• There is virtually no time when I am not in the middle of reading a book about the Holocaust, whether a history or a memoir by a survivor. I have read scores of books on the Holocaust.
• My life has been enriched by friendship with Holocaust survivors. among them the late Fred Englard and Emil Hecht, and Rabbi Israel Rosenfeld and Cantor Zachary Kutner.
• When I speak from the pulpit, as I do with some frequency on a volunteer basis, I often include stories or anecdotes about Holocaust survivors or their liberators. The personal stories of Holocaust survivors are gripping as are no other stories.
However, honesty compels me to admit that if Holocaust remembrance is to be based on the personal stories of survivors, whether related by the survivors themselves or by their descendants, then Holocaust remembrance is doomed.
The number of survivors has shrunk drastically, and when others relate their stories, even if it is their children and grandchildren, the power just isn’t there. This is not a critique of anyone; it is the natural course of events.
For Holocaust remembrance to survive, it must transcend the personal stories. It must acquire a justification beyond the incomparable sagas.
Observe: By far, the bloodiest conflict in American history was the Civil War. I challenge a single living American to testify that his knowledge of, or feeling for, the Civil War is anything other than mediated. The power that stories of the Civil War must have held for generations is gone. This is natural.
Does any Jew carry any personal pain from the horrible massacres of the Jews during WW I? Do the Inquisition and its brutal torture of countless Jews arouse in any Jew the same level, or even the same type, of pain as the Holocaust?
Of course not. This is the work of the passage of time. Of course, pained by the suffering of Jews throughout the ages, and perhaps even immeasurably angry at their tormentors, the living Jew today does not, and cannot, carry the visceral response to the countless Jewish tragedies of the ages that he carries in response to the Holocaust. But the visceral response to the Holocaust will end. It cannot be transmitted. This is not a pedagogical failure. It is inevitable. Holocaust remembrance in a scant 50 or 75 years from now — if there is to be any Holocaust remembrance at all — will have to have a basis different from the personal.
WE need to look to Jews with no familial connection to the Holocaust in order develop a rationale for Holocaust remembrance that transcends the personal story and the last vestiges of the personal agony.
It must be Jews who can see Jewish fate during the Holocaust in continuity with Jewish history and Jewish theology in order to anchor it permanently — way beyond the 68 years following the end of Holocaust — in the Jewish mind and ritual practice.
Steven Spielberg has already recorded the personal stories of some 52,000 Holocaust survivors, in many languages. This is an invaluable treasure. But any person in the future who listens to these testimonies, but who has never heard a living survivor, will not be affected by these recorded testimonies in the same way as a contemporary Jew who has discoursed with a living survivor. Recorded testimonies will not take the place of personally hearing a survivor, and will not, in and of themselves, sustain Holocaust remembrance, especially in an era when virtually everything is recorded and it is not unusual for trivia to attract millions of views on YouTube.
ALL this means that as we move forward with Holocaust remembrance ceremonies in this, the last years of the era of the living survivor, we must concentrate not only on the personal stories of survivors. We must also reach out to and engage Jews who are interested in setting forth a rationale for Holocaust remembrance that is detached from the ephemeral, albeit unique, testimony of survivors. We need new ideas, radically new ideas.
One million Jews were killed during the destruction of the Second Temple almost 2,000 years ago. There must have been countless personal stories about that horror. Virtually none of these stories has survived, and none dramatically move us today. Yet, the remembrance of that pivotal event in Jewish history is with us, year in and year out. A rationale beyond the survivors’ tales was successfully devised. We need to do the same thing for the Holocaust.
I believe we can, if we define the agenda soberly; yes, preserving the testimony of every last, precious survivor, but also moving bravely beyond that.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News