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August 30, 2015 | 15th Elul 5775

Never Again

April 14, 2002
Marc Rosenstein

Yom Hashoah. This year the juxtaposition of images is particularly confusing.

The traditional ceremony: the synagogue at Shorashim packed to standing room only. A backdrop of black draping with six memorial candles on an abstract structure of stones. 11th and 12th graders who have participated in the high school's pilgrimage to Poland read passages from literature, Holocaust diaries, their own diaries. El Male Rachamim. Hatikvah. The crowd dissipates in a subdued tone. Many people go home to watch a Holocaust drama or documentary on TV; what else is there to do? We all feel obligated to devote some time to remembering, though exactly what and why is not fully articulated.

The accounts of the horrors, the stories of unspeakable cruelty and suffering, the pilgrimage to Auschwitz - there is more here than the traditional Kaddish, the remembrance of those who have died as a form of immortality for them: they live on in our memories and in our speaking and acting in the shadow of their memory. If that were our purpose, we would focus our ceremonies on the good that the victims did in their lives and not on the evil that their murderers committed.

Perhaps our purpose is to remind ourselves that such evil really happened, that it is not a myth, or a tale handed down from misty antiquity, but real history, in real time - still in living memory. We may want to repress it, to categorize it as beyond possibility, to exclude it from consciousness, so we need Yom Hashoah and its readings and its witnesses to jolt us back to reality and to deny our escapes. Forced for a few minutes or a few hours to look directly at the horror in a harsh spotlight, prevented, briefly, from averting our gaze, from going on with business as usual, what do we do with what we see? What does this jogging of our collective memory accomplish?

One possibility is to demonstrate to us the danger of nationalism. The Holocaust is only the most massive and horrible of a number of events in the course of the 20th century, generated by the attempt to implement a model of Europe organized according to ethnic nation states. The breakup of the multiethnic empires of the preceding centuries into the patchwork of nation states of Europe between the wars (and again now), driven by a vision of a world naturally divided into sovereign, ethnically homogeneous states, was a bloody process even without the Holocaust. The Nazis just took it to its illogical conclusion. However, if remembering the Holocaust makes me question a world organized by ethnic states, what am I to do with Zionism? If the way to avoid Holocausts is to try to build a world not riven and driven by nationalism, then, as I flip the channels from Holocaust documentaries to tonight’s news and watch Jews and Palestinians sacrificing themselves and each other on the altars of sacred homeland and the blood of their ancestors and the fear of the Other, I wonder what Never Again means.

But wait, before I turn off the TV the scene shifts back to Europe, where right wing parties gain in strength from year to year, where antisemitic violence is once again part of the daily stream of media images that shape our consciousness, where ethnic cleansing is a term from the newspaper, not from the history books.

Thus, another possible conclusion to be drawn from our memory of the Holocaust is that the vision of a world organized according to individual freedom and equality, into entities that are neutral, multiethnic, multicultural democracies - a vision we Jews have been seeing before our eyes for two hundred years or more - is nothing but a cruel illusion. Maybe what we need to learn is to stop believing that if we just hold ourselves to a high enough moral standard, the rest of the world will join us there. Maybe Never Again means to keep our powder dry.

A third possibility: that it is in vain that we seek a clear political message in the Holocaust; perhaps we should remove it from the realm of national mythology and place it in the realm of personal morality, focusing our memory microscope not on the six memorial candles, but on the individuals who lived their lives as fully as they could under conditions of unspeakable horror - and whose immortality depends on our memory. Perhaps our ceremonies need to be cleansed of both righteous anger and universalistic preaching, and recast in the mold of the traditional Yizkor: sharing our grief and loss with each other, dedicating ourselves to giving the dead eternal life through remembering them and through the way we live our lives in the presence of that memory.


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