Friday, May 13, 2016

Monuments to the Fallen

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  – George Santayana

Americans are blessed to live in a land that, for the most part, has not been overrun and occupied by enemy armies. True, during the Civil War we didn’t need help in executing the horrors of war – we did a perfectly fine job on our own. Invasions by outsiders – both recent and past – were either spotty or are now considered ancient history. And, oh yes, let’s not forget that whole occupation-thing by white, non-native Americans. Whatever.

Every major city in the U.S. has its share of monuments erected to honor those who served and those who fell doing the dirty work of preserving our freedoms as a nation. One cannot miss them or dismiss their importance. A bronze Civil War soldier stands guard atop a two-story pedestal. A bronze eagle, grasping a laurel wreath, is surrounded by names etched in stone. A bronze general surveys the landscape from his bronze horse – his vista improved atop a massive stone plinth.

Until Maya Lin came along with the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., most U.S. monuments to the fallen were pulled out of a mold that had its roots in Classical antiquity. The formula was simple: A larger-than-life bronze figure on top of a large, stone base. The viewer’s eye was no higher than the middle of that base. One looked up to the noble figures. Smaller, local monuments were usually bronze plaques secured to the largest boulder in the vicinity. Memory was at least meant to be immovable.
“Majdanek Mausoleum”
Wiktor Tolkin. 1969.
(Lublin, Poland)

That formula, however, rarely conveyed the sense of loss or sacrifice. The public was expected to stiffen their upper lip and keep emotions at bay for the sake of the whole. The unspoken sentiment was that we were a determined people, no matter the cost; no matter the sacrifice.

For my part, I prefer a more visceral approach in allowing emotional loss to trump noble resolve. Lin’s Vietnam wall is a perfect example of this. Whether originally intended or not, it is the public’s reaction to an unfeeling wall of names that gives the piece it’s soul. It is the touch of a finger to a single name. The Oklahoma City National Memorial and the National 911 Memorial in New York are also examples that demand solemn respect – though it would be strange to call them “fine” or “good.”
“Warsaw Uprising Monument”
Wincenty Kućma, Jacek Budyn
1989. (Warsaw, Poland)

To see more examples of similar caliber, however, one has to look abroad. Poland is a perfect place, in that the nation has been arguably one of the most bullied countries in recent history. During WWII, Poland was beaten down as a nation, its Jewish population obliterated, and its stubborn inhabitants given a thrashing they would not forget. They did not forget. Even when Soviet control seized the nation, they did not forget.

Poland was slow to heal after the war, and it took some time before monuments were considered. One of the earliest was the mausoleum erected over a mound of human ashes at Majdanek Concentration Camp near Lublin. At first glance, it looks like a massive gun emplacement. In reality, it is a covering; a lid for a funerary urn of unimaginable horror. Its surface is covered by vague, haunting images. A single, central oculus allows the sun to transverse the exposed ashen heap.
“The Little Insurgent”
Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz. 1983.
(Warsaw, Poland)

As Communist control evaporated during the 1980s, a staggering number of monuments began appearing in Poland, each with equal amounts of emotion and creativity. The old, Classical formula was avoided – perhaps in avoidance of Soviet preferences.

The “Warsaw Uprising Monument” imposed itself on the city’s center, rising out of the ground to spew desperate, bronze figures of the underground resistance. Elements of the piece scatter beyond a massive central grouping, with figures half-emerged from the sidewalk. The monument uses a visual technique of including space beyond its actual bounds, and visitors experience an eerie presence of those beneath the pavement.

Strangely, a much smaller monument down the street carries as much emotional weight. “The Little Insurgent” is a figure of a young child toting a submachine gun and wearing a captured Nazi helmet much too large for his head. One needn’t know historic particulars to understand lost childhood, tragic heroism, and a mother’s unconsoled tears.

“Mausoleum of the Martyrdom of Polish Villages”
Mirosław Nizio. Set to open in 2016.
(Michniów, Poland)

Work is progressing today on yet more memorials.  The “Mausoleum of the Martyrdom of Polish Villages” is set to open this year near Michniów. Like many modern memorials, a theme of disjointed frames and scarred walls is employed, bringing a sense of utter loss to bear. Modern glass and fresh concrete do not lessen the feeling of a world gone haywire; of unjust, collateral damage; of entire communities calling from the ground.

But there is something to a simple wall. Like Maya Lin’s scar rising out of the Mall in Washington D.C., an unassuming, brick wall in Gdańsk leaves a lasting impression on viewers strolling the grounds of the Gdańsk Post Office. This elegantly understated tribute to the defenders of the facade during the Polish uprising belies past horror. That wall, where resistance fighters were lined up and shot by SS troops, bears small, metal bricks with symbolic hand impressions. They could easily be missed as decoration. Hands were once forced to hold the wall until they fell away lifeless. But this one atrocity – even when there were so many – was not forgotten. Nor should it be, else we be condemned to repeat it.
Memorial wall at the Gdańsk Post Office Museum c. 1979. (Gdańsk, Poland)

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