On Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, we once again find ourselves urged to
simultaneously remember, and also to never forget. Is there a distinction
between the two? Do they represent a continuum, possibly interchangeable in
sequence but mandatory in observance? Or are they simply an emphatic redundancy
meant to underscore the significance of the basic underlying action?
relate to the mandate in a serious manner, how is it accomplished? Do I attend
an eight-hour showing of the movie Shoah? Or should I attend an invariably
moving presentation by a local Holocaust survivor? Some locales are going all
out to infuse some life into what have devolved into stultified commemoration
activities. Today in Berlin, (literally the belly of the beast), you can enter
the Jewish Museum and have a chat with a “Jew in a Box.” Sensationalist, you
say? Offensive? Provocative? Well, such an exhibit is certainly all these things
– but to my point, is that particular exhibitionary device fulfilling either of
Definitions of the word “remember” contain the elements of
awareness and recall, whereas “forgetting” is described as a failure of memory,
whether by neglect or premeditation.
Daniel Schacter, the eminent memory
researcher, has defined and divided memory malfunctions – or “transgressions,”
as he calls them, into seven distinct categories: transience, absent-mindedness,
blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence.
three he describes as sins of omission. These occur when, for whatever reason,
we are blocked and unable to retrieve a desired thought. The latter four concern
sins of commission; we have some fragments but are unable to reconstruct the
complete train of thought. The final category – persistence – deals with that
particular type of memory that we cannot shake – not for love or money. From the
most mundane embarrassment, to a traumatic event, it is persistence that gnaws
at our conscience, rouses us from deep sleep, and remains a constant lurking
presence even when successfully tamed.
Both remembering and not
forgetting, specifically with regard to an event such as the Holocaust, produce
challenges and conflicts not easily resolved. At once, we feel duty-bound but
put-upon, obligated but burdened, impelled yet compelled. What exactly are we
supposed to do? How does one fulfill the “mandate”? Exactly how do we remember
an event that, in all of its harrowing enormity, cannot be reduced to
sound-bites or perfunctory proclamations without exposing the inescapable abyss
of human evil?
We are overwhelmed by the event. We are overwhelmed by the sea of
information surrounding the event. We are overwhelmed by our inability to gain
any perspective concerning the event. And all the while, the waves generated
during that horrific time continue to crash over us.
Jews as a people
have created a culture of profound memory, without the building of a single
In fact, making the past an animated and relevant present is a
fundamental tenet of our faith. We are commanded to experience the Exodus from
Egypt as if “we ourselves” were liberated. We are directed to see every
individual as having been present at the Sinaitic revelation – when God revealed
Himself to the people at Mount Sinai and presented Moses with the Torah. It is
we here today who were attacked by the Amalakites – not only our
One of the great things that this historical imposition
requires of us as a people is the necessity to develop empathic connections to
our forbears. In a metaphysical sense, we are no more alive then they. In a
practical sense, we share in each other’s actions and experiences.
work is hard. It is an imposition. It takes us to places that we would prefer
not to go.
Perhaps this is the reason we produce so many memory edifices
of stone and steel. Under this guise of material permanence, we evade our own
participatory obligations – the memorial will stand in for us.
We live in
a technologically revolutionary and disruptive world.
We now store all
those important bits of information in the “cloud.”
Our cell phones have
become our most necessary appendage. We have consigned these appurtenances as
the gate-keepers for all we hold dear – names, numbers, pictures, dates, home
movies. We stand at the precipice of futurist Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” – a
time when biology and technology will merge, expanding our abilities in
This is not a dystopian vision that we should fear,
but rather an inevitable new epoch in human development. Then, as now, we will
be challenged to maintain connections to the past in ways that effect profoundly
how we behave in the present, and in the future. These are some of the things
that make us consummately human and ensure our collective humanity.
a deep understanding of human tendencies, the Talmud describes the difference
between remembering and not forgetting in the following manner: Forgetting first
occurs in the heart. It is not a cognitive decision but a natural course of
events that eventually finds us shorn of memory, dispossessed from the event,
and most tragically, devoid of the reason it was ever important. To remember is
to engage in activities that promote remembrance, to read, to attend and
participate in memorial ceremonies, to see relevant movies – and most
importantly, to engage in dialogue about these issues.
Engaging in an
isolated activity one day a year will not counter the human mechanism
responsible for forgetting. However, actively participating in various venues
meant to stimulate and promote knowledge, awareness and perception in an ongoing
manner certainly will. Testimony, memoir, history, artistic interpretation, and
even perhaps a “Jew in a Box” all have place in our continuing obligation to
both remember, and never forget.
The author, a principal at The Berenbaum
Group, is a concept designer of synagogues and Jewish exhibitions in the United
States, Israel and Europe. He is currently designing The Holocaust Memorial
Center for the Jews of Macedonia.