The Tower of the Void
When you walk into the Tower of the Void inside the Jewish Museum of Berlin, what strikes you immediately is the ominous silence of it all. An empty tower that reaches 20, 30 meters into the air and lets in only a sliver of sunlight from its few sunroofs, the darkness of not only the concrete walls but also the spots that are not illuminated by the sunlight envelop and swallow up the visitors of the tower. A walkway connects the entrance to a dead end on the other side, also consumed by the darkness, but once the silence settles in, your focus turns to the walkway. This walkway is littered with ironwork faces, ranging from the size of a palm to a forty-five pound disk one would see at the gym, but all carrying a wrenching, screaming expression. The idiosyncratic rusting and banged-up edges which have been affected by Father Time’s all-encompassing touch creates an effect that each face is a different, individual face, all crying out in frozen, muted screams. However, take a step onto this walkway and its faces disrupt the stillness of the setting. The faces, hitting against each other under the weight of your steps, noisily echo against the cold, bleak walls of the tower, and what was once an undisturbed silence turns into cries, perhaps even screams. Stop midway, and the noise is gone. Begin walking again, and the metallic chorus rings out once more, filling up the empty tower all the way to the top.
Clink. Clink. Clink. Clank. Clink.
You have to look up, because it becomes no longer possible to look down at those faces.
The German word for remembrance is “Gedenken”. Look at the inscriptions, descriptions, and information on the museums, monuments, and statues littered throughout Berlin and you come across the word “Gedenken” quite often. A country wracked with guilt over its actions in World War II has begged for forgiveness for crimes that might never be forgiven, and these tokens and memorials of repentance are painfully present in the capital of Germany. The Neue Wache, a war memorial for the victims of the Second World War contains Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture Mother with her Dead Son inside an empty cell on the other side of cell bars, with an inscription next to the bars. The inscription, translated into English, reads as follows:
“The Neue Wache is a place of remembrance and commemoration of the victims of war and tyranny.
We remember all nations/peoples who suffered in war.
We remember their citizens, who were persecuted and lost their lives.
We remember all of the innocent people who lost their lives in war and because of the consequences of war at home, in captivity, and during the expulsion.
We remember the millions of murdered Jews.
We remember the murdered Sinti and Romany Gypsies.
We remember all of the people who were killed because of their ancestry, their homosexuality or because of sickness and disability.
We remember all of the murdered whose right to life was denied.
We remember all of the people who had to die because of their religious or political convictions.
We remember everyone who became a victim of tyranny and went innocently to death.
We remember the women and men who sacrificed their lives in the resistance against the tyranny.
We honor everyone who preferred to go to their death than compromise their conscience.
We remember the women and men who were persecuted and murdered because they resisted the totalitarian dictatorship after 1945.”
This is only one of the innumerable places of “Gedenken” that one can find in Berlin, but the feeling conveyed in this message is reflected in every case. So, why is it that we, as people, remember? What is the importance in remembering and why is “Gedenken” such an integral part of our personal and historical narratives?
The Pain of the Past
It was around six o’ clock on June 16th of last year, just a little over a year ago, when I got a text from my younger brother. I was out camping with my ex, her family, and their family friend, and I hadn’t bothered to check it immediately. A couple of hours later, I opened it and learned that my uncle had taken his own life the day before. I frantically called my mom, asking what was happening, what had happened, where dad was, how I could get a hold of him because his phone wasn’t picking up, and, most importantly, why. She told me she would call me back.
By that point, my voice began to quiver, my knees felt like noodles, and all I could muster with my energy was to sit down on a nearby rock and start crying. At first, the tears came out slowly, but steadily it became a watershed flowing down my face as my sobbing shook my bodily uncontrollably. After I was done, I wearily got up and began to walk towards the nearby lake in a daze. The trail I walked along was covered in thorny brushes and pesky rocks and pebbles, but for some reason I could only keep my eyes up ahead, focusing on nothing.
Clink. Clank. Clink. Clink.
I could hear my ex’s family dragging their chairs and belongings up from the lake as the metallic legs of the chairs banged against each other. I passed by them, but I couldn’t look them in the eyes. It was impossible to look at any human face.
The Importance of “Gedenken”
I think of my uncle almost every day, at random intervals, prompted by completely innocuous events. My thoughts range from wishing I could CC him onto my e-mails of my travels to seeing a large, happy extended family sitting together under the Berlin sun at a restaurant and wishing that could be him, my family, and me. I wish he could see how much I’ve grown and learned, and during the pauses between my classes, I wish I could tell him of the books I have been reading, from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov to Gogol’s Dead Souls. All these thoughts, however, lead to one thing: pain.
It pains me that I didn’t talk to him more often. It pains me that I didn’t tell him I loved him more frequently. It pains me that, perhaps, if I had made a phone call out of the blue on June 14th, none of this would have happened. The pain leads to sadness, which leads to resentment, which finally ends in a deep sigh, clenched jaw, and a melancholy that is hidden and put away with bantering and jokes.
And so the “Gedenken”, the remembrance, of his memory brings on this constant throbbing of pain that ebbs and flows; yet, when I say it “ebbs and flows”, that pang in my chest is never truly subsided. It is never at zero. It is ever present, like a wind tunnel that alternates from chilling to piercing, but always blowing, always there.
But that emotional pain, that pang– those are necessary parts in how we construct our narratives. Our goals in our lives generally tend to revolve around a fuzzy and naïve idea of attaining some sort of happiness, whatever that may mean. This pursuit of happiness, however, underlines how sensitive we are to the effects of grief and the pervasiveness of sadness, and how constantly we are aware of them. For the most part, life’s a bitch, and then we die. But those negative aspects that cause so much anguish – those are what we focus on, because those are precisely the things we set out to overcome, learn from, endure, etc. As difficult as it may be, the arduous tasks of carrying our own crosses and climbing our own mountains is one of the most obvious ways we express who we are and reveal our character, and in turn shapes our narrative. Happiness may be our goal, but the seeds of happiness are sorrow, and happiness its fruit.
That might be why “Gedenken” is so important to Germans. It is their cross to bear, to shoulder the blame for the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust, to forever be faced with the stains of blood on their ancestors and national history. Perhaps the weight of it all is unbearably crushing, and that’s certainly a possibility with the way this generation of German youths detests and separates themselves as much as possible from the sins of their forefathers. Maybe, though, just maybe, they’ll realize, just like many others who have come before them, that they have to look at the past in the face and put it on their shoulders.
Whether rightfully or not, that is the purpose and importance of “Gedenken”. Those people who died, my uncle who died, the countless number of people who are dying right now, will die again once more. When we no longer remember them, when their names are uttered for the last time, when they fall out of our “Gedenken”, that is when they die for the second time. How we decide to carry this pain determines what kind of person we choose to be. There is no proof or certainty that the angst, the regret, and the grief will somehow turn us into better or stronger people. There is certainly no guarantee that they will lead to happier lives. Yet, there’s something about this idea of “Gedenken” that feels like it is a duty, that we must do this for those who have passed away and whose memories, like a wax candle that has been lit, will melt away and be no more at one point, and melt away even faster if not for “Gedenken”. Maybe along the way, then, we will find a tiny speck containing a solace of happiness; at the same time, we will probably become more intimate with our sorrow, guilt, and the past. It’s a tradeoff I’m personally willing to make, but it’s a tradeoff Germany has been making ever since their atonement began.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
It’s past midnight, and the only noise to be heard now is the raindrops outside hitting my windows.