This post was written over a year and a half, from October 2015 to April 2017.
Reverence is defined as deep respect for someone or something. In a world that highlights only the highlights, I wanted to understand how we express reverence for the memories we come upon that aren’t as joyful.
Berlin, Germany | October 2015
Our destination in Berlin was the Wall. Peering through cracks a couple of bulletholes wide, we took in a narrow view of the death strip, where East Berliners were gunned down by border guards, their footsteps on the loose gravel impossible to miss. We wandered into the memorial, where a few college kids had unfolded their legs and blankets and books to capture some of the early October sun. Stunned comments escape from our mouths:
“Is it normal to do your homework on the lawn of the Berlin Wall?”
I joined the caboose of a memorial tour, listening as a lanky tour guide in his late twenties gestured to portraits of those killed at this very site, explaining the conditions behind each death. He was compassionate, if a little jittery, because who wouldn’t be jittery if this was your 9-to-5?
When the tour group moved to their next stop, I noticed an empty Diet Coke bottle resting atop the victims’ portraits. I got mad. I usually get sad before I get mad, but when I do I can feel myself turning into my mom, filling with righteous anger for when things are disrespectful. It wasn’t right that some oblivious tourist left a Diet Coke bottle, a piece of trash that didn’t even make it to the nearest recycling bin, to block the precious human lives that had been tossed aside: eerily similar to the way we discard trash.
Manhattan, New York | August 2009
New York’s hottest tourist attraction was our agenda for the morning. Nearly eight years after the attacks, we visited the World Trade Center Memorial.
“We” was my parents and me, a newly-minted 14-year-old. Our family vacations have always been dotted with historical visits, taking us to the Lincoln museum in Springfield, IL, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, a reservation in Santa Fe. As Americans, visiting the World Trade Center while in New York seemed necessary. The full museum won’t be open for another two years, but we made our way around the lobby anyway. I gazed up at the piles of rubble behind glass and down at building-sized holes in the ground.
Holes that sat, significant only in proving the absence of what used to be– occupying heaps of valuable space in a city where a square foot of apartment space, barely enough to sit cross-legged in, costs over $1,400. Holes that demand reflection: when all our eyes want to do is drag the original buildings back into their foundations, we can’t. Something new is here now–but faithfully existing for the promise that we will not forget.
The gift shop wasn’t open while we visited. It will open in May 2014, to criticism as some claim the shop operates in poor form, as funding inflated salaries from the sale of such a tragedy is heartless. But what about the understandably practical logic of selling merchandise in order to simply turn on the lights in the museum? To employ the people who guide grieving families and curious tourists alike through the harrowing experience of reliving this day? The question is an critical one, its answers indicative of how we revere tragedy. I have no answers, only the tangential musings of a suburban 14-year-old.
Krakow, Poland | November 2015
I stood in Auschwitz I, the camp with the iron gate reading “Arbeit macht frei”–“work makes you free”–in twisty letters arched above my head. There were heaps of schoolkids running around, matching sweatshirts designating their class trips coming from Israel, America, everywhere. They giggled and crowded in for a group picture under the haunting gate, smiling and avoiding contact like teenagers who “like-like” people do.
As we walked through the camp, kids started pulling out iPhones and Snapchatting footage–amateur documentary filmmakers, they–presumably to their friends not as lucky to be on the world tour trip.
The whispers started from my classmates:
I wish they were mature enough to respect this place.
Maybe when they’re older.”
But our professor inserted himself, empathetically, gently: “Who knows–they could be sending that to a grandma who survived this place, a grandpa who isn’t strong enough to make it back.”
Memphis, Tennessee | March 2017
Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The National Civil Rights Museum has since taken over the Motel, allowing visitors snake through the third floor and peer in at the famous Room 306. As I shuffle by with the other visitors from a rainy Sunday, only a few yards and a glass divider separate me from the spot where King was assassinated.
There are signs a few feet before the spot on the hotel’s balcony asking visitors to be silent in respect for the events that occurred here. While we’re shuffling by the rooms, a mother and her daughter, about my age, strike up a casual conversation about the weather.
By know I know what will happen. When we leave the area for the gift shop (a recurring theme in memorials, I’ve found), the first thoughts to our lips are: “Why were they talking? Didn’t they see the signs? Don’t they just know that’s rude?”
The question I have no idea how to answer is this: Why do some expect reverence, and some try to normalize? Which will make our society better–can we even come up with an appropriate response to history’s tragedies?
In visiting places of horrifying loss, I have continually needed to remind myself that I will never understand.
Although I stand at the door to 1968, I will never understand, like Coretta Scott King, what it was like to lose both a husband and a national figure of hope at the exact same time. Like Yolanda, MLK III, Dexter, and Bernice–I will never understand the pain of losing a father.
Although I look into the holes where two towers once stood, I will never understand, like family members and loved ones of the 2,753 people who died on September 11th, 2001, how it felt to watch planes crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, where their brothers, mothers, aunts, anyone worked.
And although I stand at the kiln, I will never understand, like the children and grandchildren of those who were dehumanized, humiliated, and ultimately burned to death, how to exist in the world without searing anger that one group of people made it their mission to obliterate yours.
I will never understand and I must stop co-opting my reverence for tragedy as a marker that I do. Reverence means nothing without my acknowledgment of just how much pain I’ve escaped–it’s negligible even with that acknowledgment. Because I can never understand, I can only ask: How has this affected you? What are you willing to share? What have I done to further it?