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Holocaust Remembrance: Who Owns Memory?

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Jan. 27 marks the International Day of Holocaust Remembrance, established by the United Nations in 2005 to remember past crimes with an eye toward preventing them in the future. The date chosen coincides with the date in 1945 when Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most deadly of the Nazi death camps.

Raising questions about a goal as laudable as preventing future genocides is always difficult. Raising questions about how we remember the Holocaust is about as safe as jumping into a shark tank with raw meat tied around one's neck. Well, here I go.

Memory is an aggressive act -- one which requires choices, choices which determine how future generations understand their past and create their future. History is not simply something that happened. It is created by those who recount it. I don't say that cynically. I simply think that we must all take responsibility for how we remember, what we choose to remember and for the implications of the choices that we make.

Such choices are becoming especially significant as we are the first generation that will live without those who experienced the Holocaust. While no single personal account is definitive, and while we often forget/choose to forget -- picking out those survivor stories that tell us what we want to know about the Holocaust -- such first-hand accounts have a power and an authority which are hard to deny.

Woody Allen fans will recall the scene in Annie Hall when Mr. Allen overhears two people debating the work of Marshall McLuhan. Unable to bear their foolishness a minute longer, he pulls Mr. McLuhan from behind a display poster and ends their conversation by having the man himself tell them what he really meant. After all, it's absurd to deny a person's account of their own experience.

In the absence of actual Holocaust survivors, survivors who are fixtures at virtually all remembrance ceremonies, the challenge of memory falls fully on our shoulders. That's why questions -- questions of both the general and the Jewish communities -- however difficult, must be asked.

Why did the United Nations establish this day of remembrance? If it is a good thing to have done, why did it take 60 years for them to do so? Having done so, does this seemingly noble act actually deflect attention from the ugly fact that Holocaust denial is de rigueur in large parts of the world? Does anyone actually believe that adopting a resolution will truly address that pernicious trend and magically convert hateful Holocaust deniers into responsible global citizens?

The United Nations is not squeamish about calling out nations for racism, bigotry or oppression in all kinds of circumstances, so why not here? Why not single out those nations that hypocritically signed on to a resolution acknowledging the importance of Holocaust memory while perpetuating the lie that the Holocaust never happened, or that if it did, it was not a systematic attempt to destroy any people in particular?

Could it be that the UN, in creating this day of remembrance, perpetuates the latter notion? Does this day of Holocaust remembrance seek to de-emphasize the particular importance of the Nazi dream of destroying the Jewish people?

These are the hard questions that must be asked of the United Nations, which created this event. But there are tough questions which must also be asked of the Jewish community, world-wide. And failing to address them makes even those with the best of intentions, as much a part of the problem as the UN may be.

Let's start with the use of the word Shoah instead of Holocaust. Why is a Hebrew word preferred to an English one? Yes, I know that Holocaust is from the Greek, but it is now English. Why would a community use a term which creates exclusivity when asking for universal awareness of the tragedy? Is the uniqueness of Jewish suffering, even if the war against the Jews was surely unique, really the best way to remember the Holocaust?

How many battles are fought over who owns Holocaust memory? How many times do claims of uniqueness get in the way of sharing a narrative of suffering in which all people can participate such that they see it as a narrative which calls them personally to keep further genocides from occurring?

Human suffering is not a commodity whose value diminishes with its ubiquity. It's not as if admitting the murder of Gay, Roma (Gypsies), etc., somehow renders Jewish suffering less horrific. In fact, when it comes to human suffering, two things are always true: First, when the suffering happens to those close to you, there is uniqueness to it, because you have a unique relationship to those affected. Second, the more people can experience a tragedy as having happened to those to whom they have a connection, the more likely they are to remember the tragedy and fight to keep it from happening again.

As we enter the next phase of Holocaust remembrance, I hope that all people and institutions will keep these two truths in mind. I hope that we will respect the uniqueness of any person's or community's suffering, while appreciating that the only path to keeping such horrors from recurring is by widening our sense of who we experience as part of our people and part of our community. If we do that, we have a real shot at finally making good on the oft-repeated pledge: "Never Again."

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