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.

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