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.