There was something very Miracle on 34th Street about Peoria’s new mall. Opening just before the holidays, the “open-air lifestyle center” promised to recreate the feel of shopping downtown. Separate strips of stores, like city blocks, angled about a plaza and a kids’ play park. Department store anchors mixed with eateries and boutiques, selling everything from three-piece suits to little girls’ camis, from bone china to Corelle ware, from gourmet coffee to chili dogs. You could even come out at night for dinner and a movie. Just like downtown.
I was visiting family after living five years in a small town in Louisiana, where I learned what downtown is. Downtown is Bertrand’s Printing, where the clerks find you the right size manila envelope — and sell you just that one. It is St. Landry Homestead Bank, locally owned all of its 90 years, where your favorite teller cashes your check. It is the two-story municipal building (it has an elevator) where you take your cash to pay your sewerage bill, and if you time it right, can buy bags of real, fresh-off-the-hog pork skins from a cooler-toting, roaming vendor.
The mall was not downtown. It was an outpost of excess sprawled over I-don’t-know-how-many acres of prime Illinois farmland, annexing it to the city and the repeating pattern of townhomes in the northwest suburbs — a sacrifice of thousands of bushels of corn, with the world food supply strained under the twin demands of population and biofuels. It was an ant trap drawing people away from downtown, from the independent bookseller and music shop, leaving downtown for regentrified, $200,000 loft living. And the Hooters.
The mall was commerce without community or conscience. It was unfair-trade chocolate raspberry truffle coffee and Royal Doulton china at seven hundred bucks for a service of four. (No, I don’t know how long that would feed a family of four in Somalia.) It was Wonderdogs with onion rings, and jelly wedges made in China — which I suspected cost more than the $14.99 marked on the tag, if you could put a price on workers’ rights violations.
But “Have you been to the new mall?” was the question of the day. So I strolled the open sidewalks, smugly unsurprised at the crowd that braved an arctic wind this week before Christmas — materialism’s high holy days — until an odd display caught my eye. Two rows of dark, slender columns, about five feet tall, lined the sidewalk off the main courtyard. Nearing, I saw that each glass obelisk was actually a six-pointed star, filled with… buttons. Lots of buttons.
I had entered the Peoria Holocaust Memorial Button Project.
Small shrine amid a great cathedral of pleasure
The Peoria Holocaust Memorial Button Project, a placard read, was a tribute to the victims of the Nazis in World War II. Buttons — eleven million, all counted by hand — were chosen to represent, in some manageable form, the eleven million lives snuffed out.
The stars of David held six million buttons, recalling the Jews. The two rows, for the selection process used at the camps: one row for those marked for immediate extermination; the other for those sentenced to slow death by labor and starvation. Eighteen columns in all, a number symbolic of chai, life, in Judaism.
I read one survivor’s story. “I was born on April 23, 1923,” began Sarah, a Warsaw Jew. That same date 20 years later she arrived at Majdanek. “How do I celebrate my birthday while entering the death camp?”
Farther along stood a circle of five glass triangles, each brimming with another million buttons. These represented the five million other human beings culled as “enemies of the state.” The thought criminals: Catholics, pacifists, trade unionists. The ethnic mongrel Roma and Serbs. The mental and physical deficients and other blights on society. Each group wore a triangle color-coded to the offense: purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, pink for homosexuals.
My reaction to it all? The hypocrisy. Here, amid this great cathedral of pleasure, this small shrine felt like a sop to the conscience that belittled all that suffering. As if giving the victims a thought between credit card swipes and sample spritzes of Calvin Klein fulfilled the promise to “never forget.”
I did a slow burn. How could this memorial get the attention it deserved here? How could its depths of horror penetrate and resonate where Wonderdog-fed dads watched bundled-up kids climb on miniature tractors in CAT Playland and dull-faced cashiers on a break mashed cigarette butts beneath their heels?
Slowly the wisdom dawned on me. Writers use contrast to clarify and sharpen descriptions, to draw attention to important ideas. We exploit shock value to make them resonate in the reader’s brain. What contrast could be a greater than these stark, silent sentinels amid a cadre of professional greeters and feel-good holiday tunes? What could be more shocking than stumbling upon images of skeletal, naked prisoners amid the well-fed, warmly clothed crowds?
What does it say in the Gospel about being shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves? The Holocaust Memorial Button Project was consciousness-raising as sneak attack. Better, as Venus flytrap.
Blinded to the humanity of others
More slowly, the wisdom sank deeper. Anti-Semitism festered in the German heart long before it erupted into Kristallnacht. A popular sing-along at German resorts in the early 1920s ridiculed Jews as having “flat feet, crooked noses, and curly hair,” a juvenile but harmless stereotype. Harmless? About this time, Jews were also finding fewer and fewer resorts that welcomed them. By 1933, Jewish ritual slaughter of animals was outlawed (on the grounds of cruelty to the animal), books by Jewish writers were banned, and race theory was a compulsory subject in schools. Like a virus, the “harmless” stereotype, which had been incubated in a medium of general resentment and fed by the need to lay blame, was mutating into shattering, systemized, sanctioned hatred.
All with the approval, no doubt, of many virtuous German citizens.
How could they be so cruel? people ask now. Speaking just for myself, I think I know. And it’s frighteningly easy.
Because when it comes to being blinded to the humanity of others, stereotypes have nothing on self-righteousness. Then, they sneered at feet and noses; now, I scoff at bulging wallets and crass consumerism. Both come to the same end: making the distinction between worthy and unworthy; denigrating people, making them less than people; walling them up in an intellectual ghetto of the mind. Gandhi would call that an act of mental violence. Jesus called it a sin.
As I turned to leave, one button caught my eye. Pressed against the glass, with two buttonholes set in red enamel and rimmed in gold, it looked like face pleading. Who were you then? I wondered. Democratic agitator? Alcoholic bum?
Who are you now? Divorced dad, trying to stay connected with his kids? Foot-sore clerk, grateful for a job?
Amazing, how one little button can carry so much weight.