Wednesday, November 13, 2019 -
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In denial about Holocaust remembrance

A third-generation Holocaust survivor, quoted in a JTA story in this week’s IJN, is concerned that if the grandchildren of survivors do not act now, the link to the survivors will be lost. The  immediacy of the event will become a mere piece of history.

The third generation says it must transmit the stories of their grandparents, the survivors themselves. Otherwise, the Holocaust could become “like talking about the Civil War. It doesn’t compare to listening to a survivor, but we carry on our grandparent’s stories and the lessons of the Holocaust. It hits them [the listeners].”

It goes without saying that it is of inestimable value for grandchildren of survivors to gather and transmit the stories they heard from — or heard about — their grandparents. But it is a form of denial to think that the Holocaust will not become like talking about the Civil War. This is absolutely inevitable.

The death of one million Jews during the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, or the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews (or more) by the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Cossacks, is, yes, “like the Civil War.” No effort at sustaining the stories of the survivors of these pivotal calamities in Jewish history have sustained their immediacy or their immeasurable emotional pain. That didn’t happen. That can’t happen.

Yet, those events are not forgotten and their significance is not lost. That is because these events have been incorporated into Jewish ritual, namely, the rituals of the Jewish day of national remembrance, Tisha b’Av. For the Holocaust not to be forgotten and for its significance not to be lost, it, too, must be incorporated into the Jewish ritual of Tisha b’Av.

Of course, those who observe Tisha b’Av are well aware that, to an extent, the Holocaust is already incorporated into it. But until such time as all of those Jews of conscience who heroically carry the task of Holocaust remembrance in their hearts turn to Tisha b’Av as the realistic, long-term guarantor of Holocaust remembrance, the numbers of those who care about the Holocaust will continue to decline; the numbers of those who attend Holocaust remembrance events will continue to drop; the frustration of survivors — and of their survivors — at making people understand the significance of the Holocaust will continue to grow.

Jews have always transcended the inevitable cooling of emotion that follows the death of the last survivor of a major war. Within the last year, the last American survivor of WW I died. How many Americans today grasp the emotional and political reality and legacy of that war? None, or almost none, we would say. The Jews have always transcended this inevitable drying out by linking historical memory to ritual.

When we see the various Holocaust memorial seasons — multiplying in inverse proportion to the actual remembrance of the Holocaust — converge on Tisha b’Av, we will be able to rest assured that the Holocaust will remain part of the consciousness of the Jewish people, and beyond, and not merely confined to books, videos, artifacts and museums.

There is now a Holocaust remembrance season in the US in April and there is a new international Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, the date that Auschwitz was liberated. Perhaps for a few decades, or maybe even a century, this will speak to the nations, for this remembance day is a recognition that Holocaust remembrance must be ritualized. But in the long term — and for the Jews the long term is millennia — there is no one who will guarantee Holocaust remembrance other than the Jewish people, and there is way they will do it other than through Tisha b’Av, by linking the tragedy of the destruction of European Jewry to all of the destructions visited upon the Jewish people that preceded it.

To say that the Holocaust is unique is accurate and appropriate if and when the context of comparison is other genocides. But to say that the Holocaust is unique when the context is Jewish history, this rises to a theological, not only a factual, claim; and it is this claim that will inevitably lead to the diminishment of either the Holocaust or of the Jewish history that preceded it. Only the theological assertion of the continuity of the Holocaust, by incorporating it into Tisha b’Av, will sustain both the memory of it and of that which preceded it.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News




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