005. Memorial Court: A Window into the Past

Memorial Court: A Window into the Past

Memorial Court: A Window into the Past


Memorial Court

Michael J. Genevro
(May 2003)

  • Bike to the front of Building 370, the Science, Technology and Society Program.
  • Turn left into the Quad.
  • Go to the front of Memorial Church.
  • Turn left, cross the Quad.
  • Pass through the archway to Memorial Court.
  • Enter the time warp of memory to the spring of 1967.

Spring quarter at Stanford - Lord, I love the Stanford campus - all year round, but especially during the golden twilight of Indian Summer and during the blossom-filled green of spring.

Spring quarter at Stanford - blossoms, the green-yellow of new growth, the return of the light after the winter's darkness ...

When I was a Freshman at Stanford, the make-or-break course was Western Civ. If you survived Western Civ, you would probably be ok for the remainder of your undergraduate journey. If you didn't get through Western Civ, it was time for what the corporate world calls a "career decision."

As I pass through the archway to Memorial Court, my mind returns to the spring of 1967 and Western Civ. There on the lawn of Memorial Court on a light-filled spring day, the horror of the Holocaust became to the topic of our conversation. We had just read a monograph on a petty bureaucrat in the Third Reich who became a functionary in the killing machine that was the Holocaust.

Mr. H., our instructor, commented on the bureaucrat. He was an ordinary man. He had a wife and children. In so many ways, he was just like us, and he became a cog in the Holocaust machinery. If the man in the monograph could become an instrument of the Holocaust and if he was a person much like us, what does this ordinary person tell us about our own lives and our own capacities.

The thoughts and words rushed from our minds and our lips. No - not us. No - We could not do THAT. No ... no ... but ... he was an ordinary man ... we are ordinary people ...

Over the years, I returned often to Holocaust studies - Gavin Langmuir's class on "Medieval Anti-Semitism," the History 200 class of the mid-1960s, Victor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Abraham Heschel ... the list goes on ...

Yes, it was true that all too many people became instruments of evil in the Holocaust, but there was always a choice. Yes, many ordinary people became cogs in the killing machine, but other ordinary people sheltered the victims, aided the victims in their flight and, when there was no escape, sacrificed themselves in service to their fellow victims.

Today, 36 years after that spring day, re-productions of the Burghers of Calais by Rodin stand on the very spot where our Western Civ class confronted the ultimate evil of the Holocaust.

I remember the first time I saw the Burghers of Calais. During my 6 months at Stanford-in-Italy, our group had a field trip to Paris. There I encountered the Burghers of Calais for the first time. Size - they seemed huge to me, so much larger than life. Horror - in the midst of my own existential journey, they personified the horror of certain death. Courage and sacrifice - there are moments when we must confront the horrifying reality of life - moments when we must choose - the Burghers chose the path of courage and sacrifice to save their city, their community, their friends, their families.

My eyes fall on the words on the plaque at the foot of the statues in Memorial Court in the spring of 2003:

"For Rodin this episode was an opportunity to celebrate the idea that heroic deeds may be performed by ordinary people."

Two images co-exist in the same grassy space, separated in my memory's time by 36 springs - in all places and at all times, inhabitants of diametrically opposed ethical universes - the petty bureaucrat from the Third Reich and the Burghers from Medieval Calais - ordinary people facing extra-ordinary decisions.

"I call heaven and earth to record this day ... that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live" [Deuteronomy 30:19 - King James Version]

Who chose life and blessing? Who chose death and cursing?

What do these ordinary people tell us about our own lives?