Outsourcing remembrance

The differences between the acts of remembering and not forgetting call for "actively participating in various venues".

Holocaust candles 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Holocaust candles 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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?
Assuming we 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 our mandates?
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.
The first 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 monument.
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 ancestors.
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.
Memory 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 unimaginable ways.
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.
With 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.