THE BLOG
01/27/2015 09:36 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

A Gesture for Today's Victims

Iain Masterton via Getty Images

The International Holocaust Remembrance Day will be held on January 27, which is the date of the liberation of the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz. Adopted on November 1, 2005, the United Nations decided that this date would be set aside to commemorate and remember the victims who died in atrocious conditions. "Millions of innocent Jews and members of other minorities were murdered in the most barbarous ways imaginable. We must never forget those men, women and children, or their agony," declared Kofi Annan one year after this resolution at the U.N.

As the direct witnesses of this drama are disappearing, it becomes the duty of everyone to carry the torch of remembrance, to ensure that this episode of history is never forgotten and I, for my part, strive to accomplish as much as the granddaughter of a survivor. This initiative is a response to those who allege that this crime did not occur and it provides a bulwark against hate and anti-Semitism.

But the remembrance shouldn't only aim to honor the victims; it should also serve to alert the current generation by teaching it to identify the warning signs of a potential genocide. Past experience should serve the present.

During The International Holocaust Remembrance Day, official ceremonies will be held in major commemoration centers. Right now would be an excellent opportunity to include the denunciation of the massacres in Syria by even just mentioning them in a sentence or by observing a minute of silence. The physical evidence of mass crimes as perpetrated by dictator Bashar al-Assad, have been occurring for a number of years and even appear to be escalating. Too much time has passed without any sound response from the international community and the victims are innocent men, women and children whose only desire was democracy.

The stakes are high, forcing us to use what Tzvetan Todorov calls "exemplary memory" in his book Les abus de la memoire [The Abuses of Memory] (Paris:Ed Arléa, 1995, p.31.). Described by the author as liberating, this memory "allows you to use the past for the present, to use the lessons and the suffered injustices to fight those occurring right now." This active and open-minded memory opposes the memory closed on itself, which according to Todorov, carries risks and "makes the ancient event critical," submitting the present to the past.

The debate on whether "we should use the memory of a crime" is not new. On November 12, 1949, in Le Figaro littéraire, David Rousset, a former prisoner of the Buchenwald camp called survivors to form a task force to detail the realities of concentration camp practices in the Soviet Union. Rousset wanted to denounce the Stalinist crimes. His call has since become the archetype of liberating memory.

Causing much tension and debate, Rousset's call gave rise to "an anti-Stalinist trial in Paris" (Paris. Ed Ramsay, 1990, p. 272), when Pierre Daix -- also a survivor -- accused him in Les lettres francaises, on November 17, 1949, of having used documents from the Nazi camps to describe the Soviet camps. The accusation of forgery and falsification of records led Rousset to file a libel suit. During the hearings (from November 1950 to January 1951), the discussions specifically revealed the existence of Soviet concentration camps and highlighted the attempts of Communism to deny this reality. In January 1951, Rousset won his libel trial due to lack of evidence and the charge of forgery was subsequently rejected by the court.

There are two opposing ways to deal with memory.

The first claims a memory that is "closed" and anxious to bring justice to the victims. This was the case of the Rousset affair when his detractors refused to draw any comparison between Nazi camps and Soviet camps.

The second resists the cult of memory, viewing the first way as abusive (due to its rigidity) and instead defends "an open-minded" and vigilant memory that can enlighten the present. This "open memory" of course does not consider questioning the specificity of the genocide of the Jews, but the fact that the Shoah remains a case unique in history does not prevent it from teaching a lesson to humanity that would be very unfortunate not to use.

The United Nations resolution to have a specific date of commemoration not only honors those who perished in the Holocaust, it also reminds current and future generations of the scale of the tragedy and our feelings towards the victims and the perpetrators. More importantly than being purely an act of remembrance, it should actively preserve and refresh the lessons learned on an international level in order to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again.

______________

Stephanie Courouble Share is a historian, a former student of Professor Pierre Vidal-Naquet, a specialist in Holocaust Denial, Research Associate at the Institute of Contemporary History IHTP-CNRS, Paris, France and at The Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), New York, USA. She works on Holocaust Denial at the International School for Teaching the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, and is working on publishing a book on international Holocaust Denial in the public space of different countries.