Living Memorial

by László Munteán

15 January 2017. My early-afternoon walk takes me to Freedom Square, located in the close vicinity of the Hungarian Parliament. The square has long been a battleground of contrasting visions of the nation’s past, present and future. At the spot where the national flag was flown at half-mast, commemorating the loss of two-thirds of the country’s territories after World War I, is now a Soviet war memorial built in 1945 and dedicated to the soldiers of the Red Army that died during the siege of Budapest. Commonly perceived by Hungarians as a monument to Communism, rather than a war memorial, it has been vandalized several times, most recently at a large-scale anti-government protest in 2006.

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What interests me, however, is another memorial erected at the opposite end of the square in 2014. Initiated by the ruling government, this new memorial commemorates Hungary’s occupation by German forces on 19 March 1944. What looks like a classical colonnade topped by a tympanum frames archangel Gabriel attacked by an eagle stooping down. A row of broken columns—conventionally symbolizing lives cut short by violence—surrounds the tympanum on both sides. The text on the plinth reads, “in memory of the victims” in Hungarian, English, Hebrew, German, and Russian. The term victim, however, is highly problematic. While the memorial is dedicated to the victims of the occupation, the sculpture fashions Hungary as Gabriel, helplessly falling prey to the German eagle, thus obscuring Hungary’s allegiances with Germany and its complicity in the Holocaust.

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Ever since its hasty construction, protesters have been adamantly demanding the memorial’s removal. The resulting counter-memorial, which faces the colonnaded tympanum on the opposite side of a narrow road, reveals the link missing from the composition. Photocopies of Hungarian
anti-Jewish laws preceding the German occupation, as well as images and stories of people perished in concentration camps have been placed along the curb. In addition, pebbles, tiny rocks with names and an assortment of objects, primarily candles, flowers, shoes and suitcases have been placed at the “living memorial,” as its creators call it. As a bottom-up initiative, it is indeed alive: it undergoes constant change exposed to heat, rain, and snow.

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The rocks are integral to Jewish funereal culture, but what role do the shoes and suitcases play in this cacophony of new and disintegrating objects? Although they are obviously not relics from the 1940s, they still appear uncannily familiar. They are props that invoke (as intertextual references) other memorial sites. The shoes recall a nearby memorial dedicated to Jews who had been shot into the Danube by Hungarian Nazis in the closing months of the war. In that memorial the absence of murdered victims is conveyed by rows of bronze shoes along the river.

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The living memorial at Freedom Square also recalls of the stacks of shoes, suitcases, and glasses and other objects confiscated from deported Jews as exhibited, for instance, in the Auschwitz concentration camp. If these personal belongings bear the imprint of their murdered owners, the props that mimic them at the living memorial at Freedom Square invoke them as intertexts, thus constituting a corrective to the “alternative facts” propagated by the official memorial to the German occupation of Hungary. The civil movement organized around the living memorial has morphed into an ongoing protest with a strong online presence. As the removal of the tympanum with Gabriel and the eagle is not on the government’s agenda, it is safe to say that the living memorial is there to stay for a while—something to seek out if you’re in Budapest.

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