What Can Holocaust Memory Teach Us About Civil War Memory?
Next year I will be teaching a course that explores the Holocaust and historical memory as well as how our own Civil War has been remembered. I am excited and horrified given what little I know about the Holocaust and WWII. Perhaps I would feel this way about any historical subject next to my knowledge of the American Civil War. The course comes with a whole new set of challenges that are definitely going to keep me on my toes.
Today I came across this very interesting editorial by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, who offers some thoughts about the kinds of questions the Jewish community needs to explore as it moves from a collective memory built around personal stories and testimony of the Holocaust to one that is more removed and, as a result, less emotional.
Does any Jew carry any personal pain from the horrible massacres of the Jews during WW I? Do the Inquisition and its brutal torture of countless Jews arouse in any Jew the same level, or even the same type, of pain as the Holocaust?
Of course not. This is the work of the passage of time. Of course, pained by the suffering of Jews throughout the ages, and perhaps even immeasurably angry at their tormentors, the living Jew today does not, and cannot, carry the visceral response to the countless Jewish tragedies of the ages that he carries in response to the Holocaust. But the visceral response to the Holocaust will end. It cannot be transmitted. This is not a pedagogical failure. It is inevitable. Holocaust remembrance in a scant 50 or 75 years from now — if there is to be any Holocaust remembrance at all — will have to have a basis different from the personal.
WE need to look to Jews with no familial connection to the Holocaust in order develop a rationale for Holocaust remembrance that transcends the personal story and the last vestiges of the personal agony. It must be Jews who can see Jewish fate during the Holocaust in continuity with Jewish history and Jewish theology in order to anchor it permanently — way beyond the 68 years following the end of Holocaust — in the Jewish mind and ritual practice.
Steven Spielberg has already recorded the personal stories of some 52,000 Holocaust survivors, in many languages. This is an invaluable treasure. But any person in the future who listens to these testimonies, but who has never heard a living survivor, will not be affected by these recorded testimonies in the same way as a contemporary Jew who has discoursed with a living survivor. Recorded testimonies will not take the place of personally hearing a survivor, and will not, in and of themselves, sustain Holocaust remembrance, especially in an era when virtually everything is recorded and it is not unusual for trivia to attract millions of views on YouTube.
ALL this means that as we move forward with Holocaust remembrance ceremonies in this, the last years of the era of the living survivor, we must concentrate not only on the personal stories of survivors. We must also reach out to and engage Jews who are interested in setting forth a rationale for Holocaust remembrance that is detached from the ephemeral, albeit unique, testimony of survivors. We need new ideas, radically new ideas.
One million Jews were killed during the destruction of the Second Temple almost 2,000 years ago. There must have been countless personal stories about that horror. Virtually none of these stories has survived, and none dramatically move us today. Yet, the remembrance of that pivotal event in Jewish history is with us, year in and year out. A rationale beyond the survivors’ tales was successfully devised. We need to do the same thing for the Holocaust.