Jonathon Catlin

The painful question we must ask about the Holocaust

The painful question we must ask about the Holocaust
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How should we remember the Holocaust? In the next decade or so, many of the last living Holocaust survivors will pass away. It will then fall to us later generations to confront what Hannah Arendt called ‘the abyss that opened up before us’ by telling their stories. In doing so, we aim to guard against the spectre of Holocaust denial. But when we vow to ‘never forget’ the terrible crimes of Nazism, what exactly is it that we seek to remember?

What is sometimes forgotten is that the way we remember the Holocaust is as much a historical process as the event itself. Though the term ‘holocaust’ was used already in the 1950s, it was popularised (and capitalised) only in the 1970s, serving to distinguish the Nazi genocide from other wartime atrocities. It is a peculiarity of this slow campaign for recognition of a specific genocide against European Jews that the number of victims instilled into the minds of schoolchildren was once 11 million rather than six million – the figure accepted today.

That larger number includes six million Jews as well as five million other persecuted people with disabilities, political and religious dissidents, Slavs, Roma and Sinti, and homosexuals. The survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal said, ‘I have sought with Jewish leaders not to talk about six million Jewish dead, but rather about 11 million civilians dead, including six million Jews’. U.S. president Jimmy Carter cited this figure in 1978 when he established the commission that culminated in the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in 1993.

In diverse societies like Britain and the U.S., this broader conception of the Holocaust's victims may have helped ensure that it is seen today as an event which concerns us all. But Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, who rejected that more expansive definition, took a different view. He emphasised that ‘while not all victims were Jews, all Jews were victims’. He penned a maxim of his own: ‘The universality of the Holocaust lies in its uniqueness: the Event is essentially Jewish, yet its interpretation is universal’.

But just as the Holocaust has become widely studied and researched, it appears to be slipping from memory, especially among younger generations. A 2018 survey from the U.S. showed that while 96 per cent of Americans recognise that the Holocaust happened and 93 per cent agree that it should be taught in schools, 41 per cent, and 66 per cent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. All too often, the Holocaust has been ‘remembered’ only in a superficial sense.

Auschwitz survivor Ruth Klüger, an Austrian-born Jewish professor of German literature who died last October at the age of 88, offered a cutting critique of how we remember the Holocaust. She said in 2013, ‘the present memorial cult that seeks to inflict certain aspects of history and their presumed lessons on our children, with its favourite mantra, 'Let us remember, so the same thing doesn’t happen again,' is unconvincing. To be sure, a remembered massacre may serve as a deterrent, but it may also serve as a model for the next massacre’.

Klüger was particularly critical of what she called ‘kitsch’ representations of the Holocaust that use melodrama, redemptive or heroic storylines centred on rescue and resistance to produce ‘enjoyable’ depictions of the Holocaust for popular consumption. Klüger warns in her celebrated memoir Still Alive against the misleading impression one might gather from her own lucky and unrepresentative story of survival. ‘You feel, even if you don’t think it: well, there is a happy ending after all’. ‘Without meaning to,’ she lamented, ‘I find that I have written an escape story’ in more senses than one.

Klüger recounts a particularly jarring episode in which a young woman approached her at a book signing and said, with a winning smile, ‘I love the Holocaust’. Klüger was taken aback. She understood that the woman loved not the event itself, but reading about it. 

‘But her naïve and undisguised pleasure brought up the question: Should she love to read about the Holocaust? Should we in any shape or form feel positive and empowered or cathartically purged when we contemplate the extinction of a people? My impulse was to say to this woman: You shouldn’t. Stop reading these books, including mine, if you enjoy them’.

Klüger was so critical of these cathartic, redemptive tendencies of Holocaust tourism and memorial culture that she asked the Auschwitz Museum to remove her poems from a display. In 2016, she spoke before the German Bundestag on Holocaust Memorial Day in a tone she herself called ‘bitter and aggressive’. As she once said to an Austrian newspaper, ‘We survivors are not responsible for forgiveness’.

Klüger’s work pushes back against a broader trend of feel-good but historically reductive identification with victims. Upon entering the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., for example, visitors are given the identity card of a victim. This is plainly an attempt to give visitors, regardless of their personal relation to the Holocaust, a stake in the history they are about to learn. But the scholar Alvin Rosenfeld warned years ago of the risks of such an ‘Americanisation of the Holocaust’: ‘The history of the Holocaust becomes broadly acceptable only as its basic narrative undergoes change of a kind that enables large numbers of people to identify with it’.

Israeli author Yishai Sarid’s just-translated 2017 book The Memory Monster, gives a good example of the dangers of Holocaust memory gone haywire. The novel follows an Israeli Holocaust historian who develops a sense of ‘intellectual elation’ about his subject and comes to feel ‘at home’ in Nazi death camp sites. Here he gives tours to groups of school children draped in Israeli flags, ‘performing all sorts of made-up rituals, working so hard to squeeze out a tear’. Here the Holocaust has become an obsession, but only as a dubious simulacrum.

A better, albeit more challenging approach comes from the late British-Jewish philosopher Gillian Rose. Her 1990 essay ‘The Future of Auschwitz’ calls for a very different kind of Holocaust education. Rose suggests the real lesson of the Holocaust is that ‘it is possible to mean well, to be caring and kind, loving one’s neighbour as oneself, yet to be complicit in the corruption and violence of social institutions’ – a view she shared with her colleague Zygmunt Bauman. Rose’s view is illustrated by a gnostic poem she invokes:

I am abused and I abuse

I am the victim and I am the perpetrator

I am innocent and I am innocent

I am guilty and I am guilty

Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi called moral complicity in the camps ‘the grey zone’. Hannah Arendt more famously wrote of ‘the banality of evil’. American scholar Michael Rothberg adds to this tradition with his recent book, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators. Criticising the logic of forced identification with victims accelerated by social media, Rothberg argues that, in relation to historical mass atrocities such as the Holocaust, colonialism, and slavery, most of us are neither saints, nor villains, but somewhere in-between.

Rose leaves us with a radical suggestion: ‘To provoke a child or an adult who visits the 'site' of Auschwitz not only to identify herself in infinite pain with 'the victims', but to engage in intense self-questioning: 'Could I have done this?'’ She goes on hoping for a discussion of ‘'How easily could we have allowed this to be carried out?' Are we Germans 'or' German-Jews…Polish professionals 'or' Polish Jews 'or' Polish peasants?’ This Holocaust Memorial Day, we should pause before telling ourselves the easy answers.