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Memory Landscapes: Between Lost Hopes and Temporary Solace

In PerspectiveEven though in the Second World War every fourth citizen of Belarus was killed, our sites of memory are not numerous. Last century, our ancestors had to face not two but three wars (with the third one waged by the Stalin regime against its own population), but in my homeland most are now silent — or silenced. Historical traumas have to battle for a place under the sun of memory, and in many post-Soviet countries it was the victorious rhetoric that won.

It is a myth that nature shunned the death camps. 
Nor should nature be shunned now *

For every people, there is a day on which their hope dies.

For Russia that day was 1 September 2004 — a day when the town of Beslan in North Ossetia became one huge cemetery after Putin’s regime showed what it was capable of. A poorly organized storming of the besieged school caused the death of 333 hostages, 186 of them children. Putin presented this catastrophe as his troops’ heroic deed — rhetoric he would later repeatedly call on to mask military aggression towards Chechnya, Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, as well as the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. 

For my homeland Belarus, that day probably  fell in 2021, when double-digit sentences were handed down to Lukashenko’s political opponents and independent media figures. Sergey Tikhanovsky, an opposition blogger from Gomel whose growing popularity during the 2020 pre-electoral campaign scared the dictator, received 18 years. One of the former presidential candidates, Viktor Babariko, got 14. Marina Zolotova, editor-in-chief of TUT.by, the biggest non-state media outlet, got 12 years. It was then that many of us realized this was only the tip of the iceberg.

No action is ever enough, however persuasive one’s arguments or appeals are. There will always be someone ready to blow up houses with civilians asleep inside, or open fire on children, or sell bombs to gain the international “reputation” of a superpower, or hold show trials. And every peaceful rally driven by a genuine desire to put an end to all this ends in the same way — only the police uniform differs. Batons all speak the same language.

Apart from losing hope, the past also seems to have been successfully shaken off — humanity appears to be especially poor at remembering, turning a blind eye to the lessons of world wars and the price paid by ancestors for a freedom their descendants never learned to appreciate. Authoritarian regimes are expert in manipulating memories, promoting nostalgia, and celebrating blissful amnesia. And amnesia is the only logical explanation I can find for the sorrow 67% of Russians now claim to feel about the collapse of the Soviet empire that murdered 1.6 million of their compatriots in the GULAG [1]; or for the enthusiasm of a new generation of Italians giving the Roman salute to Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who flaunts openly fascist slogans, and calls on people to “fight against Islamization of Europe” and protect the “natural family”[2], or the attempts by loudmouthed men  to control women’s uteruses in Poland.  

“I somehow don’t like this quote you have on the screen,” a young man from the audience said lazily, in the question time after my talk in Stuttgart on memory manipulation and the art of forgetting. He was referring to a line from Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police, written back in the 1990s, which I took to be a farsighted prophecy of today’s rise of totalitarian regimes. The line ran: “Being stripped of your memories is an act of violence that is perhaps akin to having your very life taken.” The guy from the audience was not sure memories mattered so much in retaining identities. “What about people with dementia?” he asked. “But isn’t that a kind of violence, too?” retorted my colleague from the panel. 

“And what about peoples with dementia?” I instantly felt like specifying. 

Can entire countries be happy with no memories of the past? Being unable to learn from experience? Pretty soon we might have half of the globe functioning in the same mode — the promise of “never again” yielding position to “let’s make [your country] great again”.

At the same time as we lose our past, we are also voluntarily selling our present. Succumbing to social acceleration,[3] accepting the commodification of public spaces, and adopting a new, hybrid, structure of non-synchronous temporality (e.g., the way that social media exposes its users to unrelated information from multiple sources and time periods, and with disjunctive emotional content)[4], we are erasing the natural perception of the here-and-now. Caught in “change for the sake of change” mode, we let the very meaning of life slip away. And this fake “change” we are so energetically pushed to embrace very rarely leads to real changes. Unless one is sure of being “changed” after purchasing a new iPhone, hitting a new match on a date app, or getting a fresh bunch of Instagram followers. 

In view of the balance (or rather the imbalance) of forces, I cherish no hope. I am tired. Drained. I want a moment of peace — with time still, on silent mode. In the face of stolen memories, a hijacked past, and sold-off time — all the investments that only capitalism benefits from — I long for consolation. I hardly imagined that I would discover it in places once filled with pain, terror, and death — memorial sites.

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Screenshot from a 360-degree panorama of Kurapaty forest, Belarus, available on Google maps

Even though in the Second World War every fourth citizen of Belarus was killed, our sites of memory are not numerous. Last century, our ancestors had to face not two but three wars (with the third one waged by the Stalin regime against its own population), but in my homeland most are now silent — or silenced. Historical traumas have to battle for a place under the sun of memory, and in many post-Soviet countries it was the victorious rhetoric that won. In the red spotlight of Soviet triumph, mourning was unsexy. Today, Belarusian cities and towns, large and small, are crowded with pompous monuments to Soviet leaders — but every fourth might well fail to know their grandparents’ graves, if those were killed not by the Nazis, but by the Bolsheviks. 

Just a few kilometres from Minsk, there is an entire forest guarding a nameless cemetery with pine trees and symbolic wooden crosses installed and reinstalled by activists to be eventually taken and retaken away by police. here the need and the right to remember confront a memory ban imposed by the state. 

After 2020, the memory wars became even more intense, with people detained for merely showing the intention to remember: Minskers who brought flowers and candles to the sites of protesters’ violent deaths risked prison sentences. 

In Germany, the attitude to memory preservation seems radically different. In Berlin, history awaits you around every corner — and it would almost be more than a metaphor to claim that every stone here speaks. An art gallery turns out to be a former crematorium; a gracious-looking building across the street - a deportation centre from which entire Jewish families were sent to concentration camps. For me, as someone born in a country where memories spoke only in whispers and lay still in forests, this close proximity with the country’s yesterdays was something new. And in January 2022, less than a month after my forced exile from Belarus, I found myself in Dachau, the first  of eight memorial sites that I would visit in the course of the following year. 

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Surfaces of trees and tree fragments in Auschwitz. Photo: Olga Bubich. 2023

During my visit to Dachau, just as later at Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and other former camps, I would be most impressed by nature. Often initially set up in remote regions of Germany or occupied countries and surrounded by “stunningly beautiful, secluded countryside” [6] this contrast does not shock. Their natural landscapes are still beautiful, peacefully alive, and soothing. A gentle but fair reminder of their right for tomorrow — their tomorrow without us.  

I find a genuine solace in this farewell. The planet was never made for or promised to us, humans, and we predictably wasted her generous invitation to co-living. Instead of the role of a friendly guest, humankind chose something else: a fierce fight for power, a search for domination, a pursuit of insatiable ambitions. If we are so poor at remembering, it is nature that handles this task in a much better way. Far from being a conscious practitioner of paganism, I still cannot help agreeing that we have no right to dismiss as primitive the belief that nature remembers. 

Lying in the grass in the enclosed valley surrounded by rocks and thick forest at the site of one of the most terrible concentration camps of the Nazi forced labour system, Mauthausen, I suddenly dissolve in the feeling of time. Or rather, in the feeling of its absence. I am struck by the presence of the past in present, at the relativity of the decades between us: I have a strong sensation that all those people are still there, and that all natural substances will never forget them — as if harsh rocky surfaces, warm August soil, and the choir of the rustling leaves of the trees bordering the camp possess a capacity to feel and know something larger than life. 

“When it rains, we would like to cry,” wrote Italian chemist Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor. What happened to the tears of the prisoners, did they mix with the rain? Did they eventually become a new rain themselves, entering the endless circle of life?

Poplar trees were planted in some concentration camps by the Nazis to serve as natural screens for the ashes thrown up by the crematoriums, so human remains literally mixed with poplar seeds containing the potentiality of a future tree. People grew into trees.

Researchers of world mythologies say that to tell a story of a stone, it is necessary to tell a story of a mountain, and together with that — a story of the planet, stars, and the cosmos, a story of energy, matter, and light. Our ancestors did not try to speed up time, or make a commodity item of every metre of public space. In worshipping natural elements, like rivers, forests, or stones, they worshipped the very idea of creation and celebrated the beauty of the very phenomenon of life. Instead of “allowing icons of remembrance to harden into idols of remembrance”[7], they embraced the meaning of the space they found themselves in. And it is with this kind of humble attitude that we might turn to memorial camps, as well as other sites of remembrance — finding solace in the reflective space they open up. Forests can really be “reminders of normality”[7], the timelessness of rocks and the natural circle of life in trees promise hope. At least promise. At least temporarily.

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Group portrait of French and Belgian Jewish women liberated from the Ravensbruck concentration camp, 1945. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photo source: Unknown. Provenance: Haim-Vidal Sephiha 


1 – https://iwpr.net/global-voices/back-ussr-memory-wars-south-caucasus.

2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPgkWze3bIk&ab_channel=PupiaNews.

3 – Hartmut Rosa, “Social Acceleration: Ethical and Political Consequences of a Desynchronized High-Speed Society”, in High-Speed Society, 2009.

4 – Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories, 1995.

5 – https://www.google.com/maps/@53.9680846,27.6093493,3a,75y,179.64h,90.56t/data=!3m8!1e1!3m6!1sAF1QipPqaoJRpI6k5gYVSDhMD0kb6GBDziTIPDLcZ2vp!2e10!3e11!6shttps:%2F%2Flh5.googleusercontent.com%2Fp%2FAF1QipPqaoJRpI6k5gYVSDhMD0kb6GBDziTIPDLcZ2vp%3Dw203-h100-k-no-pi-0-ya98.05794-ro-0-fo100!7i12000!8i6000?entry=ttu.

6 – James E. Young, “After the Holocaust: National Attitudes to Jews”, in The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, Holocaust and Genocide Studies vol 4., no 1., pp. 63–77, 1989.6, https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/pa1165992.

7 – https://open.spotify.com/show/1OwFblqZ7FIkLSW4rvbJEF.

*Andrew Charlesworth and Michael Addis, Memorialization and the Ecological Landscapes of Holocaust Sites

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