Monday, April 12, 2010
Holocaust History Versus Holocaust Memorial
I must admit that I find Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) to be very difficult. Obviously, this day is created for the benefit of those who have reason to find this day far more difficult and nothing that I say should be seen as a disparagement of them. God knows that they have certainly earned the right to have their day. I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and as a historian I have a greater appreciation than most as to the horrors of the Nazi regime. In truth, though, it is the historian in me that makes things difficult. For me, Holocaust Memorial Day, more than any other day of the year, serves to rub into my face the gap between history as I know it, study and love and the culture of memory that serves as history for most of the population. This gap is more than just an academic issue; it stands at the heart of much that is ill in the modern world. Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July would be obvious competition, but these, ironically enough, have been rendered so empty of historical content as to prove innocuous. True this has come about due to the de-historization of our society, brought about by modern liberalism. That being said, I sometimes feel, perhaps naively, that better no history than wrong history.
For me, history is the study of who, what, when, where and, most intriguingly, why. If human history is irrational, the study of history is a redemptive exercise in reason, purified from any modern polemics or judgment values. History does not include should or even right or wrong. As I often tell my students, there is nothing in my class to stop them from concluding that Hitler was a great leader and that the United States should follow in his footsteps by invading Canada and seizing its natural resources. I might personally disagree with such a position (and do society the favor of shooting them on the spot), but it is for reasons completely unrelated to history. Thus I take it personally to see the Holocaust used to teach "lessons" or to inspire a sense of Jewish identity. Do not get me wrong, I do see the Holocaust as one of the great evils of the twentieth century and fully support private, communal and religious memorials. I would willingly sign on for special prayers for the victims of the Holocaust and even for its own fast day. (Many Jewish communities in Europe maintained fast days, up until modern times for the Crusade massacres. Why should the Holocaust be any different?) Religious prayers, fasts and even secular commemoration vigils are distinct enough from history as to be unobjectionable. It is only when there is some pretense to history, that I am offended; if history is going to be taught then it should be taught properly by professional historians.
Perhaps the thing that most encapsulates this divide is the attitude toward survivor testimony. Holocaust Memorial Days focus on survivors and holding onto their memories. More and more this is taking on a frantic quality as we recognize that there are fewer and fewer survivors left and we are soon approaching the day when there will be no survivors. The non-historian wonders how we will respond to Holocaust deniers without the eye-witness testimony of survivors. For the historian, though, the truth of the Holocaust has never rested on eye-witness testimony, but on documents. The documents have been preserved and are not going anywhere. There are no participants of the French Revolution or the Civil War left. The last known World War I veteran recently passed away. I am not worried about these events being forgotten. If there are people who deny the Holocaust, there are also flat earthers, geocentrists and moon landing conspiracy theorists. These beliefs exist to the extent that we, as a society, fail to promote the systematic use of reason, underlying both the scientific and historical methods. As such, the failure to embrace the historical method at Holocaust Memorial Commemorations is itself furthering the cause of Holocaust denial.
There is no profession that makes one aware of one's own mortality as history. Historians every day are faced with the reality that not only will we be dead like those whom we study, but, like those whom we study, our culture will also die and this world will be left to those who will not even understand us and what we stood for. Worse, these people, out of their own self righteous sanctimonious ignorance, will think to judge us for our failings to live up to their standards and label us as "primitive." So God wills, the Holocaust generation will pass on, followed, in a few decades, by my generation. It is only the historical method that will allow us to be understood as we understand ourselves and thus be truly remembered.