Sunday, July 21, 2013

Creating Collective Memory

by Arnold Schwartzman for Voices & Visions
In remembrance lies the secret of redemption, while forgetfulness prolongs the exile.
-Baal Shem Tov

We talk about the Holocaust today as a distinctive event. The few remaining survivors are in great demand to tell their story. At a recent workshop at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, director Alejandro Baer reminded us that this was not always the case.

In The Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg writes " In the beginning there was no Holocaust. When it took place in the middle of the 20th century it's nature was not fully grasped."

There are many layers of memory about the Holocaust, many lens through which it can be viewed. There is Jewish memory and Israeli memory. There are the memories of German society and the memory of Nazi crimes. Ultimately there is a more global Holocaust memory which has taken shape.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, no one wanted to hear about the experience of survivors. They had not yet been termed survivors, rather they were thought of as DPs (displaced persons) and immigrants. There was discomfort that more had not been done to save them and suspicions as to how survivors had survived. The Cold War had emerged and with a new alliance with Germany it was not so politically desirable to mention German involvement. All of these factors contributed to silence.

The attitude in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s was best exemplified by Konrad Adenauer when he spoke of "unspeakable crimes committed in the name of the German people", a framing that distances the Germans from responsibility.

Attitudes began to change in the 1970s when Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt at the Warsaw ghetto uprising monument. In 1978 the Holocaust television mini-series came out and for many West Germans was the first time they learned of the scope of the Holocaust. The word "Holocaust" entered the German vocabulary.

In 1994 the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was created following a dialogue that began in 1978, a rather lengthy planning cycle. Its mission was to encourage its visitors to reflect on the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as one's personal responsibility as a citizen in a democracy. This universal message was framed by questions of ethics. They sought to make the Holocaust meaningful for non-Jews by examining it as a unique event with universal implications.

Remembrance has always been an important part of Jewish culture beginning with the destruction of the temples. The Holocaust was viewed as an event in Jewish history alongside a lengthy history of pogroms and anti-Semitism. The holiday Tisha B'av commemorates destruction of the temples and all other catastrophes, but in 1953 the Israeli Knesset set aside a separate day for Holocaust remembrance. Holocaust Martyrs and Heroism Remembrance Day commemorates the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the Jews who fought back dying a martyr's death rather than a victim's, a vantage point consistent with the new nation's philosophy.

Those in the midst of the Holocaust made efforts to preserve their experience for posterity. The Ringelblum Archive was preserved in milk cans and holds a trove of information on life in the Warsaw ghetto.

There are two distinct themes to memory. For Israel and Jews it is "never again victims", for Germany, "never again perpetrators". Have we in fact learned? David Rieff wryly notes that since 1945, “never again” has meant, essentially, “Never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s."

Dr Joachim Savelsberg shared with us his experience in growing up in Germany in the 1950s when there was no mention of the Holocaust. The war was discussed, uncles were missing, topics were raised and then shifted. He noted that silence is communication also and tells stories or as stated by Susan Sontag, "silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech".  Studies of that time found that the concept of genocide and the Holocaust was more rare in German media than elsewhere. He posited that the Holocaust crowded out other genocides. Germans couldn't draw parallels for fear of being accused of relativizing the Holocaust.

After the war Stalin wanted mass executions of perpetrators. America argued for trials to counter revisionists and isolationism. Roosevelt had recognized the need to construct a memory and did not want Hitler's guilt left in question. Robert Jackson, chief US prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials noted that " We must establish incredible events by credible evidence."

Savelsberg reminded us that the lens of a criminal trial is different than that of politics or art. While the law has the potential to tell history, it is limited by its structure. Adversarial in nature with responses limited by the questions asked, only certain content will be unveiled. Nonetheless, trials began to establish collective memory, knowledge of the past that is shared, mutually acknowledged and reinforced by a collective body of people. It was from these early trials that a collective memory of the Holocaust was first shaped.

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