Just walking around Berlin, history speaks to you in the present tense.
You are aware of the stolpersteine—the small, square brass “stumbling stones” in front of buildings and houses engraved with the names of Jewish families who lived there followed by the date and location of where they were transported during the Holocaust.
Grunevalde is a lovely, upscale suburb on the outskirts of the city. As you walk up the ramp leading to the former freight yard at its train station, you’re aware of hollows in the concrete wall alongside. It takes a minute to register that what you’re seeing in a weird reverse bas relief are crumpled, mangled forms of human bodies… an impression where a head was pitched at a strange angle, a hand reached, or two bodies once huddled close. The effect is sobering to say the least.
This is more than “dark tourism,” it is one of the most unforgettable of the “never forget” memorials I’ve ever seen. It was installed in 1991, and on January 27, 1998, the Deutsche Bahn established an accompanying tribute to Gleis 17 (Platform 17) at the top of the ramp. Here, from the late 1930s to 1945, thousands of Jews waited in long queues here before they were “dispatched” from this platform to concentrations camps. The dates of the transports, the number of people they carried, and their destinations are all recorded on little brass plates at very edge of the track.
And if you go to the Bebel Platz, a large, beautiful square in downtown Berlin surrounded by the state opera, a cathedral, and Humboldt University, you could miss a memorial to “The Empty Library” if you don’t look down. Inset among the cobbles is a strong, clear plexiglass cover revealing a full scale 20K-book library in which all the shelves are empty… faceless mannequins stand zombie-like in a few places. A plaque off to the side explains the infamous book burning event the Nazis staged at this very spot in March 1933.
This is not a morose travelogue, but for a very long time now, I’ve been trying to express a view of what Art can do, beyond amaze us. I’m still not there, but it has something to do with reconstruction… the kind that delivers redemption.
Berlin is, in my opinion, exemplary of what reconstruction of a traumatized place should achieve. The point is not to erase, destroy, or revise history—especially dark, deeply regrettable, horrifically tragic events—but alchemize it through Art.
Wherever there is reconstruction, there was destruction. I believe reconstruction is an artform that is only partially concerned with structure… it is far more focused on meaning and transformation.
When all we do is address the problems on a structural level… we build again, we reconstruct… we cover it with grass… we may even erect monuments, but we put ourselves at great risk of repeating the past… of looping the scenes with the next generation, and the next, if we don’t let the artists do their work.
In the 1990s, I lived in Richmond, Virginia, a place that embodies the complexity of reconstruction. Today, the images of activism that toppled Confederate monuments show the rage no one was prepared to express in those days. After all, the Civil Rights Era had already done all that heavy lifting 25 years earlier, right? Well, to that, I submit that you can judge the mental health of a place by its art, and the most prominent artistic expressions of Richmond’s identity until recently were its Confederate heroes that gave Monument Avenue its name.
Having been raised in the north just a couple hours from Motown, and relocated to Colorado after college in Iowa, I came to Virginia blissfully unaware that some of the people there believed the South would rise again, and still had strong views about “the war of northern aggression.” One silver-haired docent at the Confederate White House Museum told me in a convivial tone that the South only lost because “We ran out of bullets.”
Fast forward to the 2020 destruction of the Confederate statues centering a brick-paved bastion of aristocracy… the sacred ground running through the old moneyed neighborhoods known as the Fan. A stoic Robert E. Lee covered in a riot of spray paint… the same for J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Matthew Maury… every monument “rebranded” until you reached the untouched shrine to native son Arthur Ashe, at the end.
By 2021, all Richmond’s confederate monuments were removed, which was the right thing to do… so far. Again, deconstruction is only half the equation. The right reconstruction has everything to do with embodying the wisdom gained, and that must be the bailiwick of art, not policy. I know there is the business-end of this equation, but that’s not the solution. The answer lies in the mind of an artist the Muse calls up for duty at just such a time as this. Could there be any greater example than Maya Lin, the Asian-American sculptor and designer of the profoundly moving Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC?
In 2018, the removal of Ianelli’s 1936 art deco masterpiece* from Bronson Park in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was a stellar example of a community trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the decades-long indigenous objection to that colonial cause célèbre—a rifle-toting settler lording in size and manner over the conquered Native American—did not prompt this action. Needed repairs to the fountain were more expensive than removing it, so the can of worms was re-opened. Still, I’m proud of the outcome so far… but there’s more to do… destruction necessarily leads to reconstruction. The right kind of reconstruction repairs a damaged place (and people) with a healing, circumspect beauty.
Today, if I’m at Bronson Park, I feel regret that the Ianelli Fountain is gone, then I feel guilty. I’m a white-privileged, middle-class woman who grew up with fond memories of that fountain… of kids splashing around in the pool, concerts, picnics on the grass beside it. Back then, I never saw the conquered Indian, at least that’s not what that meant to me. But that’s the problem… I wasn’t bothered by the message it reinforced about deplorable aspects of human history because that’s not what the fountain meant to me.
The good people of Richmond—certain ones anyway—saw a hero, a man of great honor and integrity in Confederate General Robert E. Lee sitting 60 foot high on his horse well into the 21st century. They did not see that monument as the festering flashpoint that would be triggered by George Floyd’s murder.
Where, at Bronson Park (or on Monument Avenue or in Minneapolis or or or…) is La Pietá to express what we have learned from the undeniable evidence of an unconscionable (or, at the very least, gravely mistaken) past? …to help us recognize our own unconscious biases before they’re perceived or experienced as racism?
Sometimes it takes a pillage…. or a mandate… but much more effective is a powerful, intrinsic, art-inspired motivation to force us out of the comfort zone of a familiar narrative and up the learning curve. When we know better, we do better.
Every one of us has a moral and ethical obligation to engage in knowing better, and doing better. It’s not enough to be “Woke” or bumper-stickered or engaged in some form of virtue signaling. None of that conveys what happens next.
Berlin has given the world a model of history, memory, awareness, understanding, accountability, and action welded into an identity that’s palpably, profoundly expressed everywhere with art.
When reconstruction brings that kind of redemption, it is surely the finest work of art.
© L. Seaver, January 2023