On a spring day five years ago, I stood inside the permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and prayed. I sought fervently to believe that what appeared so heartbreakingly before me was an illusion. That it could not have happened so transparently. I imagined the world from inside a German cattle car, which, only 65 years prior, served to actualize Hitler’s genocidal ambitions by carrying tens of thousands of Jews to the gas chambers.
I promised the six million souls looking down on me that I’d always remember them. But I have since, intermittently, found myself contemplating the ramifications of that commitment. What exactly are the responsibilities of the rememberer? Is he to sing? To safeguard? To study? Perhaps simply to know — to be aware of the horrors that once besieged European Jewry?
Too often, in the weeks leading up to Yom HaShoah (observed on May 1 this year), we forget how to remember. The lessons that emerge from the Holocaust, though all rooted in tremendous gravity, are not all centered around pain and suffering. Anecdotally, as well as in diaries, journal and survivor testimonies, we bear witness to stories of profound decency in unthinkable conditions.
We draw strength from the arresting bravery of some 400 ghetto fighters who mounted a rebellion in Warsaw on the eve of Passover, 1943, with just a few automatic weapons. We learn of the poet Paul Célan, who translated William Shakespeare’s sonnets while imprisoned in Romania. We turn our gaze to the pervasive stream of paintings, drawings, music and writing that were left behind in the camps.
In the eyes of scholar John Felstiner, creative resistance is “more human than blowing up a train, because of everything it takes to make a piece of art or a poem. The personhood is what the Nazis were trying to destroy, to try to erase from the globe.” The rememberer, in my mind, exists primarily to champion the victory of personhood. To emulate the daring pronouncement so many victims made — that they were, albeit in bleak and deplorable circumstances, alive and breathing. He exists to assert the legacy of the victims as impenetrable and lasting.
But why? We need to pay tribute to these courageous individuals because, in many ways, they show us how to live, and how to remember; that to remember is to live, and that we have a choice now — as they did then — to maintain our humanity in a cry of tolerance against fascism, or to remain reticent, apathetic and uninvolved.
In reflecting on the future of memory, Hedi Fried, survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and founder of the Stockholm Storytelling Project, says it is especially important for the younger generation to learn her story, one that is hard enough for her, who experienced it directly, to understand. But she begs us to remember another imperative: namely, that “democracy dies if you don’t work for it.” It crumbles, much as it did across this century of blood and loss — in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Bosnia and now in Darfur, where it still rages.
We are not helpless, but we are also not as helpful as we could be. We, at this historic crossroads, have a unique responsibility to validate the lessons of the past. At this juncture between life and death, between what we can see and what remains to be seen, passive commemoration does not suffice. It cannot. If we are to build a world centered on dignity, tolerance, and respect for the Other, we have to make it such. Yom HaShoah lasts for 24 hours. Yet the realities of the Holocaust are eternal. They require us to be constantly cognizant and vigorously vigilant.
Many today still do not taste the liberties a young Sophie Scholl once dreamed of when she left the word “Freedom” on a scrap of paper before being led to her execution. There are still dictatorships impinging on people’s basic human rights; there are still maligning grips of revisionism — those which seek to distort, deflect, twist and undermine our collective consciousness. There are still violent expressions of racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism.
In some ways, none of us are really free — not until we have risen to the challenge that memory has bestowed upon our generation. For the world shakes as I write; it erupts with uncertainty and flings to the fore a barrage of recurrent tensions and chaos.
Our only hope lies in remembering how to remember.
Simon Goldberg, a third-year student at Yeshiva College, is president and founder of the Student Holocaust Education Movement (SHEM) at Yeshiva University. This piece originally appeared on the YU News blog.