We must not forget the Holocaust. But the way we remember will change

From the conclusion of Erna Paris’ excellent long read and analysis of the various stages of coming to terms with the Holocaust:

As though Holocaust denial and museum controversies were not sufficient challenges to the narrative of memory, disputes of a different nature have divided the community of survivors, themselves, some of whom have preferred the commemoration of their unprecedented life tragedy over professional history.

In retrospect, commemoration was perhaps destined to conflict with the dry pursuits of scholars combing through archives, since personal recollections may, or may not, correlate with the rigours of historical fact.

In his 1961 book, The Destruction of the European Jews, the first archival work on the Holocaust, historian Raul Hilberg paid a heavy price. When he told the world that his research indicated that the number of murdered Jews may have been closer to five million than six million, anger erupted. The six-million figure was already settled. It mattered to commemoration. Dr. Hilberg, who was himself a refugee of Nazi Germany, was called an accomplice to Holocaust denial.

I, too, was led to a misunderstanding about history versus commemoration. In the 1990s, I was invited to lecture on Daniel Goldhagen’s provocative book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which claimed that ordinary Germans were “willing executioners” because they had been indoctrinated into what Dr. Goldhagen called “eliminationist anti-Semitism.” I had reservations about the fairness of this thesis and had already published my views in a book review in The Globe and Mail. I had barely begun to speak before a woman jumped up and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”

What followed was a shouting match among the audience, some attacking me, others defending me, while I sat down in amazement. Yet, all these years later, two remarks from that evening have never left me. A man seated at the back of the room said pointedly, “We don’t need history. We were there.” With sorrow in his voice, someone else said, “In 30 years you can say this. When we are all dead.”

What I came to understand that evening, with compassion, was that the commemoration of experience was what mattered for some people – commemoration and its complement, commemorative history. My criticism of an approved-of book had been perceived, by some, as an attack.

Contested historical narratives provoke impassioned debate. My favourite example of this was an illustration from the French newspaper, Le Monde, showing a large history book open to the year 1943. On one side of the book are dozens of tiny people pushing to close the page. On the other side, the same number of Lilliputians struggle to hold it open.

So we should not be surprised that the Holocaust, which was unprecedented in so many ways, continues to engender argument even among those who would not dream of denying its existence. But today we must ask a new question, which brings me to the third stage of my timeline of remembrance. How will the Holocaust be remembered after the remaining survivors die and its specific horrors recede from living memory?

I could be wrong. But I can suggest a few possibilities, based on present trends.

First, the bad news. In her recent studies of what she calls collective or cultural memory, reputed German scholar Aleida Assmann has argued that the shelf life of front-burner historical memory is approximately 70 to 80 years. That’s where we are now with regard to the Holocaust.

What this means is that it will become increasingly important to keep a factual narrative of memory alive in the face of possible distortion, forgetfulness or both.

The good news is that much good work has already been done. There has been a concerted effort to record the testimony of Holocaust survivors. These recordings will benefit future generations.

Another piece of good news is the creation of excellent Holocaust museums and memorials around the world. But memorials, too, must be curated properly, for when they are not, the results may be appalling.

For example, in a residential neighbourhood of Berlin, I once came across a memorial, made of mirror glass, upon which were engraved the names of the deported Jews of the district. It stood in the middle of an open-air food market and from time to time the vendors squinted through the names of the dead to apply their lipstick.

Many schools around the world now include Holocaust education in their curriculum, but how the subject is taught matters. Teachers must be trained to present difficult material in ways that do not overly traumatize youngsters, while at the same time offering them ways of using this hard learning to make a difference in the world.

I came to this conclusion on a visit to Nuremberg, where I heard a survivor tell her horrifying story to a group of shocked high-school students. One youngster raised his hand and asked the survivor what German children like him could do to ease her suffering. “Nothing,” she replied.

From her point of view, she was right. It was not her job to smooth reality to make that child feel better. But my heart went out to that boy – that descendant of Nazi Germany. He needed not to feel helpless before the enormity of his inheritance.

Carefully calibrated school courses, museums and memorials must offer a way forward, psychologically. To believe that one can learn hard truths, then make a difference to one’s society, will help to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive in positive ways.

In pondering the future of Holocaust memory, we might wish to return to the seminal debate between Mr. Carter and Mr. Wiesel. Mr. Carter’s secular vision was that the Holocaust was a crime against the Jews, but also a universal crime against humanity at large. Mr. Wiesel’s view of the Holocaust claimed Jewish particularity and had a quasi-religious cast, as evidenced when he said, “One should take off one’s shoes when entering its domain; one should tremble each time one pronounces the word.”

How might this controversy unfold in the future? I think we can already see where it is going.

After the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s, in which similarities with the attempted Nazi genocide of the Jews were visible, Holocaust and genocide studies began to flourish in universities, including here in Canada. These studies are historical, but they are also interdisciplinarian in nature. The hope is that by incorporating the disciplines of psychology and sociology, for example, we will learn more about how and why such events occur and also how they might be prevented. A broader scope of study appears to be the new direction.

An interesting example of this widening scope took place just last summer. In the United States and elsewhere, people had used the phrase “concentration camps” to refer to the detention centres at the U.S.-Mexican border where children were separated from their parents and held in abominable conditions. In response, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a statement in which it rejected any possible analogies to the Holocaust, or to the events leading up to it. The uniqueness argument, in other words.

What followed was most revelatory. Hundreds of scholars of the Holocaust signed a public letter stating that the museum’s position made learning from the past almost impossible – and was far removed from contemporary scholarship.

The survivor recordings, the museums and the monuments, along with the extensive scholarly research that has informed the consciousness of the world, will all help keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. So will events such as Holocaust Remembrance Week.

Yet, at the same time as we rightly fight to preserve historical memory, we must realistically knowledge the potential lifespan of collective remembrance, the time-related slide into forgetfulness, the incessant politics that have always surrounded Holocaust discourse, and the real challenges being faced by the liberal international institutions and values that came into being as a result of the Nazi genocide, including the European Union.

Article 2 of the EU states that the organization is founded on values of respect, freedom, democracy and the rule of law, yet the EU continues to fund the illiberal regime in Hungary that has vilified George Soros and his Open Society Foundations with Nazi-style, anti-Semitic tropes. Resistance to this must harden.

A continuing positive consensus about the Holocaust will require active vigilance in the effort to protect all liberal democracies – the open societies that value ethnic diversity and religious tolerance.

All the same, change, like taxes and death, is inevitable. Nothing remains the same. And given the current trends in Holocaust studies, for example, it is possible that 50 or 100 years from now the Holocaust may primarily be remembered as a “first among others,” within a context of other genocides.

This should not worry us, in my view, for the “lessons of the Holocaust” are both particular and universal. As the scholars who opposed the Washington museum’s narrow approach to Holocaust history pointed out, what is and will be important is the ability to learn from the past.

The core learning future generations must acquire, in addition to the facts of Holocaust history, will be to recognize the impulse to genocide, how and why it starts, the propaganda tools it employs to persuade, and the known consequences of silence and indifference. I think this learning must also include the somewhat rueful acknowledgement that most humans are susceptible to propaganda in various degrees, which is why early-stage vigilance is so crucial.

Viewed from this perspective, the Holocaust may one day be remembered not only as tragic, but also as transformative in our understanding of humankind’s darkest impulses.

Source: We must not forget the Holocaust. But the way we remember will change Erna Paris

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

2 Responses to We must not forget the Holocaust. But the way we remember will change

  1. David Enzel says:

    Great post. Thank you.

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