Earlier this week, Menachem Z. Rosensaft wrote about life after catastrophe. He is the editor of the newly published God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing) and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
Almost 20 years ago, I wrote an article about Holocaust remembrance entitled “Preserving the Mystery” for the Forward. It was published there on April 28, 1995. I had all but forgotten it, but happened to reread it recently and was struck by its – to me at least – continued relevance and validity. My concerns 70 years after the Holocaust remain much the same as they were on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. And since I am quite certain that no one else will recall it, I decided to republish it here.
Fifty years after the Holocaust, our perspective on the past is undergoing a subtle yet perceptible transformation. Time has not diminished our grief. Our questions, whether addressed to God or to humankind, remain unanswered. But somehow, our horror and outrage seem to have eased, if not lessened. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Bergen-Belsen, Babi Yar, the Warsaw Ghetto. Gas chambers, selections, partisans, yellow stars of David, crematoria, mass-graves. Names, terms and concepts that entered our vocabulary in a dramatic explosion of emotion have become almost too familiar. The sense of awe that once characterized even the most oblique reference to the annihilation of European Jewry has evolved into standardized, often impersonal reactions.
Not too long ago, the study of the Holocaust was the domain of an isolated few, most of whom saw their task as a solemn obligation to the dead. Now, historical accounts and memoirs devoted to this cataclysm, better ones, worse ones, are published regularly. Steven Spielberg’s monumental motion picture, “Schindler’s List,” has made the subject truly fashionable, even trendy. Then there are the countless lectures, courses, sermons, articles. Life in the ghettos, faith in the camps, hidden children, love in the shadow of death, accusations of collaboration with the enemy, death marches, watching loved ones disappear forever, emotional reunions in displaced persons camps, survivors coming to terms with their loss, post-Holocaust trauma. No aspect of the Holocaust is left untouched, undissected.
While many of these works are important and factually accurate contributions to the historical record, others are flawed in a variety of ways. In a desire for drama, an author will occasionally expand on the truth. A minor participant in an uprising may be tempted, in writing his memoirs, to embellish his own role. A publisher, seeking to enhance a forthcoming book’s appeal, may urge the writer to add some romance to an otherwise colorless episode. A less than meticulous historian may transpose a given occurrence from Auschwitz to Treblinka in order to streamline a particular argument.
As much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate. The historian who misrepresents it commits a greater transgression than one who shuns the topic altogether. The witness who testifies falsely, who distorts his or her experiences in any manner for even the most benign reason, effectively becomes the accomplice of those who try to deny that the Holocaust ever took place.
This is not to suggest that the current widespread interest in the Shoah is not welcome. But the greater the popularity of this subject, the greater the need for vigilance regarding the treatment it is accorded.
In Washington, D.C., the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum brings the full magnitude and complexity of the Holocaust into the consciousness of thousands upon thousands of Americans every single week. More than 4 million visitors have been to the museum since its opening two years ago. Most of them are non-Jews. Who among us could have predicted 20 or 30 years ago that American public schools and church groups would make reservations months in advance to visit a Holocaust museum? Who among us could have predicted 20 or 30 years ago that serious scholars would make Holocaust studies a respected academic discipline?
Why, then, is there also a sense of unease? Why am I, for one, not altogether comfortable with the popular appeal that the Holocaust has acquired? Perhaps because the experience must not be allowed to lose its aura of mystery. Objective, cognitive analysis alone is insufficient. As my friend and mentor Elie Wiesel has written, “Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of two thousand years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a Meaning — with a capital M — in history. What Auschwitz embodied had none.”
The Holocaust transcends ordinary human experience. It is the unprecedented, the unfathomable, and, above all, the inexplicable. Sober chronologies of dates, events and statistics are critical to our understanding but provide only one dimension. Histories of the Holocaust based exclusively or even primarily on German documents convey the intent and actions of the perpetrators but do not adequately reflect the experiences of the victims. Thus, ghetto diaries, underground newspapers and survivors’ recollections are essential to any comprehensive narrative. And no one can penetrate the nocturnal universe of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen without absorbing songs, poems, nightmares and prayers that defy all standard historiographic methodology.
A barrack wall at Auschwitz contains the following inscription: “Andreas Rapaport — lived sixteen years.” Try to imagine this boy, realizing that he was about to die, as he tried to leave a sign, a memory of his existence on earth. In truth, Andreas Rapaport was the author of his own eulogy: Andreas Rapaport — lived sixteen years. Andreas Rapaport — abandoned, alone, afraid. Andreas Rapaport — hungry, in pain. Andreas Rapaport — with gas-filled lungs. Andreas Rapaport — burning flesh in the crematorium, black smoke, ashes.
With the passing of time, our mental pictures go out of focus, our collective memories become blurred. We all have memories, even we who were born afterwards. And they were once fresh. When my father told me how he was shot by the Germans while escaping from a moving train bound for Auschwitz, when he told me how his 80-year-old father died in his arms, when he told me how he was tortured in Auschwitz, every one of his experiences was sharply recorded in my mind. He died almost 20 years ago. And I no longer remember his words as clearly as I once did.
We all have memories of when we first realized the enormity of Hitler’s Final Solution of the Jewish question, of the first time we tried to imagine members of our own families gasping for air in a gas chamber. But the years have mellowed our reactions. It used to be that we could not sleep for days after seeing a film about the Holocaust. Now, such films are shown on television late at night and no longer have the same impact.
As our knowledge of the Holocaust steadily increases, we must be careful not to become desensitized. As we perpetuate memory, we must also prevent it from becoming commonplace. There are times when even scholars must abandon their dispassion. Remembrance without emotion is hollow, and the dead deserve our anguish.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.
- Reading List: Holocaust Fiction and Nonfiction
- Everything We Need to Know by Ruth Franklin
- Stumbling Stones by Leslie Maitland
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936 – 2016 (World Jewish Congress, 2017).