The Stuff of Memory
The word “souvenir” comes from the French word meaning “to remember.” Browsing through crowded airport souvenir shops or overstuffed booths of t-shirts in tourist-likely places, it is hard to remember the almost romantic origins of the word. A fuzzy magnet bearing the words of my latest destination may serve to remind me of a another land, but I still feel like I’ve sold myself out as the prototypical, easily-targeted, junk-buying tourist any time I leave a souvenir shop receipt in hand.
Creators of a souvenir shop in Buchenwald, Germany, claim, though controversially, to be bearing the less-materialistic origins of the word. The shop opened in time for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp where an estimated 56,000 people were murdered at the hands of the Nazis. Their souvenirs range from plaques embedded with stones from the camp to sprigs taken from the surrounding forest to be planted elsewhere. Moneymaking was never the point, the founders maintain; the project has always been about building bridges of memory, actively confronting history, and hoping to extend the somber lessons of the Holocaust to future generations.(1) From outrage to appreciation, reactions have been understandably varied. My own are admittedly mixed. Can materialism be set aside in a souvenir shop? Can history only be “actively confronted” with an object in hand? More notably, how do we best go about the vital act of remembering?
I remember looking at the gold cross around my neck differently after spending some time in the tourist-ready sites of Jerusalem. Amid the constant sounds of bartering beside some of the holiest places of history, the image of Jesus turning over the moneychangers’ tables was easy to bear in mind. But it was my own tables that were being overturned. Remembering had become for me an action I had taken as lightly as the delicate cross I put on each day.
A great amount of Christian Scripture calls the world to the act of remembering: remembering the story we are a part of, the moments God has acted mightily, the times humanity has learned in tears. “Remember this,” God uttered in history, “Fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.”(2) The story of faith is one that requires memory. God has moved; God is moving. Remember.
“Actively,” the answer seems to come, and with great weight, for it is possible to forget. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. Teach them diligently to your children, talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”(3) Memory plays a vital role in the story God continues to tell.
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it. “Remember me,” he asked, “as often as you do this.” Whether we are holding again the bread that tells of his broken body, clasping again the chained cross that remembers the death of God, or reconsidering this story of God coming near, as often as we do this, let us remember.
(1) Andreas Tzortzis, “At the Gift Shop: Souvenirs of Buchenwald,” The New York Times(September 15, 2004).
(2) Isaiah 46:8-10a.
(3) Deuteronomy 6:4-9.