Tuesday, August 10, 2010

We Must Remember

In July, my vacation took me to the alps of Austria.  One day, I travelled to the town of Ebensee to visit a former concentration camp. It was difficult to find: my map was not verydetailed, and there was no sign at the train station.  I knew that it was in a mountain near the town, so with compass and map in hand, I headed off in the general direction.

After a couple of miles, I began to hone in on its whereabouts. Small, brown signs began to appear, pointing the way to go. However, they were few and far between, so sometimes I was left wondering if I was still on the right path. My trek led to a housing development. The main street into the development was clearly the entrance gate to the former camp!

As I walked through the neighborhood, I saw beautiful homes and heard a loud party in progress.  On one corner, was a children's playground. Right next to it, a cemetery, the final resting place of thousands of named and unnamed prisoners held at Ebensee.

I followed more signposts through the neighborhood, and then took a small path into the woods. This path led to a gaping hole in the mountain, the entrance to the miles of tunnels the prisoners were forced to create. It was here that Hitler planned to research air weaponry and to store armaments.  Prisoners were forced to rise at 4:30 am and walk up the mountain to dig out the tunnels, working past 6pm.

From my perch at the side of the mountain, I looked out over the town of Ebensee, as well as the housing development over the former prisoner barracks.  I couldn't believe that this piece of history could simply be bulldozed over and life could go on. Now, in the place where once there was so much misery and inhumanity, there were parties and celebrations.  How did these present-day inhabitants--who had to drive through the former concentration camp gate each day--live with the past's horrors upon which their homes were built?  How could they live there?  Did they remember?

I was greatly troubled by what seemed to be an erasing of history, a willingness to forget, on the part of the Ebensee community.  But then I had to think of my own neighborhood. I soon realized that forgetting is not just as Austrian trait, but a universal one.

Close to my home is the Tanforan Mall. The land on which the mall resides has had quite a history. It was a racetrack (where the famous Seabiscuit once was stabled), an airfield (where the first plane to land and take off on a boat finished its historic flight), and a military training area. However, like Ebensee, it, too, holds a past that we in America would like to forget.

"On May 1, 1942, Tanforan became an Assembly Center for people of Japanese ancestry who were interned under federal order. Around 8,000 people stayed at Tanforan on the way to Relocation Camps. These families were housed in the horse stalls of the stables."  A result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, these camps were set up because of the mistrust of the Japanses who were now considered a threat to US security. However, racism also contributed to the establishment of the camps.

Ultimately, 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent were relocated.  They lost their homes, their business, and their possessions.  They were sent to camps that had no plumbing and many were unprepared for the harsh winters they would experience.  Some were killed by sentries.  When they were finally released from the camps, they were given a train ticket and $25.  Many experienced psychological trauma because of the internment.

While I could not understand how the residents of Ebensee could build a layer of normalcy on top of the former concentration camp, I realized that I have done the same thing.  On the grounds of a former internment camp, I buy shoes and laundry detergent and go to the movies.  I don't think twice about the people who were forced to leave their homes and sleep in a horse stall where I now park my car.

It is too easy for us to cover up the great wrongs we as a people have inflicted on a whole group of people.  But when we forget, we fail to learn the lessons from the past and can wind up renewing a cycle of inhumanity.  We grow into our best selves--as individuals and as a society--when we remember.  

Whether Ebensee or Tanforan, or all those other past and present places of injustice and horror, we must remember.

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