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or the Fourth of July would be obvious competition, but these, ironically enough, have been rendered so empty of historical content as to prove innocuous.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.


Garnel Ironheart said...

I think your best point was made early on: The Fourth of July, once the anniversary of an uprising by a nascent democratic society against a repressive Empire and the subsequent founding of the most successful and freedom-loving country in history is now an excuse to have a barbeque and shoot off fireworks, with no deeper a significance than Superbowl Sunday.
Yom HaShoah differs at this point because, as you noted, we still have survivors. The pain is still real and we can hear from the former prisoners about the hell they went through. I wonder though, in 50 years when the last survivors are long gone and buried, if Yom HaShoah will morph into a non-specific memorial day that will be hijacked by those in the community with an agenda to foist on the rest of us.

The Bray of Fundie said...

If you, big proffesional that yiou are, discern no difference between flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers then you have learned nothing from ALL your historical studies.

Bad abuse of Havdala consciousness as you have neatly compartmentalized your professional and religious life. For a frum yid historical study and analysis ought to be a mode of avodas haShem.

ז זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם, בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דֹּר-וָדֹר; {ס} שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ, זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ. {ר} 7 Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask thy father, and he will declare unto thee, thine elders, and they will tell thee.
ח בְּהַנְחֵל עֶלְיוֹן גּוֹיִם, {ס} בְּהַפְרִידוֹ בְּנֵי אָדָם; {ר} יַצֵּב גְּבֻלֹת עַמִּים, {ס} לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. {ר} 8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of men, He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel.

Izgad said...

In many respects, my religious life is an extension of my “professional” life. History is not just a job for me; it is a method of rational analysis, through which I relate to the world of human events. God is the foundation and guarantor of my reason. The use of my reason as a study history is the chief way in which I serve and recognize God. Religious ritual, in turn, serves as a vehicle for my comprehension of universal reason and allows me to use reason and study history.

Flat earthers and Holocaust deniers are both enemies of reason and, as such, an assault on God and religion.

The Bray of Fundie said...

but you then equate the history of science with the history of K'lal Yisroel. A major example of Havdala obliviousness.

There is a double standard in history. Israel is subject to a different set of rules.

Please don't tell me that you agree with Sartres aphorism that "had history not given us the Jew the anti-Semite would have invented him" i.e. that Jews are just the ultimate incarnation of the "other".

Izgad said...

As a rationalist I am committed to seeking out and formulating universal laws as best I can. This is a task that I do not expect to be completely successful in, but do not come to me until I have completely failed at something. Until then let me play my rationalist “game” to see where it gets us.
I may not be able to formulate laws of history, thus history is not a science. I can still formulate laws of studying history. For these laws to be meaningful, I must, at all costs, be committed to applying these laws to all types of history, whether it is the history of head hunters in New Guinea or Jews in Eastern Europe. If we are going to start making exceptions for certain favored texts, then textual analysis ceases and all texts become meaningless.
You are either on the side of historians fighting for the historical method or you are on the side of the skeptics, who think that Napoleon or Auschwitz are just theories. There is no middle ground.

Clarissa said...

This is a brilliant post, Izgad. I think I will print it out and put it up on my office door.

One thing I don't agree with, though, is whether it makes sense to learn lessons from history. When I tell my students about the kind of ideological split that brought Spain to a bloody Civil War, I am surely hoping that they will notice the similarities between what was going on in Spain in the 30ies and what is going on in the US today. Why would that be a wrong way of teaching, in your opinion?

Izgad said...

By now you probably have a collection of my posts on your door. :)

I think it is important to distinguish between seeing parallels to the present and using the present as context. For example I have, in my classes, compared Louis XVI to George W. Bush as someone who was well meaning, but not particularly intelligent and who got completely blindsided by events that he was not equipped to handle. That being said, I cannot point to any particular lesson as to any specific policy our president or the American people should do based on my knowledge of history. Lots of hungry angry people are capable of overthrowing a government. Yes, in general, governments should keep the calorie count of their people in mind when they formulate policy. What specific policies any specific government should pursue is beyond me. Can I predict if and when the American people will overthrow their government? No. History is not a science.

S. said...

>There is a double standard in history. Israel is subject to a different set of rules.

Ironically you agree with Krochmal.