Where the Obligatory Theatrics of 'Never Again' Ring Hollow

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I've begun noticing it only recently. On subway platforms, over cafe tables, in lecture halls -- countless twenty-something-year-old friends have leaned over to me and let their voices drop to a whisper:

"I think I died in the Holocaust. In a past life."

And then, a rush to stutter and explain: Something about strange dreams, nightmares of things never experienced, ghettoes cattle cars Auschwitz chimneys – and always always running.

We, Diaspora graduates of yeshivas and Hebrew schools, have spent enough time immersed in our literature, films and candle lighting ceremonies, that we've found ourselves walking in a constant museum of memory. Whether or not we wanted it, whether we embraced our history with voracious reading or tried to break free of it with biting cynicism, the stories of others before us constantly lurk in the shadows of daily life, whispering to us in Yiddish in the quietest of moments.We're disturbed by the way our minds can revert to Warsaw when we hear a strain of melancholic music, and how when we wait for a train, the image of masses of people on a platform makes us nervous and we don’t know why.

As children, we grow suspicious of showerheads, elevator doors closing, wire fences. Attics are places to write diaries in, basements are places to hide in. When a mentally deranged man went through my New Jersey hometown last year and broke the glass storefronts of the Jewish-owned businesses -- we were horrified, but there was also something bizarrely normal, as if it’s inevitable that glass storefronts tend to shatter on November nights. It almost made sense in our post-Holocaust minds.

Scholars -- and not just mystics -- call this ‘absent memory’: memories of others which seep into one’s own, threatening to disrupt the tranquility of life, as the boundaries between past and present suddenly become permeable. Countless studies have explored second- and third-generation survivor trauma -- but it seems like these memories have gone far beyond direct descendants and have affected a national psyche.

I can’t help but wonder about the value of this absent memory, as I sit in the United Nations’ General Assembly hall for this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. As Ban Ki Moon’s requisite video address begins to offer heartfelt condolences over the tragedies of the Holocaust -- I feel a sudden wave of emptiness.

First, the obligatory slideshow: skeletons, heaps of bodies, army boots, barracks. Then UN officers reading off their scripts with theatrical compassion,  followed by a violin quartet. An Israeli diplomat stands up to say something about this podium, and how we commemorate the Holocaust in this very place that some other man stands and denies it -- yet somehow he swallows the final syllables of his sentence and no one really hears it. Then the professor who delivers a lecture alongside yet another slideshow, and then more violins, and then someone says something about ‘Never again’ and the audience nods vigorously and applauds.

I leave the ceremony with a bitter taste in my mouth. Because I’m not sure where exactly ‘memory of the Holocaust’ exists, but it certainly does not exist in this large hall, in these performance-ceremonies led by those who continue to turn a blind eye to genocide.

Perhaps the future of Holocaust memory exists in our own ability to turn inside to remember, to these absent memories and traumas too that we’ve inherited, as we stand on train platforms, as the men's voices rise to recite Kaddish, as our children recount the stories they’ve learned in school at our Sabbath tables.

It exists as we gather in our synagogues for the public reading of Parshat Zakhor, the Torah section which commands the Jewish people to “remember” and “not forget” when the nation of Amalek attacked the Israelites in the desert. The service itself is very brief -- a reading of three verses from Deuteronomy -- but the sanctuary will look like it’s Yom Kippur. The men’s section will be unusually silent, the women’s section will be packed, the children will be hushed as if the shofar is about to blow.

This is where the future of Holocaust memory exists. Not in the United Nations, where the world rushes to build a magnificent stage for our violinists, hoping that the construction noise will cancel out the screams of ongoing human suffering and evil.  It exists in our own absent memories, in that very moment in which an entire congregation stands together, holding its breath, and the cantor begins to chant.

Flowers placed on a slab at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Credit: AP

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