How do two sugar cubes ‘flavour’ our memory?
Remembering is an effort made against time and life that pass us by, against being forgotten and being forced to learn to forget. Sites of memory and museums defy oblivion and contribute to the construction of a future based on co-existence, equality and peace by making remembrance a collective undertaking.
What does a cube of sugar mean to you? What comes to mind first when you hear the words ‘sugar cube’? Do objects have memory? Do objects acquire meanings that we would never have thought of in different contexts and conditions? Could a sugar cube, for example, act as a kind of ‘lifesaver’ to help you survive?
The two sugar cubes I saw in 2010 at The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, introduced me to the story of Arusyak Babikian, whose name I had not heard of and whose existence I was unaware of. The story is as follows: Before they are sent on the death march from Erzurum, Satenik Babikian divides a three-kilogram block of sugar between his four children, named Arusyak, Haykanush, Mnatsakan and Hayk. Broken up into cubes, the sugar helps the Babikian children stave off starvation, and they manage to survive the genocide. Arusyak, who was born in 1903, saved her last two sugar cubes, which are now exhibited in the museum in Yerevan. Those two cubes of sugar, viewed by people visiting the museum from around the world, carry with them layers of meaning about Arusyak and her siblings’ struggle for survival.
Sometimes, the most ordinary object takes on completely different meanings when it appears before us with its story. Objects have both memories and stories. Every object is a witness, every object is part of one or more lifetimes. Like objects, physical spaces connect with us. A building we pass every day, a paving stone we walk upon, any square or park where we take a walk for a breath of air, or a cultural space all contain layers of stories and truth. All that’s required are people who will discover, who have the ability not only to look but to see, not only to listen, but to actually hear.
Remembering as a form of resistance
Aleida Assmann, a German professor who has made important contributions to the field of memory studies, argues that remembering, which requires a conscious and systematic effort, is a form of resistance to forgetting, while forgetting is an imperceptible and silent process.
Remembering is an effort made against time and life that pass us by, against being forgotten and being forced to learn to forget. Remembering and being reminded take many forms. Sites for memory provide humanity with an alternative for inscribing memory, contributing to the stratification and deepening of collective memory. The past hangs about in our lives like a satellite orbiting around a planet; for some, it just ‘remains in the past’; for others, it is always at hand, integrated into the present and shaping what happens today.
Around the world, memorials confront troubled pasts and violent histories, providing an opportunity to remember and deal with the events that have scarred the collective memory and conscience. Sites of memory and museums defy oblivion and contribute to the construction of a future based on co-existence, equality and peace by making remembrance collective. Sites that deal with violent pasts enable an alternative historiography. Their discourse, archives and sources offer an unconventional reading. At the same time, the opportunities provided by sites of memory are a threat to those who seek to create social amnesia with politics of oblivion and taught disremembering. The transmission of truth through spaces is disturbing for ‘perception architects’ who work to destroy that truth and create a completely different perception of ‘reality’.
Memory sites as a conduit for meeting and communication
Memory sites are also meeting places; they bring together people who have never met nor heard of each other and provide access to their authentic stories. They ask questions, trigger us to think about values we haven’t considered before. They encourage us to take action, to be a part of a transformation.
A Jewish theatre performer who secretly staged Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Buchenwald concentration camp. A song composed by a prisoner incarcerated during the Chilean dictatorship. The District Six Museum established by former residents to transmit to future generations the memory of the Cape Town neighbourhood that was bulldozed after the apartheid regime declared it a white area. A poem penned in the prison where brutal killings and torture were committed in Cambodia. The voice of Hrant Dink, who fought for democracy and equality in Turkey, at the 23.5 Hrant Dink Site of Memory. A note found in a bottle 58 years later at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. A sweater knitted by a child for her doll at the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo. All of these offer the key to the truth, a chance to gain a different perspective.
Visitors to Auschwitz are greeted by a plaque that reminds us that this is ‘where the Nazis murdered about one million one hundred thousand men, women and children.’ The inscription, read at a glance, may be easy to articulate, but what about the untranslatable, unspeakable silence? The questions that cannot be answered? Who were these 1.1 million people? What kind of people were they? How did they resist? What methods did they develop to maintain their spiritual resistance? Did they ever give up hope? How did they cope? A sweater knitted for a teddy bear, a note from a bottle, a work of art buried beneath a tree or a painting secretly drawn by an artist on the wall of a shed in the extermination camp do not fit into numbers or statistics. You cannot look away; you connect, and what you see stays with you. Even if the owner of the story is not there, you communicate with him or her, and this communication imposes a responsibility upon you without you realising it: You share these stories with others – you become the messenger of memory.
Sites of memory are also places of dialogue. They not only speak to people, but converse with them by including the voices, words, inferences of the past, demands and imagination of their visitors. Memory sites can also be seen as spaces of speech: Histories that must be faced encourage conversations about the truth that was never to be spoken of again. When black boxes are opened with words such as ‘Actually,’ ‘I’m admitting this for the first time here’ or ‘I actually didn’t like this about the past either,’ the sites suddenly become spaces where people feel lighter, restored and healed. For this very reason, it is very important to design dialogue and interaction-based visitor programmes at memory sites and to create contact, interaction and space for expression that include the voices, words and stories of visitors.
Moving closer through spaces
Sociologist Ulus Baker explains the difference between ‘space’ and ‘distance’ as follows: ‘Space and distance are two different things. Distance is what measures “how far” two things or two phenomena are from each other, however close they may be or even if they overlap. Space, on the other hand, measures “how close” two things or events are, however far they may be from each other. ... An event, an insurgency, a case of exploitation, torture and persecution taking place in some far-away place, the way a child is unhappy or joyful in a favela, all these things bind us with “spaces”. We are them as much as they are us, because we experience the same problems and live the same one and only- life...’ As memory sites bind people from different regions and their truths with spaces, they go beyond making what is far away close, rendering the unknown known. When a visitor from Argentina shares the story of the two sugar cubes that are exhibited in the museum in Armenia, people from different places are connected through spaces. Whether the distance is 10,000 kilometres or 10 hours, Arusyak Babikian’s story lives on through these connections. It is not just Arusyak’s story that survives, it is Arusyak herself. Memory is transmitted; the past lives on in the present – as long as there are those who dare to know and do not stop speaking. As Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, said: ‘Hope lives when people remember.’
Thanks to sites of memory, Arusyak Babikian’s story; the story of Noor, who lived in District Six; the struggle of Alejandra Naftal, a survivor of a former detention and torture centre in Argentina that now operates as the ESMA Memory Site Museum (Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos) where she served as director; the conscientious stance of Otto Weidt, a German businessman who employed the blind and deaf at his broom and brush workshop and built a secret room to save his Jewish workers from the Holocaust; the doll Grisha in the War Childhood Museum’s Ukraine collection that introduces us to the child Margaryta do not belong strictly to the past but are all a part of us today. As long as their stories, struggles, experiences and what they were deprived of living are conveyed, they continue to exist.
As the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in 2007, said: ‘Those who still defend forgetting today are not only afraid of the past, but also the future. An unforgotten past is the assurance of the future.’ We need more ambassadors of memory, those who dare to confront and know, to secure our future. The words ‘never again’ become more than a slogan only by taking concrete steps, turning memory into action, remembering, reminding and turning pain into power.
Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley
- Aleida Assman, ‘Forms of Forgetting’, lecture, Castrum Peregrini, Amsterdam, October 1, 2014.
- Ulus Baker, ‘Vicdan: Romantizmin Ufku’ [Conscience: The Horizon of Romanticism], interview with Ahmet Telli. Ütopiya: Mevsimlik Hayat Bilgisi Kitabı 6 (Utopia: Seasonal Life Sciences Book), January 1999.