“Never Forget” the Holocaust – But That’s Not How It Works

I was reading a New York Times article on Holocaust research.  It said this:

By the age of 17, Mr. Greenbaum had been enslaved in five camps in five years, and was on his way to a sixth, when American soldiers freed him in 1945. “Nobody even knows about these places,” Mr. Greenbaum said. “Everything should be documented. That’s very important. We try to tell the youngsters so that they know, and they’ll remember.”

I had often heard the phrase, “Never forget,” referring to the Nazi attempt to wipe out Jews and other “undesirables” during World War II.  At first, this phrase impressed me.  Subsequently, however, I have wondered whether it is misguided.

Never Forget?

Consider Mr. Greenbaum’s words.  Certainly, as he says, “everything should be documented.”  Researchers in virtually any field will want to keep notes and records of various events, experiences, attempts, and so forth.  Why is this important?  Because it assists in research, and in reporting on research.  But the view expressed in the quote is that it will help young people to learn from it and remember.

There are some limits on what young people learn and remember.  For one thing, it can take some maturity to develop a grasp of longer time periods (e.g., Thornton & Bukelich, 1988).  Note that it is an 84-year-old man, not a child, who is expressing Mr. Greenbaum’s perspective.  In addition, as developed further below, one cannot control what young people (or anyone else) will make of historical events.

It can also take time to develop an interest.  For instance, the Middle Ages now intrigue me; but when I took my first course in medieval history, in my first year of college, that subject seemed remote.  I could not relate to the strange art, the silly superstitions, and other aspects of life so long ago.  I needed years of experience to see past the superficial differences and to understand that people find themselves in many odd times and places, in this world – to understand, in other words, that I could have been a person in the Middle Ages, and as such would have had to deal with life as I found it, just as I must do now.

Memory has its own problems.  Children who were not present during the Holocaust cannot remember it.  They can remember only what they have heard about it.  Even at its best, memory can be unreliable.  When it is subjected to the game of Telephone – passing the story on down the line from one to the next, from witness to recorder to researcher to reader to listener — memory can become another word for folklore.  It is true that the printed word preserves much information.  But it cannot preserve everything.  Life is very much richer than the book or even the video camera can capture.  Unfortunately, after a certain number of years, it is no longer possible to ask witnesses whether we have correctly interpreted the historical story in contemporary terms.  Besides, even if we could capture everything, people would still have to select pieces from it; nobody would have time to relive it all.  In some ways, future researchers will know more about the Holocaust than many people knew in the 1950s; but in other ways they will know much less.

None of this is to deny the importance of recording, researching, and remembering.  These are valuable processes, but they are unavoidably imperfect.  People will, and should, continue to think and ask questions.  What seems obvious and important in one century can easily become uncertain and tangential in the next.  It will likely be inadequate to rely upon simple memory of a historical event or period.

The Museum Approach

The “never forget” approach seems to be rather museum-minded.  It is as though the Holocaust were to be cast in resin and mounted on a pedestal.  Such an approach certainly will help people see the preserved fragments – just as it helped me to observe and to feel completely alienated from artifacts of the Middle Ages.  A museum approach can be counterproductive.  If you want to convey the richness of a concept from human experience, like sex or swimming, you don’t just want to write books about it, much less seal it away on a dusty shelf.  The way for young people to learn – not only to remember, but also to understand – is to participate.  They must be kept sharp through meaningful experience with present-day holocausts, large and small.

The museum approach, setting up the good guys and the bad guys, has surely been useful for certain purposes – inspiring sympathy for Jews and guilt in Germans, for example, and obtaining postwar compensation, and carving out enormous latitude for Israeli actions and priorities.  The people of China did not pursue a comparably effective project vis-à-vis Japan, pertaining to Japanese atrocities in China during the 1930s and 1940s.  Attitudes toward postwar behavior of right-wing elements in Japan, and present-day amity between those two nations, might have been improved if the Chinese had taken a more Jewish approach to such matters.

The problem is that, the more you milk the Holocaust for its unique horror, the less likely people are to connect with it personally.  I remember that, when I came back from Auschwitz in 1988 and was telling some people that I had seen rooms full of shoes, hair, and so forth, some guy laughed.  That irritated me.  I’m not sure why he did that.  But for whatever reason, he was not understanding and appreciating the enormity of what I had seen.  And so I got a lesson:  even things that seem obvious are subject to interpretation.  What people will make of something, including even the Holocaust, cannot be controlled in one permanent version for everyone forever.

Perhaps another example will help to clarify this point.  The story of Anne Frank is famous.  But why?  Is it merely because people like to have the opportunity to become emotional about a nice young girl who was persecuted and ultimately killed?  I would not want to deny people that sort of opportunity.  Nor would I deny how much the Nazis, as the quintessential bad guys, have contributed to the western world’s supply of movies.  But it would be a greater testimony to Ms. Frank if, after watching a film about her story, we were not merely entertained, as in a museum.  It would be better if, to cite one possibility, we were inspired to apply the message of her story for the benefit of countless kids who endure conditions that are scarcely better than the worst she experienced.

Abusing the Privilege

When the Holocaust is treated like an object in a museum, the players tend to be viewed simplistically, as set pieces.  Jews are the innocents; Nazis are the villains.  Yet anything, even these defensible stereotypes, can be overdone.  In one article, I cite Strauss (1953) for what he called the reductio ad hitlerum fallacy.  In his words, “A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler” (p. 43).  That article also points out the contemporary fatigue with talk of Nazis, as demonstrated in myriad YouTube videos using a scene from a World War II movie to portray Hitler supposedly ranting about sundry topics.  Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” likewise carries some of that trivialization.  Beyond a certain point, less is more.

In 1988, riding the train from Munich to Dachau, I witnessed an incident that conveyed that message on a small but telling scale.  A thirtysomething American woman, who I guess was probably Jewish, suddenly started yelling about what she called “the mentality that led to the murder of six million Jews.”  What had provoked her outcry?  Not the sight of the former concentration camp.  No, it was that she had failed to buy a ticket at the station, and the conductor had caught her trying to ride for free.  At the Munich station, where we started, there may have been signs in English.  I don’t remember.  But in any case, I think most Americans would see other people using the ticket machines and/or would deduce that there might be a charge to ride the train.

Her outburst seemed counterproductive.  Some people in the train car looked baffled.  The middle-aged German man seated next to me looked out the window and muttered under his breath.  I told her that her words were not well taken – that, for one thing, she had no idea where these people were during the war, if indeed they had even been alive, and that she had no right to link them to that.  It’s not as though Munich had given her a less friendly greeting than she would have gotten on a train platform in New York.  Nothing is perfect, and obviously the Holocaust cannot be undone; but the Germans have done a tremendous amount, since the war, to repair some of the damage, and to try to prevent recurrent bigotry.  In short, the lady overplayed her hand.  Somewhere, she had gotten the idea that it would make sense to carry on like that, and it just didn’t.

The Full Story

What we have learned, in the U.S., is that the Jews must be protected against Nazis.  We are not Nazis, so there is no problem.  We have not learned, and are not likely to learn, that Jews must also be protected against every other sort of accusation.  This is perhaps the nub of the problem inadvertently posed by people like Mr. Greenbaum, in that New York Times article.  Treating the Holocaust as a museum piece carries the risk of removing it from practical meaning within present-day conditions.  Consider this excerpt from the FAQs page on the website of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Resource Center:

Why did the Nazis murder the Jews?

Many answers to this question have been offered – theological, historical, philosophical, psychological, and Marxist – but none alone will ever be satisfactory. The historical answer might read something like this:

In the 1930s, large segments of the German populace consented to live in a society based on the tenets of hatred, ethnic utopianism, and violence. They went to war to redress every wrong and every perceived wrong perpetrated against them over the previous 200 years, and to create their version of a better world. A central belief in the system by which they lived was that the Jews (or “The Jew”) represented everything diametrically opposed to them and, for this reason, had to be removed. This belief was closely connected to a racial worldview, shared by many, which defined the Germans as members of a master race – the Nordic Aryans – and the Jews as an “anti”-race befouled by destructive physical characteristics. The utopia toward which these Germans strove would be unattainable if the Jews remained. When the geographical removal of the Jews proved infeasible, they resorted to the most radical of solutions: a Final Solution.

This excerpt raises many questions.  Surely racism was an important part of the story, at least for some notable fraction of Germans.  But the excerpt seems to acknowledge that it wasn’t that simple.  It says there have been “many answers to this question,” and that “none alone will ever be satisfactory.”  Plainly, the excerpt is telling us that there were multiple reasons for the Nazi persecution, extending well beyond simpleminded racism.  Most Germans were not Nazis; apparently the large majority did not prefer extermination.  It seems, rather, that the Nazis drew upon preexisting, traditional hostility toward Jews – that Jews were prominent among those by whom, according to Yad Vashem, Germans felt they had been wronged over the previous 200 years.

According to the quote, part of the story is that Germans wanted to “redress” real and perceived wrongs.  Somehow, the courts and other ordinary means of redress were perceived as failing to do the job; apparently there was an opening for extrajudicial measures.  It appears, moreover, that many persecuted Jews (though surely not the more religiously conservative ones) were highly assimilated into German life and culture.  That is, the Nazis evidently executed a large number of people who believed, presumably with good reason, that they belonged and were safe in Germany – that, evidently, the Germans’ grievances did not apply to them, or were not to be taken seriously.

The Yad Vashem quote is not entirely lucid on these matters.  There is a sense that we are not quite coming directly to grips with the actual situation.  Thus, as you see, I find myself having to piece together the answer to a fairly obvious question about one of the most frequently cited events in 20th-century history.  Or let me put it this way.  I am 57 years old.  I have been reading magazines and newspapers, watching movies, and otherwise participating in general American culture for my entire adult life.  I have heard, countless times, that Germany executed six million Jews.  And yet, despite the magnitude of the story and the number of its repetitions, I don’t recall seeing a clear explanation as to why this happened.

No doubt the Yad Vashem quote is correct in saying that there have been many explanations.  At the same time, that quote also leads directly to questions of what the German grievances were, and whether any of them were reasonable.  Yet that part of the story is not addressed in the quote, and it also tends to be absent from the movies and other public reminders of the Holocaust.  We don’t typically get the lead-in, the background for the apparently non-genocidal yet widespread and enduring German antipathy, toward Jews, that facilitated the Nazi-led murders.

On a longer historical timeframe, going back many centuries, I have heard that Jews have been repeatedly targeted to experience various forms of oppression.  I don’t know whether these things happen in actual cycles, but it does appear that the Holocaust may someday be viewed as the first part of a wave in which an intensive persecution was followed by a countervailing embrace of Jews.  For instance, a quick search leads to a Wikipedia indication that, before World War II, German Christians did not generally indulge a claim to be participants in a “Judeo-Christian” tradition, but that this term did become widely used in a postwar reaction against the Holocaust.  There was, in other words, a fairly rapid flip-flop toward Jews, in Germany and elsewhere.

History does not always repeat itself in exactly the same way, and I would not want to demand too much of Yad Vashem’s apparent attempt to provide brief answers in its FAQs.  But it does seem that the commonly told Holocaust story could include, not only the buildup prior to World War II, but also a sense of whether there had been comparable accumulations of similar grievances prior to other persecutions in previous centuries.

I do not mean to imply that important parts of the Holocaust story have been deliberately suppressed.  I realize that moviegoers and even novel-readers may tend to prefer a relatively simple story, with obvious good guys and bad guys.  I also appreciate that people will naturally tend to tell the parts of the story that favor them, without necessarily intending to manipulate or deceive.  But if we are to take seriously the call to remember the Holocaust, we should be hearing more than the big drama of World War II.  If we’re going to remember the Holocaust as a historical and political matter, and not merely as an oversimplification (almost a caricature) of actual events, it seems reasonable that we would want to remember – that relatively informed and intelligent readers would tend to be hearing – a plausible summary of related German views and behavior from the period in question.

In other words, it seems that people like Mr. Greenbaum may be emphasizing an approach that is not entirely effective.  Simply remembering the horror of the Holocaust is not enough.  Painting the Jews as innocent victims is not enough.  The problem is not that the victim story is false.  It may be generally true.  The problem is that pity does not answer questions – and when questions go unanswered, learning is interrupted.  The young can memorize all the Holocaust trivia they want, but will they be able to apply what they have learned to new and unanticipated situations?  Will they, and their descendants, be able to build a world in which the same old mistakes (whatever they were) do not get made all over again?

Punishment for the Inquisitive

Some readers may cringe as I ask these questions and offer these observations, and some of that cringing may derive from a sense of political correctness.  I have learned from some people of Mr. Greenberg’s age, and also from some of their children in the Baby Boom generation, that it can be dangerous to pose questions about Jews.  I have learned, for example, that a person is at risk of being called anti-Semitic if s/he concludes that Jews control American media (or, for that matter, investment banking).

It’s not a question of whether such claims are true.  According to an article in Slate, it’s largely true of the movies, but not of the news.  It may or may not be true of other aspects of television.  I haven’t looked into whether it might be true of publishing.  Rather, as journalists sometimes say, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.  In this case, it’s not even a crime.  It wouldn’t be the end of the world if Jews controlled all of the above.  They may in fact have done so, for a generation or more.  That hasn’t, and probably wouldn’t, keep the rest of us from continuing to watch movies and buy newspapers.

To be sure, it may not be desirable for any ethnic, racial, or other group to control any important public industry or set of institutions.  But the idea that Jews would attack people for simply raising the question or pointing out the fact, if it be such – now, that’s another matter altogether.  This is a free country, as the saying goes.  Getting painted as a racist for drawing reasonable inferences from available information does tend to highlight the question of whether the attackers have something to hide.  Attempts to suppress, avoid, or distort discussion can be more controversial than the ostensible topic of discussion itself.

In other words, it would be unfortunate if the behavior of some Jews of these older generations contributed to an impression that Jews generally sought to suppress uncomfortable truths, and that this (as distinct from mere moviemaking logic) was why some potentially unflattering parts of the Holocaust story (e.g., the interwar perspectives of various non-Nazi groups within Germany) may not be commonly presented.  I don’t know that this is the case; I haven’t looked into it. (And it is OK that I have not done so: a person is not generally required to be an expert in order to express curiosity or uncertainty.) The point here is simply that “never forget” implies that we should be remembering and talking about key elements of the full story, not just the parts that someone wants us to remember.

The Social Microcosm

Stanford psychiatrist Irvin Yalom (1995) had an interesting idea, born of his years of experience leading psychotherapy groups.  His clinical experience led him to the realization that, contrary to what many clients might expect, he actually did not need to know the details of what had happened to them in their everyday lives, with all their friends and lovers and other sources of woe.  All he needed to do was to invite them into a therapy group and get them to start interacting with the other group members.  After a while, they would tend to re-create, right there in the therapy group, the sorts of behaviors and interactions that had led to their problems out in the big, wide world.  They would do things to provoke other group members, and vice versa.  As he put it, the therapy group would function as a social microcosm of the client’s larger life.

That idea may have some application in areas beyond group therapy.  Specifically, one might ask whether Jewish behavior and experiences in America could be treated as a microcosm or reenactment of the situation in Germany.  Obviously, 1940s Germany and the 21st-century U.S. are vastly different places.  The social microcosm hypothesis would be tricky to develop in much detail.  But it would also be unrealistic to assume that this country, so heavily European in many ways, would provide an utterly novel venue for Jewish-Gentile interactions.  This is not China.

I gather that in Germany, as in the U.S., many Jews enjoyed a high degree of success and relative wealth.  One might expect such success to provoke resentment among at least some Gentiles.  In addition, one might ponder a quote attributed to Balzac:  behind every great fortune there is a great crime.  One might ask, that is, whether there also tends to be an accumulation of small crimes behind an accumulation of small fortunes.  Such crimes might include the garden-variety schemes practiced by all sorts of people, in the pursuit of wealth. These remarks would surely not anticipate all of the reasons that people have advanced for hatred toward Jews, but they may be consistent with the foregoing quote from Yad Vashem.

Having begun to consider possible sources of misfit or hostility, my impression is that Yalom would proceed to work through the emerging issues within that same microcosm.  In other words, we know that things did not work out well in Germany; we may be seeing some reasons for that, here in this new setting; and now the question is, how can we revise elements of the situation so as to achieve a better outcome here?  That is, instead of a simpleminded belief in an adage like “Never forget” – instead of lecturing anyone who will listen, and hoping that they do continue to listen – is it possible for Jews and Gentiles alike, as participants in this new setting, to derive and apply insights that will yield a better outcome next time?

Encouraging Signs

Just as a therapy group provides (or at least is supposed to provide) an environment conducive to thought and discussion focused on interpersonal interactions – a better environment, that is, than the real-life conditions that have led up to therapy – so also the U.S. has provided an obviously freer and more accepting environment for Jews than Nazi Germany did.  Among the reasons for that, one might observe that this country is vastly more diverse.  We are not likely to be endorsing any particular ethnicity as the master race.  Nor are we white-majority or white-plurality Americans apt to focus our worries on one group – and if we did, it probably would not be the generally European Jews.  In the second half of the 20th century, we were more preoccupied with the blacks, and in the 21st it appears we will be more concerned with the Chinese and/or the Mexicans.  Indeed, for all the concerns about people hating Jews, what appears much more likely is that Gentile Americans tend to enjoy and/or to be curious about them – in the movies and other forms of entertainment, and also in the religious connection noted above.

This setting has produced some interesting results.  My sense, as an informed lay reader, is that the Bush Administration’s embrace of Israel, to the point of seeming to give that country whatever it wanted, has promoted soul-searching among a number of Jews – has fostered some questioning, that is, as to whether Israel is on the right track and is using these resources wisely.  It is as if a person came to the therapy group, agitated and all set to seek the group’s sympathy with his/her side of an argument with his/her spouse, and instead settled down and began to reflect more broadly on whether things were going the way s/he wanted.  America has been, by and large, so accepting of Jews as to create an environment in which at least some Jews feel safe in criticizing Jewish leaders and institutions publicly.  For example, on the scale of centuries of oppression and defensiveness, it is remarkable to see that Roger Cohen of the New York Times criticizes excesses in Israel, and notes that American Jews overwhelmingly voted for Obama in 2012 despite the fact that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyuhu wanted him to lose; Ron Unz of The Atlantic identifies pro-Jewish bias in Ivy League admissions; and other Jews similarly question things that may deserve to be questioned.

These are small steps.  But they are encouraging.  It would be more difficult to accuse Jews of clannishness or cunning if they were generally seen to engage in open and credible debate on topics where many have tended to circle the wagons, as in the media example offered above.  I phrase it that way – referring to how Jews are seen – because in fact I have found them to be a relatively questioning lot, varying greatly in their religiosity, their identification with Israel, their interest in accumulating wealth, their preoccupation with media ownership, and other matters where some might assume their unanimity.  It is understandable, but in this sense unfortunate, that American Jews are so heavily concentrated in certain areas on the East Coast, such that the country as a whole tends not to have many opportunities for firsthand acquaintance with their style and culture.  Perhaps less geographic concentration would also reciprocally enlighten American Jews regarding the lingering perception of insularity.

Missed Opportunities

It will be particularly encouraging if the Jewish questioning propensity to which I just alluded is brought to bear on the topic of this post.  Those who take a pronounced interest in the Holocaust – especially those who write, make films, or otherwise publicize the topic – might advisedly move beyond a rigid allegiance to the “never forget” mindset.  That was an understandable mentality for the World War II generation.  But for reasons discussed above, much more will be needed if the Holocaust is to contribute meaningfully to future understandings of persecution.

The topic of slavery may provide an example of how things could turn out.  In the U.S., the concept of slavery became rigidly linked with the specific setting of black slavery on plantations.  It has been some years since I last looked at legal scholarship on the constitutional amendments that terminated that form of institutionalized slavery, and I cannot conveniently supply the references at this moment.  But I did encounter a number of scholars who voiced regret at the fact that key aspects of those amendments had been narrowly construed, by the courts, to apply only to that particular kind of slavery, when there were other forms of enslavement that those amendments could have been used to prohibit.  As suggested above, in other words, it is possible for the Holocaust to be portrayed in a regrettably limited and increasingly irrelevant light, and I am afraid that this has been the direction of much that we have seen on the subject.

Rather than isolate the Holocaust as a bizarre and extraordinary event applicable only to Jews and Nazis, I believe it would have been better, many years ago, to make earnest common cause with others.   People do not need to be bludgeoned in order to understand that something like the Holocaust could have happened to the Jews.  What they need is to be constantly reminded that horrible things do happen, every day, to someone – and, surely, that some individuals, groups, and social strata, including but vastly outnumbering Jews, tend to be recurrently targeted.  I realize that this sort of hostility toward oppression could sometimes subject Jews, themselves, to constraints upon overreaching – involving, for example, the Palestinians – but I think that sort of discipline, and this general awareness, would have been better for everyone over time.

Needless to say, the years since World War II have brought many genocides and similar outrages.  Yet despite constant reminders of the Nazi era on TV and in books and movies, the American conversation has not achieved a determined opposition to the Holocaust spirit.  To offer just one example, Bill Clinton, a gifted politician but a lesser statesman, later claimed that he was not aware of what was happening in Rwanda in 1994 – when I, a lay reader of newspapers and magazines, had been quite adequately notified that thousands of people were being butchered in an attempted genocide.  The truth of the matter, I think, is that the politician recognized that Americans did not want to go to war on behalf of a bunch of poor black Africans – and that was at least partly because the American public had not been deeply schooled in an ethic of preventing anything resembling a Holocaust.

What should be made of the Holocaust is that any group, prominently but not solely including the Jews, can be targeted by other groups, including even the Jews.  The Holocaust is not ultimately a story about Jewish purity and innocence, though there is certainly room for purity and innocence in the tale – just as there was in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and other places where, with proper education in the Holocaust, we would have intervened promptly to prevent mass murder.  As Yad Vashem acknowledges, the Holocaust is a complex matter; the point here is that it calls for much more understanding and proactive engagement than one gets from the passive, listen-to-the-lecture approach summarized in “never forget.”

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