Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission Awareness - Education - Inspiration

The Challenges of Memorializing Genocide


By THGC Admin

By Luoman Huang, Social Media Intern


Memorials are dedicated to significant events or individuals, but what of those that honor topics which are difficult to comprehend? This is a challenge with structures that memorialize genocides. When investigating the evidence of genocide, no matter how closely the public might attach itself to photos, diaries, and artifices, they are unable to fully comprehend the horrific stories those objects represent. The power of genocide memorials is to take these emotions and use them to inspire action. But such a profound mission isn’t done easily or without controversy.

Berlin Holocaust Memorial (photo by Adam Vradenburg)

Funding such a project is one of the earliest and most important steps to memorial development.  Without proper backing, establishing a memorial is nearly impossible. The Berlin Holocaust Memorial was primary funded by the German government for culture and media. But one particular funding tactic caused a major controversy when supporters attempted to raised money through a billboard ad that stated, “The Holocaust Never Happened.” Smaller text underneath reads, “There are still many people who make this claim. In 20 years, there could be even more.” Jewish leaders were infuriated and many survivors filed suits because the headline could be misconstrued as Holocaust denial. On the other hand, the Rwanda Genocide Memorials generated less debate as they received much of their funding through grants provided by Annenberg Foundation and the Cummings Foundation.

Berlin Holocaust Memorial against city backdrop (photo by Ian Southwell)

Locating an appropriate site is another essential step. Site selection often holds a symbolic meaning of the genocide. The Berlin Holocaust Memorial was erected on five acres of land lying south of Brandenburg Gate and positioned a few steps away from the burial remains of Adolf Hitler. This strategic location help Germany reflect on its transgressions against the Jews and represents those who perished in the Holocaust. On the other hand, while a main Rwandan Genocide Monument is found at Gisozi at the site of a mass grave, others are located across several sites. One of them is housed inside Murambi Technical School where Intrahamwe militia killed thousands of children and adults.

Selection of a design style is another important step of the memorial process. Design issues can arise from contrasting styles, such as minimal abstracts and in-depth realism. The Berlin Holocaust is an abstract design, which requires thoughtful analysis about the relevance between the memorial and the event. Some have argued that the design fails to adequately represent the horror of the Holocaust. Without the title, it would be impossible to understand what the structure commemorates. There is nothing about these concrete slabs that signifies the Holocaust.

In contrast, the Rwanda Genocide Memorial portrays in-depth realism. This design style gives visitors the exact description of the event by incorporating images, dairies, and articles. However, the design also conveys gruesome depictions that can cause people to feel uncomfortable. The Kigali Genocide Memorial confronts you with the crimes that took place by pairing video testimony of survivors with actual corpses of the victims. One powerful section of the exhibit memorializes the children who were killed. Life-style photos are accompanied by intimate description about their favorite toys, their last words, and the manner in which they were killed. The Rwanda Memorial is so vivid that visitors must destress in a rose garden before facing the outside world.

Genocide memorial near Kigali (photo by Hoteldephil)

After design and construction comes the dedication process, which can be another controversial step. The inclusion and exclusion of certain groups can alien numerous individuals and organizations. The Berlin Holocaust Memorial is named “Memorial to the Murdered Jews,” which caused opponents to find this distasteful because Roma, homosexuals, and individuals with disabilities were also killed by the Nazis. A similar issue was also prevalent with the Rwanda Memorial as an exhibit focused primary on the Tutsi victims. NGO Impunity Watch observed that “Hutus killed by their kinsmen for trying to protect their Tutsi Neighbors has no place in genocide memorials.” There is an impression that these Hutus victims, who expressed their humanity in trying to save Tutsis, have not been memorialized.

Genocide memorial near Kigali (photo by Hoteldephil)

When visitors see the endless lines of nameless grave-stones stacked behind one another, they illustrate the enormity of death that resulted from the Holocaust. When sightseers view the corpses of the Tutsis, it shows the horrors of murder on a grand scale. But behind these messages and structures are matters of design, location, and dedication that are the result of decisions bound with complexity and controversy. Countless hours of effort and planning are contributed, and just like the end-product, the steps themselves can be filled with deliberation and disagreement – no surprise considering the overwhelming events genocide memorials must interpret and honor.

Tags: holocaust genocide berlin holocaust memorial memorial genocide memorial murambi technical school kigali genocide memorial rwandan genocide rwanda germany


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