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Memory is a funny word.  People have memory.  They remember.  Events can be memories.  They are remembered, but they also cause people to, in turn, retain those memories.  Memories are not histories- they are both less accurate, in the factual sense, and more accurate in a visceral sense.  Every day, we create new memories, and some of our most feared diseases cause the destruction of memoires.  Our collective memories make us into groups, peoples, religions, and nations.

As Y.H. Yerushalmi's Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory points out, Jews have developed an excellent sense of memory.  We have just completed one of our greatest events of collective memories, and tonight we embark on another.  For tonight and tomorrow, the 7th and 8th of April (this year), is Holocaust Memorial Day.  Given that one of the most famous phrases involved with the Holocaust is "Never Forget," how do we maintain memory when it is so hard to do so?

As noted above, Jews have a long history of retaining memory.  The two most celebrated Jewish holidays in America, Chanukah and Passover, are excellent examples of this.  The story of Chanukah, that the Seleucid Empire tried to destroy the Jews by forcing them to stop practicing Judaism, is as famous as it is oversimplified.  In reality, a small group of Jewish rebels, opposed to the spread of Hellenism, actively fought against not only Seleucid forces but also many Jewish ones as well.  The establishment had, in fact, already adopted Hellenism as a culture, and the war was something of a civil war.  It also lasted about 20 years, the majority of which were spent without Judah the Maccabee, who was killed relatively early on.  To be honest, the Hasmoneans who took over, after the first generation, were a rather nasty bunch, who in turn became Hellenized themselves  Yet we retain a particular memory: the initial part of the war, the freeing of the Temple, and the celebration of the oil.  

Passover, too, may be based on questionable historicism, but in the end, that doesn't really matter.  As far as most Jews are concerned, they went out from Egypt.  And they remember the Exodus every year, with a standardized retelling that nevertheless encourages questioning, interaction, and discussion.  It is no mistake that literally thousands of Haggadot, guidebooks for the evening celebration of Passover, exist.  Even as we retain that memory, we each have our own slightly different spin- we each "remember" leaving Egypt differently.

At first, the Holocaust seems like a very different sort of issue.  It occurred amidst the most historically documented war in history.  It, in turn, has been thoroughly documented; USC and Steven Spielberg teamed up to make a massive repository of testimony, with tens of thousands of eyewitness recordings .  We also have mountains of material evidence, with huge numbers of shoes and clothes, massive quantities of hair, and heaps of ashes.  We have major museums dedicated to it, and the death camps themselves were turned into memorials (for those who have visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the collections of those material pieces are actually dwarfed by those as the camps themselves, and Majdanek has an open air mausoleum of ashes).  When it comes to history, the Holocaust is very easy to document.

When it comes to memory, however, the Holocaust presents a much harder problem.  Less than a decade after the end of the Holocaust, the new state of Israel was struggling with exactly how to commemorate it.  To us, today, the tragedy seems easy to understand on some level: people who wanted to do terrible things did so, and no one stopped them.  Never Forget serves as a slogan to be ever vigilant against such genocides, though we have fallen down in that regard (Rawanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, and so on).  Yet for Israel in the early 1950s, it was an extremely hard thing to deal with.  Jews had, after, just successfully resisted an outside assault through force of arms.  How was it that the Jews in Europe could have simply gone like "sheep to the slaughter?"  21st century scholarship decries this notion, pointing out the little acts of resistance, but for Israel in the 1950s, it was an exceptionally difficult problem.

The problem was compounded in creating a Jewish memorial.  There has long been a rabbinic debate over whether or not Jews can establish a new date on the calendar, at least since shortly after the loss of the Second Temple in 70CE.  It turns out that many communities did institute days of mourning for tragedy; there were fast days for the Crusades, for the Chmielnicki Pogroms, and for 19th century pogroms established locally in Europe, but in all cases, those customs faded out, especially when the locality commemorating the events lost or destroyed its Jewish community (all of them disappeared by the end of the Holocaust, and most were no longer celebrated by the 20th century).  Also, several days had already absorbed the mantle of memorializing tragedy.  The fast of Tisha B'Av, originally a commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, also has prayers in memory of things like the Crusades.  But it's very easy to lose sight of those tragedies in the course of the day.  Yom Kippur, too, has a commemoration of martyrdom, but by that point in the service, most people are tired and perhaps are paying less attention than ideal  As noted above, Israel itself was also struggling to deal with the tragedy.

The solution that they came up with was met with only limited acclamation.  Though the standard way of referring to Holocaust Memorial Day in the US is "Yom HaShoah," that's actually a truncation of its full title: Yom HaZikaron LaShoah V'La'Gevurah, or Memorial Day for the Holocaust and the Heroism.  In order to deal with the tragedy of the Holocaust, the Israeli government needed to avoid certain memories: it decided to highlight the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as the prime example of Jewish rebellion and defiance against the Nazis.  For many, this was unsatisfactory.  For others, the unacceptable part was the dating: Yom HaShoah always takes place in the Jewish month of Nissan, which is typically a happy month; putting a day of mourning there alienated the Haredim, or Ultra-Orthodox.  And ironically, the date doesn't actually match up to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: that would have been Passover, and there was no way to establish such a commemoration on Passover.  It can also be hard to track: the Israeli government does not allow it to fall out near Shabbat, to avoid sadness on the Sabbath.  But most Jewish communities have accepted the commemoration of Yom HaShoah.
The tradition that has sprung up in memorializing the Holocaust is the reading of names.  Jews in many places get together to read names of Holocaust victims.  In some places, they read the names fully out in public, in others in buildings like synagogues or Jewish Community Centers, and sometimes within a family.  The ways in which these are done are also different: some communities read for a full 24 hours, going through name after name, while others might read names submitted by local community members intermittently.  Either way, though, there is an attempt to create memory: people are linked with those who died, whether they were related or not.  On Passover, there is a command to remember the Exodus in every generation as though we had just gone out; Yom HaShoah seems to have developed an understanding that all of us were affected, whether we had direct relatives who were killed or not.

Other groups attempt to create a collective memory of the Holocaust in different ways.  In Israel, air-raid sirens will go off at 10 A.M., at which point everyone is expected to stop whatever they are doing and to remain silent, as the entire country comes to not a moment of silence but a moment of memory (sometimes these sirens do not go off in the communities near Gaza, where air raid sirens go off for real with some frequency; I don't know what the plans are for this year).  Other groups, like March of the Living, will attempt to instill a memory through visiting the camps themselves.  As with the personalized Passover experience, different groups will have different messages and different discussions: March of the Living will then take their participants to Israel, for an "out of the ashes" style of commemoration; the link to Israel, though, doesn't always exist in all memorials.
Now, however, we face a particular problem in dealing with such memories.  For the first decade or so after the Holocaust, most Jews knew of the events either firsthand or secondhand, often from family members or friends.  Afterwards, speakers would be brought in to share their experiences with schoolchildren.  Yet that opportunity, too, is ending.  Even someone who was 15 when the Holocaust ended would today be 83.  That means that fewer and fewer survivors are available to share their memories; the same process can be noted with WWII veterans, for obvious reasons.  Within a generation, there will be almost no one around who remembers those events.  The material evidence, the material memorials, some of the Memory Books created by European survivors, and video recordings will continue to exist; the history will not be in doubt.  But the question of whether we were all victims will continue to exist.

When I teach my high school students about this, one of the effective solutions- until now- has been to discuss such remembrance in the context of 9/11.  Teaching in New York City, many of my students had relatives or friends of relatives who had passed away on that day.  And so it was rather easy to discuss the issue of creating memory.  Now, however, we have reached the same point (and passed it) that the Israeli government was forced to deal with in 1953: 9/11 is now nearly 12 years ago.  Incoming freshmen for this next year, mostly 14 by the fall, were likely born in 1999.  They have no memory of 9/11.  In both cases, we have to find what is important and what is not if we choose to create a memory.  The individual historical facts- and I say this as a history teacher- are easily discovered and memorized, but on some level, utterly irrelevant.  What is relevant, for tragedies which we choose to remember, is the memory: the group experience, from generation to generation, of what has happened and what has befallen us.

Remember...Never Forget

Originally posted to JLan on Sun Apr 07, 2013 at 04:03 PM PDT.

Also republished by Elders of Zion, Street Prophets , and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  You are correct about holidays dying out (8+ / 0-)

    When I was a child all the air raid sirens sounded on December 7th at 11 am. Everyone stopped, pedestrians, cars, everyone, until the sirens stopped wailing. In elementary school we stood silently, at attention.  Almost all of us, myself included, had parents who served in the war.  But, after the 50's ended and we moved into the 60's, Pearl Harbor Day just disappeared.

    "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

    by Navy Vet Terp on Sun Apr 07, 2013 at 04:28:24 PM PDT

    •  when I was a kid WW2 was still a recent memory for (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SchuyH, JLan, myboo, blueyedace2

      most----we little kids used to play Army and fight imaginary Nazis (none of the kids wanted to PLAY the Nazis). All of us had dads or uncles who had been in the war.

      Now, it strikes me as odd when I realize that WW2 is now 70 years in our past--the same as the Spanish-American War was to us little kids back in the early 60's. Ancient history from a faraway time.

      Heck, one of the older men in our neighborhood in 1968 was a World War One vet----a war which is now as far away from us today as the Civil War was to us kids back then.

      The shift from "living history" to "ancient history" is an abrupt one.

    •  JFK (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blueyedace2

      When I first did my student teaching about 7 years ago, I asked my students to ask their parents where they were when JFK was killed.  Then I realized that many of their parents weren't really old enough to remember- some remembered their parents being upset but not why.  Many of the grandparents remembered, despite often not having been American at the time- it was that much of a worldshaking event.  I horrified them, at the time, with the coming need to teach 9/11- this was at Stuyvesant HS, which had already undergone one breaking point in terms of memory (none of the students had been there on 9/11 by that point).  The idea, though, that the kids wouldn't be able to remember it...that scared them.

    •  I believe they still do this in Israel (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blueyedace2

      on both Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day).

  •  One of the most distressing things about (6+ / 0-)

    the Holocaust to me is how obsessively well documented it was by the Third Reich. The arrogance and detachment in those ledgers, those rooms full of possessions stolen, those terrible efficiencies, somehow that part of the memory makes it worse.

    You said the air was singing / it's calling you, you don't believe / These things you've never seen / Never heard, never dreamed.

    by CayceP on Sun Apr 07, 2013 at 06:19:44 PM PDT

    •  I think that's why people were so horrified (6+ / 0-)

      When I was teaching some in public schools, I used to ask my students whether they thought there was a reason to focus on the Holocaust over other genocides (every textbook out there dedicates at least one section exclusively to the Holocaust).  They had two reasons for focusing on it:

      1) It was specifically targeted at a minority
      2) It was so incredibly, "modernly" organized

      They felt that those two components together made it worthy of unique study.  Other genocides might have been racially focused, but there was something incredibly disturbing about one being done with such specific efficiency and exactness.

      •  Mao was well-organized, as was Stalin (0+ / 0-)

        The Turks and Pol Pot, likewise methodical. Hitler targeted gays, Gypsies, the disabled, and killed 3 million Polish Christians. So his net was cast wider than a single minority, though the Final Solution was specific to Jews.

        I never liked you and I always will.

        by Ray Blake on Mon Apr 08, 2013 at 05:27:04 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  One piece of post-Holocaust history (9+ / 0-)

      My father was a Holocaust escapee who ended up in France and joined the French Resistance. When the Allies arrived in 1944, he offered them his services as a translator (he spoke French, German and English). After WWII ended, he was given a formal job as a translator in Berlin, as they interviewed thousands of people to find out who would be appropriate to help reorganize governance and civil agencies.

      He said every single German they interviewed where he was translator insisted that nothing bad happened to any of the Jews, and that anyone saying that there were death factories or work-til-you-die prisons were lying. They all had their explanations for why their Jewish neighbors "willingly" moved away and that they were all "well treated."  He said it was how they all used the exact same insistent language that shocked him most of all.

    •  But the Holocaust never happened, (0+ / 0-)

      A-jad says so.

  •  Memorial Day (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JLan, Kvetchnrelease, myboo, blueyedace2

    in the Fifties & Sixties, when I was a kid, was especially touching because my parents's generation, then in their prime years,  had fresh enough memories of World War Two, & the parents of men lost in WWII were still alive.  Gold Star Mothers were honored. But it was more than that. Memorial Day began as a Civil War remembrance, & my  grandparents had memories of Civil War veterans in their towns, many of them maimed.  There was still a living link to the Civil War. But that is gone now. & with it there has been a rise in ignorance of the Civil War, the flaunting of Confederate battle flags by people who were born after  the Jim Crow era. It takes constant effort & vigilant teaching  to keep alive the reality & legacy  of Dr. King & the Civil Rights movement. Keeping faith with victims of the Holocaust will require the same effort & vigilance as the survivors & their direct  descendants leave the scene.

    "There ain't no sanity clause." Chico Marx

    by DJ Rix on Sun Apr 07, 2013 at 11:55:29 PM PDT

  •  In about an hour and a half (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    a gilas girl, blueyedace2

    there is going to be a Yom HaShoah assembly at my workplace.

    I will try and come back here afterwards to recount what we heard.

  •  If only T had known at Auschwitz (6+ / 0-)

    that someday he would have happy, curly-haired, sweet little great-grandchildren, maybe it would have given him some comfort during the four years he endured life there.  I wish that there was some way he could have known that there would be a future - for his people, for his own descendants from children he hadn't yet fathered.  

    His great-grandchildren are my grandchildren.

    Someday his great-grandchildren will need to begin processing the Holocaust and the fact that their great-grandfather spent four years at Auschwitz.  It's a fact that neither his son nor grandson could/can really deal with, in part because it was too horrifying an experience for him to deal with or talk about.  

    Children and grandchildren of survivors often suffered through the PTSD that haunted their parents and grandparents.  And often, like my son-in-law and his father, they don't want to talk about it.  

    But with the generous help of others, I am collecting every scrap of information, testimony, interview, photograph, poem and letter and putting them together coherently to tell them about the life and heroism of her great-grandfather.  I've discovered what a truly heroic man he was.

    I am not Jewish.  I don't speak the language he spoke.  Finding the materials is difficult and translating them is difficult.  But I am going to keep the memory of this man alive for my grandchildren.  

    I just wish he could have gone to sleep in his cell block each night knowing that the future held good, beautiful descendants.      

    I have no help to send. Therefore I must go myself. Aragorn

    by Old Gardener on Mon Apr 08, 2013 at 10:24:26 AM PDT

    •  The difficulty of speaking (0+ / 0-)

      The difficulty of speaking about it was and is profound, and it left scars on both survivor and children.  We had a survivor who spoke today, who is now 86 or 87 (born in 1926), who lied about his age when taken to Auschwitz.  He spoke at length, and I discovered only afterwards that this is the first time he's ever said anything in public.

      I also have another story from someone I met at a conference.  His family (at least on his father's side) was German, with his grandmother Romanian.  His grandfather had been part of the Luftwaffe during WWII.  When his grandmother was dying, years after his grandfather had already died, the grandmother asked for a rabbi.  Thinking that she was no longer lucid, they brought the Lutheran minister with whom she had been very close for many years (being a devout Lutheran).  She asked him for a rabbi.  Following the wish of a dying woman, he contacted a rabbi, who came.  She revealed that already before the Holocaust, her family had converted from Judaism to escape Romanian (pre-Nazi) persecution.  She had met her husband while serving as a nurse, and married him.  She never told him, or anyone else in the family, her origins.  But she wanted to reveal the truth before dying.  It came as a shock for the family, and especially the son (my acquaintance's father), given that she was the last in her generation still alive.  Suddenly all of the old family pictures that she had preserved had new, secret possible meanings- were these people who he had thought they were all their lives?  Were those?

  •  Why did so many Nazis get away with murder? (0+ / 0-)

    Why did so many Nazis get away with murder?
    Not much to be proud of; before, during and especially after…

    http://www.salon.com/...

    Love Me, I'm a Liberal!

    by simplesiemon on Mon Apr 08, 2013 at 05:06:27 PM PDT

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