Muswell Hill Synagogue
Metzora + HaGadol 19/20 April 7.49pm 8.56pm

‘Remembering’ the Holocaust

Let us be clear at the outset – remembering the Holocaust is hard. The passing of time is often cruel, as it turns and transforms memories of the actual, into remembrance. Actual memories are fading and are affected by the subjective mindsets of the individuals who share these memories. Those who survived the Holocaust are passing on from this world; and those survivors that are still with us talk of their own perspective shone on the memories of those dark times. But, as the writer Marc Auge writes, ‘Memories are like plants; there are those that need to be quickly eliminated in order to help the others burgeon, transform, flower’ . In other words, it is not simple to learn the history of the Holocaust, to attempt to recreate the memories of it, from survivors. Our listening to them may be in order to allow them to be heard before they pass on, or for us and our young to understand what it meant to survive the Holocaust. But we must also remember, as Giorgio Agamben wrote, that at the centre of the Holocaust is a lacuna, a gaping hole of understanding only actually ever experienced by those who were killed during its reign of death. He quoted Wiesel: ‘Those who have not lived through the experience will never know; those who have will never tell; not really, not completely…the past belongs to the dead’.
And so as memories, actual memories recede, we are left with remembrance. Marc Auge looks to the French dictionary Littre for the definition of ‘remembrance’ and finds ‘the impression that remains in the memory’. The books we read, the survivors we listen to, the lectures we attend, the courses we study allow us to build a story, a narrative, and an impression of what happened. This is how we remember it. This is how it affects us as Jewish individuals and communities.
It also will allow for multiple threads of purpose to enter into our understanding of the Holocaust. We may start to categorise, pigeon hole, define our act of remembrance. We must remember the Holocaust because…and a good many categories could fill in that sentence. Not to let Hitler win, in order to ensure Jewish continuity, to feel so grateful we have the State of Israel, to understand the constant threat of anti-Semitism – I could and you could go on. But I just remember when I was a young teenager, attending Jewish Youth Study Group in Edinburgh and first being shown Claude Lanzman’s film ‘Shoah’, that I simply felt shock. And I was so gratified to see this evoked on a TV documentary ‘Annihilation’ by a historian of the Holocaust Annette Wieviorka. She felt that the problem today is the normalisation of the term Shoah and its over common use, and explained that we need to react to the Holocaust with shock, indignation, revulsion. We need to stand in shock at the depths of the attempt to eradicate and destroy Judaism. We can also stand in shock at the depths of complicatedness that hide within the Holocaust. One the one hand we can reject Hannah Arendt’s proposition that Adolf Eichmann while being tried in Jerusalem represented the ‘banality of evil’. But on the other hand is it enough to simply talk about good and evil and about those for us and those against us as the Jewish people.
It is possible to talk about three periods in the modern history of Israel and its coming to term with the Shoah. From the birth of the State there was quiet. Many thousands of survivors made their way to Israel. But they did not speak. And they were not listened to by those who built Israel. Not through ignorance of course. David Grossman told of how for over 2 years he would have lunch with his family as a young boy, and there would be a daily radio slot where he would hear the calling of names of individuals who had survived – so that family could reunite with them. The Holocaust had happened and all knew. But the shame of what had happened, and the trauma of it all provoked stunned silence. What broke the silence was the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1962 in Jerusalem. Here Israel could hear and see the testimonies of a whole wave of survivors standing opposite the famous glass box encasing Eichmann, and tell their story. As David Cesarani mentions, whereas Nuremberg was solely about justice; there was something more in the trial of Eichmann, a sort of national therapy for the people of Israel. And so we learned about the Holocaust. We read and heard the testimonies at Auschwitz. We read Primo Levi, watched Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’, read Wiesel, followed the trial of Demjanjuk, started to visit the lands of the Holocaust in greater numbers after the fall of the iron curtain. We have told or heard the story over and over again.
But where are we now? Is it possible that we are in a post-narrative generation? Is it now not just about what happened in the Holocaust? After all the main facts of it are clear. Is it now what we do with the remembrance of the Holocaust? In other words which thread do we hold on to of the narrative that is being passed down surrounding the sum of events, phenomena and happenings that we call together the Holocaust? I was inspired today by reading a blog in Times of Israel by Professor Jessica Lang – – where she explains how important it is not to teach answers relating to the Holocaust, but to teach about the questions it throws up. In her words, ‘It may never be possible to fully imagine or understand this history, and doing so surely grows more elusive with time. But actively studying, analyzing, visiting, speaking and thinking about the Holocaust, refusing to make a trip to Auschwitz easy or comfortable by fully embracing the intellectual challenge it presents, may be the best way to best remember.’ I have not found a better way than this to express my feelings on how to encounter the Holocaust – with dread, care, but also with an open mind. Yes, we have a general framework for encountering the Holocaust – an evil regime and its evil supporters from other European countries that attempted to wreak destruction on the Jewish people. But not all that happened will fit in with this paradigm, and we need to be ready for that.
Finally, are we able also to contemplate how to relate to the Holocaust not only as Jews, but as humans? The unleashing of unlimited, unchecked desires of violence in the Holocaust caused us deep and untold suffering. But is the persecution of Yazidi communities by ISIS forces any different other than in scale? What about the persecution of Bosnian Muslims in the mid 1990’s, the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsis over a month in 1994? It is going on now in a number of places throughout our world and the reality of international relations and geopolitics cannot stop it from happening. We know what people can do to others if the political realities allow. So is the core message of the Holocaust still how to stop allowing these tendencies towards violence to have any expression through the use and abuse of power. Adolf Hitler attempted to use the Second World War to destroy Judaism as he desired. He tragically had some success. But Hitler also wanted to subvert humanity away from universal morality and compassion. Our story of destruction today, is also a story for humanity.