Why safeguard a tortured history?

It is a truism: ours will be the last generation to live in the company of Holocaust survivors.

Train to Auschwitz 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Train to Auschwitz 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is a truism: ours will be the last generation to live in the company of Holocaust survivors. A tremendous human loss, this reality is especially foreboding for the educators of tomorrow. It promises to dampen our resolve, muddle our psyche, and impose limits on our pedagogy. Soon, perhaps sooner than we realize, an unprecedented task will be thrust upon us: crafting and realizing a collective memory that can fit in the absence of survivors – a memory balanced, honest and enduring.
Already, there are voices in the Jewish world imploring us to reconsider our emphasis on the Holocaust – asking that we move beyond our tragedy and let this history find its place among all other histories – catalogued in the dusty recesses of university libraries. As I write, a debate about the place of the Holocaust in our post-survivor, collective consciousness ensues.
On February 20, The Beacon, an online newspaper for Modern Orthodox students, published an article titled “Why it’s Time for Jews to Get Over the Holocaust,” in which the author, a Yeshiva University undergraduate, stated: “Modern Jews have taken it upon themselves to make sure that the memory of the Holocaust remains forever fresh. It’s about time they stopped.”
The Holocaust, argues the author, should be treated like any other historical event. We who have been pinned by it ought to welcome its passing. Can this be right? Undoubtedly, if we view the Holocaust as a burden, allowing it to fade can seem a tempting, even healthy, proposition. But the Holocaust is also – predominantly – a warning; it is a siren as relevant as ever in a world that is increasingly forgetful.
Our amnesia has left scars: in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and now in Darfur. Are these episodes not telling? Their incidence confirms that lessening the Holocaust’s contemporary significance is not only to betray the dead, but also the living, jeopardizing the future.
This is true because remembering the Holocaust is not only important for its own sake. It is important because memory is education, education is action and action is necessary.
The Holocaust teaches us to be active participants in our democracy to ensure its vibrancy; to be vigilant and proactive – constantly mindful of the threats of unchecked extremism and the consequences of derisive, state-sponsored repression. The Holocaust cautions us to recognize the sly capacity of false, racist propaganda. Hate incubates. It festers and grows – multiplies exponentially until words become chants, lies become truths and ideologies that once seemed ridiculous no longer do. And when poisonous ideologies pervade and consume, blood will be spilled. And will continue to be spilled.
Do not avert your gaze, because the dangers mirrored by the Holocaust are alive and well in today’s world. Babies born to “undesirable” parents are still murdered. Women are still raped and brutalized as a weapon of war. Villages are still torched. Genocide, in all its horror, continues unabated, claiming and displacing millions.
At the same time, there is another vital reason to preserve this history. The Holocaust is a testament to the unyielding power of the human spirit. Just as it is a reflection of the barbarity to which we can descend, so too it is a demonstration of the incredible goodness we can display.
In the camps, in unspeakable conditions, where starvation was inevitable, inmates gave their last rations away. Outside the camps, righteous people across Europe consciously and conspicuously risked their lives to shelter and ferry the persecuted to safe havens. There was remarkable self-sacrifice. Dignity could not be shattered.
By learning of these extraordinary acts of decency and kindness, we not only pay tribute to these heroes, but recommit ourselves to emulate their audacity. We inspire ourselves – when the situation requires it – to forfeit our own interests for the interests of others. We are reminded, as Viktor Frankel once wrote, that all can be taken from us but our ability to choose. Indeed, there is hope in these stories. It cannot be lost on this generation. It cannot be lost on any generation.
Contrary to what these new voices in our community propose, the cost of treating the Holocaust like any other historical event is too steep for humanity to bear. Nonetheless, while we cannot afford to become desensitized, we must refrain from wallowing in victimhood, much less defining ourselves – or our nation – through pity.
Because this, too, is an alluring tendency – possessed largely by those who prefer to be sheltered by a veil of misfortune than constructively apply the lessons of history. We should hold fast to our memory, not to weep, but to wrestle with the meaning and responsibility with which it endows us. In the 21st century, we must educate with an eye forward, using the past as a source of strength.
Regrettably, the peril inherent in undercutting the potency of the Holocaust is, in its subtlety, just as great as outright denial. It is a less obvious, more elusive danger, and as such carries the potential to distort the truth. To be sure, we must vigorously oppose those who – even today – brandish swastikas and call for ethnic purity. We must also, however, rise to the nuanced challenge of assuring that we formulate not a comfortable, but a responsible attitude toward the legacy of the Holocaust.
This is a call to young people everywhere: stand up. Do not succumb to a myopic view of history. Be informed. At this juncture between living memory and historical memory, between a world still inhabited by Holocaust survivors and one that must continue without them, resolve to immortalize their testaments – lest the currents of revisionism, the hateful campaigns of denial, and, most challenging, the temptations of passing time – outrun us, leaving us vulnerable, susceptible, or indifferent. Use your voice on behalf of those who have no voice – fight for them, as you would hope that they would fight for you.
The writer is the founder and director of the Student Holocaust Education Movement (SHEM).