebrew is ‘calamity’, a term associated with the destruction of the Second Temple. Before Hitler, the burning of the Temple and subsequent scattering across the Roman Empire was the darkest moment of the Jewish people, in a history not short of disasters individual and communal.
In terms of remembrance, the scale and pitilessness of these modern murders, executed as they were with factory precision, presents a challenge. To paraphrase the Frankfurt School’s Theodor Adorno, Auschwitz made poetry impossible. Is it even possible to capture or do justice to a crime of this magnitude? What superlative of horror might begin to approximate something our or any language is barely capable of expressing, if at all?
There are several such monuments in Berlin as perhaps first drafts of history – I have a theory more will come as the horror moves further back in time, a few generations maybe, once no one alive then will still be among us – that are worth consideration.
One is the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the center of Berlin. Covering several acres just to the south of Germany’s parliament (and across the street from the United States and British embassies) on some of the most valuable real estate on the planet, it is a field of unmarked, dark stone blocks, a few inches to twice the height of a man, far enough apart to allow a visitor to pass through, yet spaced closely enough to make any visit a claustrophobic experience. The architects meant to evoke the claustrophobia of the gas chambers, and to the extent this is even possible, I’d argue they succeeded. The stones are blank, devoid of symbols, writing or any other distraction; you are alone in a void, surrounded on all sides by impermeable darkness. Your first thought, since the human mind does like to make sense of things, might be of a graveyard, fitting perhaps, as most victims of the Holocaust were not afforded even the small mercy of a grave. It is not, however, and should not be, a pleasant experience, a modern cemetery filled with trees and flowers. Instead, you walk on cobblestones hard as death; other than visitors, there is no life in that grim space.
You can gather from this that I’m still processing the experience of that haunting space myself. This memorial is not, however, the one I remember most vividly from my week in Berlin. Not the marker for the gays either, or the one to the Sinti and Roma, the people colloquially referred to as gypsies smack-dab on the same block as the Reichstag, but something else entirely: a little bronze plaque, two of them actually, the size of a cobblestone, embedded in the sidewalk in front of my hotel.
Walked by them a few times, other things in mind – “Ooh, where are the bars? What shall I wear?” – noticing something off. But no matter, nothing big, probably wasn’t going to trip over the little things no matter how late hour. Maybe they were just an architect’s modernist caprice. Until I looked one evening, just to check out what those little things were. Curiosity.
I looked, and felt like someone had just punched me in the gut. There were names, dates and places engraved on those little plaques.
Here lived Sarah Rosenzweig, born Breslau 1925, deported 1942, murdered 1944, Treblinka.
That spot I was standing on in 2013 had been an address for a real human being, not a statistic. This was someone’s home. Their journey towards death started on the spot I was standing on. They probably shopped right over there. They walked by every morning on the way to work. That old tree over there, they probably saw it when it was still a much younger tree. On their days off, maybe they went to that park down the street with friends. Played ball. Fell in love. Ate ice cream. All the large and small things that weave together to make a human life.
And it was all gone. Snuffed out like a dream. Only the stones remained.
No abstraction, no monumentality of grief, just a name and the barest outlines of a life snuffed out, stamped in bronze, flush with the pavement around it. And one of the most powerful and wrenchingly painful things I’ve ever seen.
Similar markers are spread the length and breadth of Europe. The project is called Stolpersteine, German for stumbling blocks.
And now we get to the part where all of this might make some sense in an HIV magazine. Because we need memorials, maybe not unlike the one I stumbled over, by chance, that cold evening in Berlin. Make no mistake: AIDS is a genocide. In my country alone, it has taken six hundred thousand lives, across the world, millions. Snuffed out, gone, not in gas chambers, but in homes, hospitals, a cold and still inevitable journey into oblivion.
Except our genocide was not stopped by force of arms. There was no heroic liberation of Auschwitz for us, no Warsaw Ghetto uprising – unless you count ACT UP, a pale shadow of which still clings to life – and just like over the Holocaust of European Jewry, a blanket of silence has descended over our catalog of horrors. It took decades from the end The War for the Nazi genocide to reach academic curricula or the consciousness of the world. We were far quicker to fall away from memory, likely because our genocide hasn’t ended.
If anything, masked by effective drugs, it is accelerating. At this writing, probably one in four gay men in the United States carries the Human immunodeficiency Virus; by the end this decade, that is within seven years or so, it may well be one in two. At least if trends are sustained that have only moved up for over a decade. Whatever the exact year or date, we will reach that point.
You’d think this ominous future would start a conversation; you’d think so, but you’d be wrong. In America at least, the silence of the major LGBT Rights organizations on the subject of HIV and AIDS is uniformly deafening, as is that of the community itself. My personal theory is that our entire community suffers from a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome that makes this conversation still too painful to have.
But we are nonetheless barreling headlong into catastrophe. The Quilt is in storage. Here in New York City, Saint Vincent’s Hospital, ground zero of the AIDS epidemic, is being redeveloped into luxury condos (with the connivance of Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an out Lesbian and candidate for mayor, God alone help us). Though, to be fair, a small corner of the property has been designated as an AIDS Memorial; in its insignificance and lack of presence, against the backdrop of the full magnificence of Manhattan, perhaps more symbolic than intended: of the plague we forgot.