I was in Berlin last month for a short trip. Plenty of things to love and think about, but since I discussed this thought with a couple of friends after returning it is the one that has stuck around.
Perhaps it’s paradoxical that the more people die and suffer, the less human they become. Recent shifts in some media coverage of mass shootings in the US have made it a point to focus on the victims as individuals (this tribute to Orlando victims went sort of viral), using the rationale that excessive focus on the shooter only encourages potential killers starving for glory and attention. There’s another rationale though– the higher the body count, the harder it is to imagine the dead as something more than a mass. Mass shooting. Mass murder. Massacre (no etymological connection, but weirdly and conveniently coincidental).
What language can be used to push back against that impulse? If anybody has had the time and sense of urgency to think about these questions, it would have to be the Germans I suppose, thinking about their most massive of massacres.
Educated by American textbooks and historical conventions, I can only recall seeing the Holocaust described with an emphasis on its scale and inhumanity, except for the grade 8 interlude of Anne Frank’s diary. So I took notice when reading through the information placards at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, reading the word ‘murdered’ over and over again. I thought about why it was so jarring to me that these labels, describing the artifacts and fates of the Jewish families they served as ghostly traces of, consistently ended with the word ‘murdered.’ I realized it was because the word for lethal violence that ‘stuck’ to the Holocaust in my head was something much more massive– ‘exterminated.’ Probably internalized through repeated encounters in textbooks, documentaries.
There’s a brutal individualizing power to the word murdered, one that becomes apparent after you read it over and over. Instead of the scale of the violence dulling its tangibility, when explained with the right descriptive words even the most massive of mass killings can force the particularity and personality of their victims on you, more and more each time. It gets sharper to the touch, in other words. It’s hard to tell how intentional this word choice is, but I can’t help but feel that it’s somewhat deliberate, given that the Holocaust memorial in Berlin is also named Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
I think these crucial questions, of what words we use to speak of death in its varying forms, are as important as ever as the world continues to swirl into cycles of horrific, and massive, and for many people still, distant, violence.