Top left: Alice M. Greenwald urged graduates to make mistakes, honor curiosity, and “in everything you do, recognize the individual in the other.”
On one of the more memorable days of their lives, commencement speaker Alice M. Greenwald ’73, director of the World Trade Center Memorial and Museum, asked the graduates, parents, and friends of the class of 2007 the question that has focused her career: Why does memory matter? Here’s an excerpt of her answer.
In 2005, during the week when the country mourned the loss of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, and her body lay in repose in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, every bus in Montgomery County, Maryland, carried a sign on a seat at the front of the bus. It read simply, “Reserved for Rosa Parks.” This simple gesture—to leave a seat empty—conveyed more than the words themselves could express: a sense of respect, an affirmation of shared history, and a celebration of the power of collective memory to compel reflection, if not action.
In Berlin—a city quite literally sprouting with memorials—there is a small, rather subtle, but omnipresent memorial scattered across the city, around the country, and, I understand, around other countries, and it is surprisingly effective. It is the Stolpersteine project (which means, literally, “stumbling stones”). You’ll be walking down a street, and as you pass a house, there’s a small, brass-topped cobblestone set into the pavement at your feet. Inscribed on the cobblestone is a simple set of facts, something like this: “Here lived Alice Greenwald, born January 2, 1918. Deported May 24, 1943.” These stones are not only there as markers; they are quite literally “stumbling stones”; they are meant to trip you up cognitively, psychologically, and spiritually.
So, what’s the connection between the buses in Maryland and the stones in Berlin?
Both point to absence and the encounter with the void. Through the lens of absence, we are brought to another level of understanding. We can see the world differently.
My current work at the World Trade Center Memorial Museum is quite literally centered on the void. It will be located at a historic site that today—five-and-a-half years after the singular cataclysmic event of our lifetimes—is still mostly about absence, about what isn’t there. A 7-story-deep, 16-acre hole dominates the urban landscape of lower Manhattan. This scar is as much psychic as it is physical, and it is as essential to the process of memorialization—of integrating the still unimaginable facts into our historical consciousness—as is the effort to rebuild at the site.
How can we ensure that, through the alchemy of the act of remembering, this place might become a site of conscience?
Memorial museums—those like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which are not where the events took place, and those like Oklahoma City, which are—ultimately are about the way we remember.
At Ground Zero, we have an opportunity—and an obligation—to remember well, so that the intense and immediate particularity of 9/11 can speak to bigger concerns.
People ask: Will this be a museum about terrorism? As a memorial museum, this place will focus on the very real impact of terrorism on the lives of very real people, and their families, friends, colleagues, and communities.
And, by focusing on the human story, this museum will, we hope, become a moral platform attesting to the indefensibility of terrorism; to the absolute unacceptability of indiscriminate mass murder as a response to grievance.
But here is where we—as a community, a nation, and a civilization—keep missing the point, forgetting the lessons. It is the grievances we must focus on and try to make sense of, not the terrorism. Despite the rhetoric, terrorist attacks don’t, in reality, strike abstractions like “the West” or “American values,” they strike people—people like you and me, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and cousins.
People make up the world. And, so, we need to change our frame and stop thinking about us and them, as if these categories were monolithic. We must begin to understand that the world is a big, and deeply interconnected and essentially interdependent, community of individuals.
Web Extra: To read the complete speech, visit www.slc.edu/magazine/krl/commencement.