When my grandson was 7, he asked me, “Grandpa, were you in the Holocaust?” I answered yes, and he responded, “Cool.”
And when my grandchildren returned from a school trip to the concentration camps in Poland, they said it was “amazing.” When I asked in what way, they embarrassingly had trouble explaining. I feared I was prying too much. Still, I asked myself whether we know how remembrance of the Holocaust affects our youth, and whether it contributes to understanding the needs of the future.
Not a day goes by without some reminder of the Holocaust. Almost every week we hear about the establishment of some new museum or memorial to ensure its remembrance someplace around the world.
Also, there’s a constant flow of information about artistic, theatrical, operatic and musical works, as well as about poems, films and paintings, alongside a plethora of conferences and seminars that challenge the public to comprehend the incomprehensible and take part in discussions on “the proper interpretation of memory.” On top of all that, there’s the political rhetoric that never misses an opportunity to stress the degree to which our people were victims.
There’s no doubt the Holocaust was one of the saddest and most terrible events in the Jewish people’s history, and it’s important to remember it in a meaningful way and transmit this memory to the younger generation.
Still, by any standard, it’s hard to be certain today whether the multiplicity of events about the memory of the Holocaust contributes to the health of society or has a positive effect on our lives.
Do these events expand horizons? Help us understand the other better? Teach a different way of thinking? Do we know exactly how this almost compulsive preoccupation with the Holocaust affects our youth? Does the accumulated knowledge lead to us to a better understanding of reality? Is it enough to serve as a compass for the future?
Even in the intellectual and spiritual realms, there are priorities. Thus it’s important to ask whether, when we submerge into the past, it comes at the expense of creative thinking about the future.
It seems reasonable to occasionally have reservations about the flood of information pouring over us. Here are some article headlines over the past year: “Did Hitler have a Jewish landlord?” “How do we distinguish between pilgrimages and tourism when we visit the camps?” “Is a Russian ice dancing routine about the Holocaust appropriate or not?” “How many Muslims have visited the concentration camps?” “Is it okay for visitors to take selfies beside the Arbeit Macht Frei sign in Auschwitz?” “Did the Nazis only burn books or also steal them?” “Have the sex lives of the second and third generations been affected by the Holocaust?”
These and other issues are discussed at conferences worldwide, at significant expense, and one could legitimately ask what for. Does the endless delving and amassing of millions of details contribute to our intellectual life? Doesn’t this preoccupation with memory also entail a loss of control, and perhaps a loss of sight of the significance of the issues? Maybe this preoccupation is ossifying our thinking?
Maybe emphasizing our victimhood limits us. Have we gone overboard in our preoccupation with memory because of our fears? As a way of defending ourselves against people who don’t agree with us? Against anything different? Against the whole world, “which is against us”? Even humanistic values, which are the essence of Judaism, have been pushed aside for the sake of clinging to memory, which has become an almost sacred goal.
We must not boundlessly burden the younger generations with the yoke of the Holocaust. We must not “cling to the horns of the altar” of memory. And we certainly must not use the memory of the Holocaust for unclear or dubious purposes.
This great preoccupation with the Holocaust has spawned a constantly growing “Holocaust business.” Many activists, architects and designers are working to set up even more museums and memorials. Tourism companies are actively arranging a Grand Tour of the camps. Psychologists are trying to resolve the traumas of the second and third generations, while lawyers are making money off pursuing “lost rights.”
The Yad Vashem Holocaust education center alone has some 700 people on its payroll. In recent years, the institution has begun marketing itself more aggressively, claiming to be “the heart and soul of Jewish history.” Really? If so, that’s sad, and simplistic.
In Jerusalem, you can see billboards urging people to “Visit Yad Vashem,” alongside billboards for cosmetics. The Holocaust is roughly on the same level as soap.
How do these monuments affect visitors? Do we know what has sparked their popularity? Are people going there to learn from history, or out of more morbid considerations?
‘Never again’ doesn’t happen
People active in the Holocaust industry say their motivation for setting up museums and various other sites, and for raising large sums of money is the need to learn lessons from history so that it won’t happen again. Really? It’s fairly clear that no museum has ever prevented a single murder of an innocent anywhere around the world.
Maybe it would be better to use the billions invested in perpetuating memory to help the needy, including Holocaust survivors who are still living among us in shameful conditions and the victims of other types of violence. It’s reasonable to ask whether a hungry child in Yemen whose life is in danger isn’t worth more than another memorial.
Still, Holocaust activists jealously guard their territory, because a lot of money is involved. They even become cultural heroes – winning the Nobel Prize and the Israel Prize, lighting torches at Israel’s annual Independence Day ceremony and reaping the endless other rewards for people who have devoted themselves to dealing with the Holocaust.
And here, too, the cult of personality reigns. Yad Vashem’s slick brochures show donors in festive clothes, proud and smiling. You’ll never see a picture of a needy Holocaust survivor next to them.
This is how genuinely good intentions and lofty ambitions have gotten mixed up with the manipulation and commercialization of memory. The Holocaust has become a very popular subject, and from there, the road is short to exploiting the public’s feelings for the sake of promoting sales, including of artworks.
The conclusion is that the more historians argue over the meaning of the Holocaust, the harder it will be to understand how it happened. Perhaps Vad Vashem should remember when it’s raising money that life is more important than memory. Perhaps, amid all the preoccupation with remembering, the fundamental value of compassion has disappeared. It would be better to teach our children to raise money for victims of any kind and educate them to seek true improvement. Faced with the fear of forgetting, we must mobilize for the sake of productive values.
More and more, we’re hearing about a loss of spiritual content in the Western world. There are clearly people who feel they’re living in a vacuum. We must be careful that the memory of the Holocaust isn’t used to fill this vacuum. The opposite would be preferable. Education should lead to improvement, optimism and hope.
Martin Weyl is a Holocaust survivor.
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