The following are remarks I delivered at the Yom Hashoah observance on Monday evening. For an audio version, click here.
Several years ago, the writer Daniel Mendelsohn came to Northwestern to talk about his Holocaust-related memoir, The Lost. In his talk, Mendelsohn reflected on one of the key questions of his book, namely what effects, if any, are at play in the discrepancies between historical truth and the truth of memory. Does it make a difference, Mendelsohn asked, if the historical records show that cousin Fayge died in 1942 and not 1943, as Bubbe remembered it? Or if she was born in 1922, and not 1924, as Zayde insists? Does it make a difference if she spelled her name with an i and not a y, or if her birthmark was on the left arm and not the right?
These are seemingly small details, separated by orders of magnitude from questions of the historical veracity of the Holocaust. What they remind us of, however, is that we are at a critical moment, a “hinge moment,” as Mendelsohn put it. We are at a moment when the Holocaust, the Shoah, is swinging, when it is moving from being memory to being history.
Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain writes in his Passover Haggadah that history is his story—a story from which are a separate, something we are able to objectify and treat at a remove. Memory, by contrast, is my story, our story. Memory is lived. It is, in the psycho-social sense, an imagination, an imaginary—it is a world we enter into and which enters into us. Or, perhaps, memory is that which constitutes our world. To be human is to have memory, to remember and to re-member—to constitute ourselves by making ourselves members of our story. To remember is to fulfill our role as the constituents, the custodians, of memory.
The work of Holocaust history and scholarship, of documenting and quantifying and using the best of science to understand what happened—this work is vital. But that work runs parallel with the task of remembering, of telling and making meaning, of telling and retelling again. If the former is the work of historians, the latter is the work of artists and actors, writers and musicians, poets and clergymen.
That is why we gather here. That is why we tell our stories: not simply to dryly testify to the historical facticity of the Holocaust, but to do what the Rabbis of two thousand years ago instructed us to do at the Passover seder that we enacted not two weeks ago: b’khol dor va’dor hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah memitzrayim – In every generation each individual is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt. Today we can add that in each generation, each individual is obligated to see himself as if he personally lived through the Shoah. I hesitate to specify whether we must see ourselves as having survived or perished – we are perhaps still too close to the events to know how we lived through. But we must see ourselves as having been there, having suffered. Not to be despondent, not to be fatalistic, not to wallow in self-pity, but simply and powerfully to imagine ourselves as part of the story of the Shoah. That is our duty, to those who perished, to those who survived, and to ourselves. We must make the stories of the Shoah our stories, if we are to keep memory from becoming simply history.
It is that simple, and yet it cannot possibly be that simple. For the phrase “Never Forget,” which has become the motto of the lampcarriers of zekher haShoah, of Shoah memory, begs a question of interpretation: On whose behalf are we not to forget? When we say Never Forget, do we do so on behalf of the khallalei ha-Shoah, the victims and their families? Or do we do so on behalf of humanity as a whole, for the Nazis’ attack upon very concept of what it means to be human?
Likewise, when we utter the more muscular phrase ‘Never Again,’ how do we mean it? To what extent is the Shoah a unique feature of Jewish life, and to what extent is it a feature of the life of humanity as a whole? When we say ‘Never Again,’ do we mean Never again for the Jews? Or do we mean Never again for anyone?
A year ago today, my family and I observed Yom Hashoah in Israel. My wife and I purposely got our kids in the car and began driving so that we would be on the road when the air raid sirens sounded. We wanted our children to see and feel what Yom Hashoah in Israel is: a moment of national unity, a moment of shared memory. When the siren sounds, every Jewish man, woman, and child across the country stops what they are doing—they rise from their desks at work, they stop walking in the shopping malls, they pull their cars to the side of the road and stand at attention. In this singular moment, time overrides space, and commands the attention of a nation.
No one else could observe Yom Hashoah this way, because the Shoah is a unique memory of the Jewish people. (Not, I would hasten to add, because the Holocaust provides the raison d’etre of the State of Israel. That false storyline has sadly become popularized of late, a testament both to the effectiveness of Holocaust education, and ineffectiveness of Zionist education, on the general American public. Zionism predates the Shoah by two generations, and the State of Israel was being built before the ovens of Auschwitz and Treblinka. The Shoah perhaps hastened, but certainly did not cause, the establishment of Medinat Yisrael. But I digress.)
The Shoah is a unique memory of the Jewish people. Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, will and must always have a unique memory of the Shoah. The memory of the six million is part of our inheritance, and we are therefore its primary custodians. And yet humanity as a whole must also not only learn the history, but internalize the memory, of the Holocaust. All of us have this duty, whether or not we are Jews. The Holocaust is both a singular event in Jewish history, and sadly only the most grandiose of a tragic litany of genocides in human history.
So when we say Never Again, we mean both: Never Again for the Jews, and Never Again for anyone:
Never Again for Armenia,
Never Again for Cambodia,
Never Again for Yugoslavia,
Never Again for Rwanda,
Never Again for Sudan,
Never Again for Congo,
Never Again for anyone.
And when we say Never Forget, we likewise say it for ourselves and for all of humanity. Particularly now, at this hinge moment of history, when we say Never Forget, we remind and rededicate ourselves to not only learning the facts of history, but to kindling the flame of memory. Particularly now, particularly today, we must remember to remember.