Buildings are where we store our memories, writes Ben Macintyre. (Never Forget Srebrenica. A response.)

Buildings are where we store our memories
writes Ben Macintyre, The Times, Thursday January 14th 2010.

[With the capture of Ratko Mladic, these thoughts are again pertinent.]

Walking the length of the Miljatska river, through Sarajevo, one comes to understand this statement most profoundly: the streams of bullet holes still decorating the facades of the buildings echo the writing on the still red-graffitied pavements: Never Forget [Srebrenica]. One learns to read these war torn cities using one’s eyes like the fingertips of the blind trailing over Braille print. Until these buildings are fallen or restored there will be no forgetting. Memories are indeed stored in these buildings, the past inscribed across them like blatant hieroglyphics. On some buildings in Sarajevo the bullet holes have been sealed with white putty paste, this painting over seems an absurd dissimulation, and serves only to exacerbate memory. The white patches over the bullet holes act like gaudy plasters over ever weeping wounds; this is a sad attempt at forgetting and a sad attempt at rendering the homes within less fragile.

Mostar is otherwise and the effort that has been made to rebuild the city, and particularly the eponymous bridge, conceals the wounds suffered. Stari Most, the Old Bridge, dating to the sixteenth century and destroyed during the war in 1993, was finally rebuilt in 2004, in its original form according to its original design, and using the same stone. But the new bridge allows one to forget, it allows tourism to trip up from Croatia to trip along the cobbles, to photograph the boys diving from the 78ft high bridge into the icy blue Neretva river below, as if nothing. Only on pushing out beyond these tourist tracks of cobbled streets and white walls does the disguise fall and is the past recalled, in fallen, shot-up buildings, the hoards of bullet wounds, the homes of history.

Strange tourism that to the buildings of Auschwitz, to the trenches, to the war-ravaged corners of Sarajevo? Tourists like voyeurs stealing glimpses of another’s tragedy? And yet this tourism can likewise be considered a pilgrimage and an act of remembering. Indeed, Macintyre considers this pilgrimage, to place, the most evocative:

“Buildings can summon memory and evoke history in a way that even books, paintings and poetry cannot. Nature constantly gnaws at them. Like us, buildings are in a state of constant, ineluctable decay; unlike us, human action can preserve them indefinitely. They are a form of immortality.”

Auschwitz was not built to stand, as Macintyre highlights, however its tumbling presence stands as a memorial to the events of the Holocaust. Were it to fall, so would the memory risk tumbling to dust, or to the fallacies of fable. The standing building does immortalise the event, it brings it out of time to give it a living relevance today as yesterday, and tomorrow. One might argue that there is a need to forgive and forget, wipe clean the slate, to put the past behind us. Indeed, in the comments posted online, the overlying attitude is that Auschwitz should be razed to the ground, or “finally we shall all end up living in one vast museum, a monument to the dead on a national scale”, writes one. But as Roger Boyes quotes in his article: ‘Auschwitz asks Britain for help to preserve decaying death camp’, The Times 13th January, “this is not about guilt, but about the future”. In Sarajevo it is necessary to rebuild and restore that the citizens might live in houses that are at least apparently infallible. In the case of Auschwitz it is a moral duty to acknowledge the Holocaust, and a human right to commemorate the dead.

Other to the branded buildings themselves, to the ruined streets of Sarajevo, is the memorial, the structure built in memorandum. Another centre of pilgrimage and remembering. The cemetery stands as a memorial in it simplest form. Of the shape of the city of Sarajevo spaces have been carved to house the dead, they stand like cities within the city. Rather than placing the cemeteries on the outskirts of the city thus segregating the living and the dead, as they were eventually forced to do due to shortage of space, the fact that they were placed within the city has created an everyday practice of remembrance. These memorials are, for the most part, endless standing pillars, white, with cloned inscriptions.

In a similar line, I cannot forget Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial, which, inaugurated in 2000, stands in judenplatz, Vienna. It is a cube library in relief form, a squat square block sat upon the colonial paving stones in a square filled with cafes, as if fallen there. Also known as Nameless Library, this structure has no door handles and its books cannot be read.

This “inverted library” recalls a notion of the French writer Patrick Modiano, that a disappeared person leaves their presence in relief-form. In his haunting novels a disappeared Jewish figure is sought by the narrator, who retraces their life and disappearance, thus offering existence/apparition and memory to this disappeared figure. The character leaves a mark of their presence, as a negative, in the buildings in which they lived, a concave human shaped absence. Modiano’s buildings, like Rachel Whiteread’s store the memory and recall the absence with a negative shaped form. Memory is marked at once by absence and presence – the present memory recalling something now absent – we only have to think of Proust and his too-often-cited “madeleine”.

The human is attracted to the ruin. The human eye enjoys the complexity, attaching to the many forms and layers of ruin. The human soul the nostalgia, the roughedged memory of what once was. Pilgrimages the world over to ruins, to holy buildings, to these buildings, holders of memories. And while one might go to these places so might one be forced into exile from them. I understand this dichotomy of attraction/rejection to be a mirror reflecting the same issue. Macintyre reflects on urbicide, calling it “one of the most repulsive features of twentieth-century warfare”. While the presence of place acknowledges memory, history and identity, its absence is synonymous with loss of memory, and thus identity. Indeed, identity, so wrapped up in collective memory, is ineluctably wrapped up in place, or placeness, a real sense of place. The Israel/Palestine question is perhaps the most evocative contemporary expression of this dilemma, but it is one well known and peculiar to our age. The nature of the refugee, one who has gone in search of a place of refuge, is indeed this loss of place. As Edward Said writes in his poignant essay Reflections on exile :

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that history and literature contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exiles are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.”

Letting Auschwitz fall is to deny the physical memory of the Holocaust, and in some way echoes Said’s words, denying that library of memories so important to identity. These buildings should not stand for guilt, nor self–righteousness, they should not be decreed like some new-fangled conception of original sin. In an era so devoid of sense of place, the existence of these buildings offers some sort of redemption from exile. They are a memory and a permission to remember in the most physical manner. They are a library of memories, books that can be read, evoking that same mirror library holding the books that will never be read.

‘Buildings are where we store our memories’, by Ben Macintyre, The Times Thursday January 14th.

‘Auschwitz asks Britain for help to preserve decaying death camp’, by Roger Boyes, The Times January 13th


One thought on “Buildings are where we store our memories, writes Ben Macintyre. (Never Forget Srebrenica. A response.)

  1. dear Olivia,

    I must tell you what is concealed behind this ‘like’ of mine.
    I have this imaginary family most of whom live in the sky, but are very occupied with the subject of remembering as a vehicle for learning and experience.

    After a certain absence, I found myself needing to return to this theme after initially having begun to research it a while ago. This is how I knew about the Ben Macintyre’s text. It is in the process of trying to pick up this thread once more that I came across your blog post.

    To my mind, the questions Ben raises in his article will barely age with time.
    The thought of our relationship to buildings and what this means for a collective memory in particular, was something which remained solidly stuck in my mind. Glad to have come across your article.

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