On Viewing Memorials to Atrocities as New Ones are Committed
Some not very formed thoughts…
On Sunday, we stopped by this memorial on our way to Linkuva. It marks the murder of 300 Jews living in the area by Nazis and their local collaborators on August 5, 1941. I‘ll be honest, I find these memorials among the least moving things we’ve seen; they’re deeply impersonal, and feel to me much more about gesturing toward reckoning than actually doing the work of it.
It’s located off a little side road, near an industrial facility of some sort. Nobody would accidentally stumble across it; you have to go out of your way to find it. Andrius, our guide, told us that many of them have fallen into disrepair, and there are often disputes about whether or not their upkeep is the responsibility of local municipalities or the Jewish community of Lithuania. (There is no local Jewish community.) There are stones, most with names painted on them in a way that suggests these are used to teach history to school children, so I suppose they’re of more use than I’m giving them credit for.
In the town of Linkuva itself, we found the building used by the pre-KGB Soviet (I think the OGPU) to torture and then murder Lithuanian resisters. Across from the building is the small public square where they would toss the bodies as a warning to others.
After we left the area of Linkuva, we stopped at the Hill of Crosses. The story of why there are so many crosses is uncertain, but Andrius said the one he found most likely was that Soviet authorities ordered farmers and townsfolk to take down the large wooden crosses that traditionally dot their fields and yards as a totem of protection. Unwilling to destroy them because of their religious significance, nearby villagers began to bring them here, and it eventually became an act of resistance to Soviet rule.
Dominik is a very, very lapsed Catholic, but his mother is devout, so we bought a small cross to leave on the hill as her prayer for peace. By sheer chance, we arrived just in time to follow behind a delegation of people bringing a large cross to ask the same for Ukraine. A choir sang the Ukrainian national anthem. An arch bishop lead a prayer. We all recorded it on our cell phones as millions of Ukrainians survived—or didn’t; on this day the total number of Ukrainian civilian casualties was 3,668 according to the UN—another day of atrocities as the result of the Russian war of aggression.
In the US a teenager in heavy body armor with a gun his father had bought for him shot up a supermarket because he believed Jews were fueling a plot to have Black people replace white people in the US. He documented his influences in great detail as part of a very long manifesto, and still people are insisting he was a lone wolf.
To be honest, I’m at a little bit of a loss as to what to do with the inescapable fact that because we are capable of great violence, it doesn’t seem that we can ever be free of it. In my youth, I believed in all the things 90s hippies believed in toward building a more peaceful world, much of which boiled down to buying or growing our own organic produce, attending drum circles, and mostly removing ourselves from the fray. In hindsight, it seems incredibly naive that we ever thought that was going to have an impact on the lives of anyone but ourselves. But it was always about moving toward peace, however flawed the path. If peace is an unattainable goal in any real way—if the next atrocity is always looming on the horizon—how do we live ethical lives?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, because at the moment, mine are mostly ones of despair.