Memories of D-Day and the Holocaust will remain, but only if we ritualize them.
We were not alive on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Allied forces for freedom began to retake Westerm Europe from Nazi domination. The 75th anniversary of this bloody yet heroic. historic turning point was marked around the world last week, as well it should have been. It is never wise to take our freedoms for granted.
We may not have been alive on D-Day, but D-Day is alive for us. Perhaps that is because the variant Hebrew forms of the word “remember” appear more than 600 times in the Hebrew Bible. We Jews are a remembering people.
Remember the Sabbath. Remember the Exodus from Egypt. Remember Amalek. Remember the gener- ations that came before you.
How screeching, how odd it sounded on NPR last week to hear one of the few remaining D-Day veterans, well into his nineties, say that as long as he and his D-Day comrades remain alive, the memory of the dramatic invasion of France 75 years ago will remain alive. But when they die, the memory will die along with them.
The memory will die? Is this even conceivable?
Truth to tell, the veteran had a point. The memory will not die, but it will surely change, almost beyond recognition. Americans remember Valley Forge. Americans remember the carnage of the Civil War. Americans remember WW I. But these are very different memories from the era when, say, amputated Civil War veterans were seen throughout cities and streets of America. As time passes and the veterans die, our memories lose that direct edge, that power that only survivors of the momentous events can convey.
People call our political climate the most polarized in American history, but this is only because we can no longer directly “remember” the Civil War, or even the national political evisceration caused by the arrival of scores to hundreds of American soldiers in body bags from Vietnam every single week for years, some 45 years ago. Memories of the viscerally divisive Vietnam War, like the memories of D-Day, will evolve into a ritualized remembrance.
This is the dilemma now facing Jewish community internationally as the last Holocaust survivors die. Even the 50,000-plus recorded interviews of Holocaust survivors’ preserved by the Spielberg Foundation will not elicit the intensity and texture of memory that only living survivors can generate. The United States has ritualized its memory of the critical, seminal, violent events in American history in Memorial Day. The Jewish people has ritualized its memory of the disastrous, watershed persecutions in Jewish history in Tisha b’Av, the date and the ritual of mourning for the destruction of both of the ancient holy temples in Jerusalem, of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and of the onset of WW I.
The more deeply rooted the ritual event that takes the place of direct remembrance, the longer the memory will be preserved. In the case of the Holocaust, we believe that it is Tisha b’Av that will take on the additional burden of the memory of the Holocaust most effectively, since the Ninth of Av is deeply rooted in the Jewish calendar and in Jewish ritual. Not a year goes by when remembrance of the Holocaust is not incorporated into the Tisha b’Av mourning more fully than the year before. On the other hand, with the deep reduction in the number of Holocaust survivors, it becomes more difficult each year to sustain a powerful Holocaust remembrance on Yom HaShoah. Ritual will trump personal testimony as the latter recedes, then disappears.
D-Day, of course, was but one event, albeit a major one, in the bloody battle against Nazism, such that when the survivors of D-Day die. the memory of D-Day will not die but will become absorbed into Memorial Day, which must take on the burden of all the American sacrifices in war, not only those of the “Greatest Generation,” but of all defenders of freedom going back to before the founding of the republic in 1776.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News