The Historian of the Holocaust:The Constant Presence of the “Why?”

Photo by  David Garzon

How can we even begin to encapsulate, or think about the plethora of the horrid experiences of the individuals in the mass event that has been categorized as the Shoah? The implicit truth remains that regardless of how much we read, or listen to the testimonies of survivors, empathize and sympathize, we will never be able to truly understand. Therein lies one of the great issues that faces anyone that studies the Holocaust. How can experiences be transferred, or understood simply through narratives? The answer is inherently impossible to discern.

Perhaps more importantly we must not forget that it is the historian’s task to make sure that such experiences will never again be felt, for a part of what we do is to remind people that such a thing once happened, and it is up to us to make sure it never will again. Yet ethics, morality in their fluidity can be shaped by the most gruesome circumstances. Still the task of such a historian is more than just to remind, but to contextualize the answers that the public seeks throughout all political factors, and more importantly humane conditions. The one question however, which any Holocaust historian learns to grapple with is the “Why?”
This one question which never leaves the mind of any historian, is certainly at the core of the study of the Shoah, although the discipline at times cannot admit to this truth. The “Why?” is an untraceable constant that is forever present in every corner of research that we uncover, and every line we write. It is an ubiquitous question, whose very presence puts a strain on the historian. Yet the more we find ourselves in a strenuous march towards more information, more studying and inherently when we finally put substantive narratives together we realize that the “Why?” is farther than ever.
To try and answer “why did this happen?” might be invariably too hard, but I know that every historian can most definitely answer “why is this important?” The exceptional variables that go into studying even what has been categorized as a small event such as the Jassy Pogrom is sometimes overwhelming, and at times too much to take in. Having to hear about so much suffering, so much destruction can be daunting.
Yet, I also know that there is hope in the most bleak of circumstances. Amid all the narratives that we all know, there are also stories of resistance, struggle, life and even love. Essentially, although you would never consider this to be the case when studying the Shoah, and all of Jewish history there is unmitigating hope-the kind that created the state of Israel in 1948.
I looked for the “Why?” in the archives of Romania, but I could not find it there. In all the survivors, and children of survivors that I have talked to I awkwardly asked “why do you think this happened?” Despite my current work for my thesis, I have also been working on a book on the Jassy Pogrom which has put me in contact with various sources, with many of whom I talked about the “Why?” Yet they could not answer. Even as I continue to look at the historiography and theoretical approaches of antisemitism and its progression throughout history I cannot find the “Why?”
The truth is that this question is not in fact a historical problem, it is a human one. The “Why” however is unanswerable, but it is always present regardless of the fact if someone is a historian or not. I often think of what and old man that I met during my stumbling interviews in Bucharest, while trying to learn about the small Jewish community. When I asked him what he thought, he answered with a quick and yet crackled voice: “Am Yisrael Chai, is the only thing that we need concern ourselves with.”
Sometimes I wish that could be the only thing, yet I resume my search and find myself stuck in the quandary that all Holocaust historians have: the implacable truth of human desire is to find out why, even when it can never be remotely defined.
Milad Doroudiam a native of Jassy Romania, is a writer, historian, and the senior editor of The Art of Polemics magazine. He is currently working on a book on The Jassy Pogrom of 1941. He is a graduate student at Simon Fraser University in Canada.