Sitting in a coffee shop a few days ago, I was transported back to January 2009 when I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Even more specifically, I was transported to the Children’s Memorial.
The Children’s Memorial was made in an underground cavern. Its purpose is to remember the 1.5 million Jewish children who were killed during the Holocaust.
I entered the memorial from a bright sunny day. Inside the memorial is dark. As I descended into the space, I reached for the guardrail since the darkness I entered blinded me momentarily. I began to hear the names, ages, and countries of origin of the children killed. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that I was not entering a hall of pure darkness. Instead I began to see lights – the flame of candles (maybe only one candle?), coming from the center of the memorial, reflected in mirrors and mirrors and mirrors around the center. With the candlelight reflected, I could see well enough not to stumble. I thought of the saying “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” I heard more names, ages, and countries.
Then I heard another sound. It sounded like machine guns. Set against the solemn speaking of names, all I could think of was the death of the children, maybe through the violence of guns, maybe through the slow breakdown of body and spirit by starvation and debilitating work, maybe through gas chambers. The machine gun sounds didn’t stop. I had to get out.
I hurried outside, sickened at the thought of children dying, blinded now by sunlight rather than the darkness, only to realize that the machine guns I heard were jackhammers. The sound wasn't part of the memorial, a fact I didn't realize until I was outside.
As I reflected upon this, a more recent memory struck me. As sound bombs and tear gas went off during the Open Shuhada street protests I witnessed in Hebron in February, I kept thinking about my favorite fireworks, the ones that produce only a flash of light and loud boom. The sound was similar to the sound bombs I was hearing. I knew my favorite firework would no longer bring me joy, but rather the memory of how sound can be used to scare and intimidate people.
I thought of the notices I receive about alternative activities during Thunder Over Louisville. Thunder Over Louisville is the largest display of fireworks in the US, and a spectacle that includes a pre-fireworks air show that highlights the prowess of various military planes. The alternative activities happen away from the river front show. They are designed to promote community- and peace-building. Organizers recognize that some people, particularly immigrants and refugees, may have experiences of military planes that are not as benign as an air show, people who, upon hearing and seeing military planes, might be transported to terror-inducing memories, rather than awe and wonder at the “coolness” of the planes.
A few days ago I heard jackhammers as construction went on outside of the coffee shop. Because of my experience at Yad Vashem, I could only think of machine guns, sound bombs, military planes and the myriad ways we have come up with to intimidate, hurt, and kill people. I had to get out.