On This Holocaust Remembrance Day, Let Us Forget

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A woman, wrapped in an Israeli flag, stands in front of barbed wire at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp, as people take part in the annual 'March of the Living,' in Oswiecim, April 19, 2012.
A woman, wrapped in an Israeli flag, stands in front of barbed wire at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp, as people take part in the annual 'March of the Living,' in Oswiecim, April 19, 2012. Credit: AFP

The most appropriate thing to do on Holocaust Remembrance Day would be to revisit the unforgettable piece written by Yehuda Elkana in Haaretz in the spring of 1988, called “The Need to Forget.” Instead of a thousand Marches of the Living, this article should be studied in every school; instead of the host of ceremonies there should be a public debate about this essay.

Elkana, a brilliant intellectual who was an Auschwitz survivor, said there is no greater risk to the future of the State of Israel than forcibly instilling the memory of the Holocaust. “What are children supposed to do with this experience? … Remember for what purpose? … ‘Remember’ can be interpreted as a call to blind, ongoing hatred. … For our part, we must learn to forget. I see no more important political and educational task for the leaders of this nation than to take the side of life, to dedicate ourselves to building our future and not to be preoccupied morning and night with symbols, ceremonies and lessons of the Holocaust.”

Elkana was a prophet; as he predicted and warned, Holocaust memory has turned into incitement to hatred. Tens of thousands of teenagers and soldiers have since traveled to Auschwitz and come back haters. They hate the world, the Poles, the Germans, the Arabs and the foreigners; they love themselves, wallow in their disaster and believe only in their own power. That’s the “remembrance,” and that’s what we need to forget.

In his essay, Elkana stated that democracy is put at risk when the memory of the victims participates actively in the democratic process. Thirty-one years later, the Holocaust is flourishing in the democratic process, whose cracks are becoming wider since the right wing appropriated it for its needs and propaganda. First they made the national flag and anthem right-wing, and now the Holocaust as well.

In our childhood, we didn’t want to hear about the Holocaust because they taught us to be embarrassed by it; now its distorted lessons are alienating anyone who doesn’t want live in a militaristic state of hatred. Remembering the Holocaust is now for nationalists only. There’s no universal conclusion or moral lesson. It didn’t have to be this way.

I have yet to hear a single teenager come back from Auschwitz and say that we mustn’t abuse others the way we were abused. There has yet to be a school whose pupils came back from Birkenau straight to the Gaza border, saw the barbed-wire fence and said, Never again. The message is always the opposite. Gaza is permitted because of Auschwitz.

The conclusion is that Elkana was even more correct than it seemed back then: We have to forget as quickly as possible and make others forget to the degree possible. The time has come to get past the past. We needn’t erase it, but put it in its place; it’s over. It cannot serve as a primary guide to the present and future, certainly not in the crooked way it is being presented.

The legacy of the Holocaust has caused Israel fateful damage; it solidified nationalism and validated militarism instead of shaping humanism, justice, morality and compliance with international law, which in Israel 2019 are considered treason or weakness. Elkana was convinced that Holocaust memory was the source of existential anxiety and it was this that led to hatred of Arabs.

But in this he erred, I think. It’s not fear that drives the hatred and racism toward Arabs, but rather the opposite, the self-victimization. After the Holocaust we are permitted to do anything, and of course, only with force.

During Thursday’s memorial siren I will once again imagine that I’m seeing a large fire, a conflagration. Since my childhood I’ve viewed the siren as a fire that consumes human beings. I will think about Sofie and Hugo, my grandparents, whose names are listed on a wall in a Prague synagogue among the names of other victims, and I will see them burning. I will not think about the soldiers from the paratroopers’ battalion that I met three weeks ago when they were conducting an exercise with the German army in a Bavarian forest near Nuremberg, who all declared how important it is that Israel be strong. If that’s the lesson, let’s forget it.

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