Making space for marking loss

Eleven years ago today, I was in Berlin embarking on the 10-day March of Remembrance and Hope Holocaust study trip with sixty Canadian students and two survivors.

It is not an exaggeration to say that there has not been a day of my life since that trip that I have not recalled it in some way.

Contending with morality and mortality as a young adult through this trip remains among the most formative and orienting experiences of my life.

One of the first sites we visited is pictured below. As we stood there, we weren’t quite sure what we were meant to see. But gradually, with the help of our guide, this memorial came to life for us.

This memorial is called the Missing House because an entire section of this apartment was bombed after its residents had been deported to ghettos and concentration camps. Instead of rebuilding something there, the designer of the monument decided to leave it empty in order to evoke a feeling of absence. The names of the former residents were added, however many people who pass by the monument every day admit to having never noticed the memorial or wondered about it. This makes me think about how much grief and loss there is surrounding us and how easy it is not to notice. Throughout our trip, our guide would come back to this theme of paying attention to what is missing and noticing who and what had been lost.

The next memorial was similarly evocative. We learned that, on this date, May 10, 1993, thousands of students burned 20,000 books deemed “anti-German literature” in a public square in front of a university.

Our group walked across the square and our guide led us to site where the pyre of books had burned. We were all university students, holding our backpacks and struggling to fathom the scene less than a century ago.

Then our guide discussed the modest monument in the square that is completely underground. Designed by an Israeli sculptor, Micha Ullman, the memorial is called “The Empty Library.” We were told that there is enough room on these underground bookshelves to house the 20,000 books that were burned. Yet, all the shelves are empty.

About his intention with this memorial, Micha Ullman said, “I am using a language of hints. It’s not there, and it is there. You don’t have to look, only if you want to, and here that’s especially important, because the measure of evil is the highest in human history. […] I believe that a good question mark has the potential for moving people.”

It is interesting to consider the extent to which gentle intimations can lead to sensing the weight of grief and loss.

And it is interesting to consider the extent to which making space for marking loss accomplishes our purpose.

When we feel the absence, then what?

When we see a void, then what?

When we touch the emptiness, then what?

Still, contemplating what is missing seems an ever mysterious yet stirring point of departure.

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