Photo above: Father Desbois and students at the Busk Jewish cemetery and mass grave

March 8, 2016

These days we look at modern art and a piece by Damien Hirst as either a well priced opportunity, or an absurdity. Alternatively, an academic degree from Georgetown is either a very expensive piece of paper, or a passport to a bright future. In the past 48 hours, I have been confronted by the dichotomy between my interpretation of things and reality.

I say this for two reasons. The first is, yesterday we saw both a Jewish mass gave, and a German cemetery – the contrast was stark. In the former there was essentially a plot of abandoned forest with odd topographical formations that has been looted by locals, and its only recognizable feature is the remains of a minimalist, unkept, Jewish memorial. In the latter we saw a beautiful cemetery on the top of a hill, maintained by a guardian who protects it from looters, and has a complete record of all the German lives who are buried there (regardless of whether they were perpetrators or not.)

The second reason is today we discovered how pre-Holocaust Jewish gravestones were repurposed as sidewalks and as a bridge for the local village. This display is a clear disregard for their purpose as gravestones recognizing lost lives, and is a lack of respect for the people they are meant to represent. This is quite thought provoking to me within the modern context. How can someone who recognizes what these items are, show a complete lack of consideration for them? Especially when we see the respect afforded by these same individuals to other gravestones associated with Catholics.

Which brings me to the reason I bring up both of these points and my introduction: everything in life is a matter of interpretation. As human beings, we either associate too much or too little importance to material objects, regardless of whether they are a bunch of dots on a piece of canvas, ink on a piece of paper, or a carved slab of concrete. To be fair, humans attribute “special” value to material things purely on the personal value we attach to them. In a completely logical world I could argue there is nothing special about a slab of concrete with names on it, as it wouldn’t make a location more or less important. What matters is what people recognize and remember.

Walking around in Busk & Sokolivka pushed me to think about this range of interpretations we give to physical objects. Where do we draw the line? Is an unmarked site of Jewish victims less important than a German site that is marked, purely because of the concrete slab that marks what occurred there? Could it just be enough to recognize the perpetrators and the victims in an intellectual dimension, regardless of what occurred in a physical dimension. After all, isn’t a gravestone just a piece of a stone with some writing and an intellectual discussion a more permanent record of the truth? Or is the concrete marking an important representation of the lives that were lost and crucial to the recognition of their lives as human beings?

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