The Monuments of War

I spent yesterday with American monuments in Washington, DC.

The way the sun flicks off monuments, don't you think it makes them look like pretty statues in the distance?

You don't even see the Vietnam War Memorial when you come upon it from the hill above. It is etched into a mound on the side of the hill, starts with a small edge, and gets larger as the hill descends.

Its black stone walls embraced the grief of fathers never known or brothers lost, set against the majesty of the Lincoln Memorial, which proclaimed that soldiers in the Civil War did not die in vain. "Government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth," said Lincoln. The American heroic myth. I would die for it, too.

But I thought that the Vietnam War was about trying to place this American myth on a country whose history was irrelevant to it. Maybe this humble wall, this powerful prayer against war, was the only way to make a statement that these soldiers did not die in vain.

People's shadows glistened against the stone, as visitors touched the names, crying. As I descended into this sculpture, I thought that the wall seemed to be an architectural expression of that phrase in Psalm 23:

I walk

into the valley

of the shadow

of death.

If the Vietnam War Memorial was the shadow of death, then the Holocaust Museum was death.

There was a dog crazed with anger being walked by a smirking Himmler. I touched an Auschwitz barracks bunker. I couldn't believe it. There I was touching something that only the chance of being born in a different time and place allowed me to escape.

I walked beneath a copy of the gate, Arbeit Macht Frei.

I stared at the faces of Jewish women from a town just outside Vilna, Poland, where my paternal grandfather was born. Looking just like those women, my face was a remnant of their disappeared history.

There was a table with a hole in the middle of it. This was the table where prisoners had to take the gold out of people's teeth. The hole in the middle was to drain blood.

I read stories of Jewish administrative heads of Polish ghettos trying to appease the Nazis and enforce their rules in the hopes of saving Jews from export, only then to be betrayed and killed themselves. And of a German maid of an SS officer who became his mistress against her will to save the 20 Jews she was hiding in her basement.

Then there were the piles of shoes.

On this journey through monuments, I wondered about the heroism of Lincoln, the impressionism of Vietnam, and the realism of the Holocaust Museum. Here were three searingly indelible ways to deal with war through architectural expression.

How does writing compare? How do you deal with war?

© copyright, 1999, Barbara Steinberg
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