Remembering the Holocaust when the survivors are gone

Yellow Stars of David are displayed in an exhibit at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, ahead of the … Continued


Yellow Stars of David are displayed in an exhibit at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, ahead of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011. Thursday will mark the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is designated by the United Nations General Assembly to commemorate the victims of Holocaust. On Jan. 27, 1945 the largest Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland was liberated by Soviet Red Army. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

January 27th marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the United Nations in 2005 to remember past crimes with an eye toward preventing them in the future. The date chosen, January 27th, coincides with the date in 1945 when Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most deadly of the Nazi death camps.

Raising questions about a goal as laudable as preventing future genocides is always difficult. Raising questions about how we remember the Holocaust is about as safe as jumping into a shark tank with raw meat tied around one’s neck. Well, here I go.

Memory is an aggressive act – one which requires choices, choices which determine how future generations understand their past and create their future. History is not simply something that happened. It is created by those who recount it. I don’t say that cynically. I simply think that we must all take responsibility for how we remember, what we choose to remember and for the implications of the choices that we make.

Such choices are becoming especially significant as we are the first generation which will live without those who experienced the Holocaust. While no single personal account is definitive, and while we often forget/choose to forget that – picking out those survivor stories which tell us what we want to know about the Holocaust, such first-hand accounts have a power and an authority which are hard to deny.

Woody Allen fans will recall the scene in Annie Hall when Mr. Allen overhears two people debating the work of Marshall McLuhan. Unable to bear their foolishness a minute longer, he pulls Mr. McLuhan from behind a display poster and ends their conversation by having the man himself tell them what he really meant. After all it’s absurd to deny a person’s account of their own experience.

In the absence of actual Holocaust survivors, survivors who are fixtures at virtually all remembrance ceremonies, the challenge of memory falls fully on our shoulders. That’s why questions, questions of both the general and the Jewish communities, however difficult, must be asked.

Why did the United Nations establish this day of remembrance? If it is a good thing to have done, why did it take 60 years for them to do so? Having done so, does this seemingly noble act actually deflect attention from the ugly fact that Holocaust denial is de rigueur in large parts of the world? Does anyone actually believe that adopting a resolution will truly address that pernicious trend and magically convert hateful Holocaust deniers into responsible global citizens?

The United Nations is not squeamish about calling out nations for racism, bigotry or oppression in all kinds of circumstances, so why not here? Why not single out those nations which hypocritically signed on to a resolution which acknowledges the importance of Holocaust memory while perpetuating the lie that the Holocaust never happened, or that if it did, it was not a systematic attempt to destroy any people in particular?

Could it be that the UN, in creating this day of remembrance, perpetuates the latter notion? Does this day of Holocaust remembrance seek to de-emphasize the particular importance of the Nazi dream of destroying the Jewish people?

These are the hard questions which must be asked of the United Nations which created this event. But there are tough questions which must also be asked of the Jewish community, world-wide. And failing to address them makes even those with the best of intentions, as much a part of the problem as the UN may be.

Let’s start with the use of the word Shoah instead of Holocaust. Why is a Hebrew word preferred to an English one? Yes, I know that Holocaust is from the Greek, but it is now English. Why would a community use a term which creates exclusivity when asking for universal awareness of the tragedy? Is the uniqueness of Jewish suffering, even if the war against the Jews was surely unique, really the best way to remember the Holocaust?

How many battles are fought over who owns Holocaust memory? How many times do claims of uniqueness get in the way of sharing a narrative of suffering in which all people can participate such that they see it as a narrative which calls them personally to keep further genocides from occurring?

Human suffering is not a commodity whose value diminishes with its ubiquity. It’s not as if admitting the murder of Gay, Roma (Gypsies), etc. somehow renders Jewish suffering less horrific. In fact, when it comes to human suffering, two things are always true.

First, when the suffering happens to those close to you, there is uniqueness to it, because you have a unique relationship to those affected. Second, the more people feel connected to a tragedy, the more likely they are to remember and fight to keep it from happening again.

As we enter the next phase of Holocaust remembrance, I hope that all people and institutions will keep these two truths in mind. I hope that we will respect the uniqueness of any person’s or community’s suffering, while appreciating that the only path to keeping such horrors from recurring is by widening our sense of who we experience as part of our people and part of our community. If we do that, we have a real shot at finally making good on the oft-repeated pledge; “Never Again.”

About

Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.
  • Nemo24601

    A little premature, no? The youngest people with memories of the Holocaust are perhaps a bit over 70 now. They could easily be with us for 20 years or longer. I would not expect to have the last person die who was in a death camp until 2040.Couldn’t you think of anything a little more topical?

  • Nemo24601

    In fact, it could be longer. The final World War I veterans died perhaps two or three years ago, at the age of 109 or so. If that’s the case, the final Holocaust survivor could be with us until 2054.

  • areyousaying

    Interesting the Jews rarely mention their fellow holocaust victims the gays.

Read More Articles

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

987_00
An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

shutterstock_134310734
Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.