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October 24, 2014 | 30th Tishrei 5775

Remembering and forgetting I

Galilee Diary #310, November 5, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

By the eyes that witnessed bereavement
And burdened my bowed heart with cries,
By my compassion that instructed me to forgive
Until days came too terrible for pardon,
I vowed the vow to remember all,
To remember -- and nothing to forget.
-Abraham Shlonsky, “The Vow”

I first encountered this poem, inscribed on a wall at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum when I visited there as a teenager. I was reminded of it this week, over 40 years later, when Ha’aretz, Israel’s “serious” (not a tabloid) daily newspaper ran as its front page color picture, on two different days, a photograph of a European diplomat visiting Yad Vashem (in the same spot, the same pose). It is interesting to consider the meaning of this time-honored and well-known policy of whisking all visiting diplomats from the airport to Yad Vashem before sitting down to foreign policy business meetings.

By the same token it is interesting to think about Shlonsky’s famous “vow” above: why exactly – and what – must we remember regarding the Holocaust. If the vow of remembrance is rooted in our tradition of memorializing our beloved dead – by giving tzedakah in their memory, by reciting kaddish on the anniversaries of their passing, by erecting grave markers and monuments – then remembering the Holocaust is important because so many of the victims were cut off from any family continuity: we must step in to insure that their memory lives on as they left no children to say kaddish, no communities to put up wall plaques. Thus we have the reading of names on Yom Hashoah, etc.

However, it seems to me that the diplomats’ ritual visits to Yad Vashem, like the new ritual of sending teenagers to tour Poland and visit Auschwitz, is not solely for the purpose of preserving the memory of the dead. And I suspect that similarly, Shlonsky’s vow of remembrance is more than a commitment to reciting kaddish for the unknown victims. Perhaps we are to remember that, as Cynthia Ozick put it, “all the world wants the Jews dead,” that we can count on no one except ourselves, and that we must not forget how we were lulled into complacency, believing that we had entered an age of progress and enlightenment when such horrors had become unthinkable. And so we must sleep with our boots on and keep our powder dry: memory will protect us from a repeat of past disaster. As the memory of the pain of sticking our finger in the fire saves us from doing it again, so remembering the Holocaust may be necessary for survival.

But I think that our jogging our visiting diplomats’ memories (actually, most of them were probably born after the Holocaust), by a quick tour of Yad Vashem, carries another message, which many Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora seem to have internalized: when you come right down to it, all of our history, past and present, is really the Holocaust – and all of our enemies are Nazis. “Don’t talk to us about Palestinian suffering,” we say to our guests, “and don’t mention the Armenian genocide, as we need our Turkish ally; and don’t mention Darfur, which is pretty much unknown to those of us who don’t read foreign newspapers.” We have the monopoly on suffering, we are the ultimate victims. We ipso facto occupy the high moral ground, and we have the right and the responsibility to view everything that happens to us – and that we do – through the lens of the memory of the Holocaust. After all, we took a vow to forget nothing.

The question is, can one live a normal life if one refuses to let go of the memories of one’s nightmares? Which leads to the question: what is a normal life - and do we want to live one?

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