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The Holocaust is considered the seminal event of modern Jewish history. In fact, it is usually taken as the line which differentiates between modern and pre-modern Jewish history. It is portrayed as the inevitable end toward which millennia of Jewish history inexorably led, the sum total of all our years in Europe, and the ashes from which Jewish autonomy, in the form of the State of Israel, was reborn. Modern Jews have taken it upon themselves to make sure that the memory of the Holocaust remains forever fresh. It’s about time they stopped.
This is not an opinion that is likely to be met with much applause from the Jewish community, which has dedicated untold resources, both financial and human, toward perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust. The remembrance of the Holocaust is considered to be an integral part of what it means to be a Jew, no less than if we had been instructed regarding it “Zachor Eis Asher Asah L’cha Hitler,” remember that which Hitler did to you (c.f. Devarim 25:17)*.
To be sure, the Holocaust is crucially important. But why does it need to be singled out as if it’s more special than other historical events, like it’s qualitatively different from other historical events, like it’s more than a mere historical event? While the Holocaust was on a much greater scale and horrifically well-organized, it was far from the first incident of a dominant power killing those deemed “inferior” on trumped up charges. Humans have been perpetrating horrible atrocities on each other for centuries.
If anything, the over-emphasis on the particulars of the Holocaust may be taking attention away from the universal human traits that made the event possible. The real lesson isn’t about Jews and Germans and 1935. It’s about the powerful and the weak, the superior and the Other, and its messages are for eternity. Doesn’t the Holocaust lose some of its meaning if its significance is magnified to the point where it can no longer be considered in context?
Holocaust denial is considered a crime in over a dozen countries. Surely this is an overreaction. Do we arrest flat-earthers? Ancient Astronaut enthusiasts? Believers in ghosts? Why should denial of a historical event be considered a crime, something detrimental to society? Those in favor of criminalizing Holocaust denial tend to answer that it invariably masks anti-Semitic sentiment, and therefore preaching denial of the Holocaust is tantamount to incitement to commit a hate crime. I find such logic absurd.
While I don’t deny that most Holocaust deniers are anti-Semites, I don’t see that as sufficient reason to imprison them. One cannot be punished merely for denying the truth. That is an individual’s prerogative, until it harms somebody else. And Holocaust denial has never actually harmed anyone, nor has it led to a rash of hate crimes. At best, it’s only one reason among many. Hardly reason enough to deem it a thought-crime.
Obviously, propagating ignorance of the truth isn’t a good thing, especially when that truth is an unsettling revelation about the flimsiness of human morality, but why is it worse to contradict established opinion regarding the Holocaust than to break with a consensus on anything else? Bad history is bad history, but we don’t generally arrest rogue academics, as offensive as their views might be. But Jews have fetishized the Holocaust, and built it up until it now represents all that is evil in the world. Thus, denying the Holocaust becomes synonymous with embracing the worst of humanity.
The Holocaust is also, apparently, too big to trivialize. Woe to anyone who makes a stray “Nazi” comparison. Or, to pull from current events, look at the backlash against the Chareidim who appropriated Holocaust imagery to protest the Israeli government’s clamping down on their presumed right to force women to the back of buses and throw stones at people they don’t like. Now, as should be obvious from the previous sentence, I am in no way defending the Chareidim. But I was disheartened to see how viscerally people took their protest.
It wasn’t just because of the untruth of their assertions, or because of the selfishness and shortsightedness required to compare the enforcing of the civil rights of others to genocide. It was that it was the Holocaust. You just don’t reference the Holocaust. Not like that, not so flippantly, so wrongly. You just can’t. It’s become something sacrosanct in our culture, an event never allowed to slip into familiarity, but something expected to remain eternally as raw as the day it first came to light. But no event can adequately bear that weight.
Historical events, even major and traumatic ones, have a way of being woven into the fabric of cultural memory, as they stop being news and start being history. People make casual, inaccurate references. It’s part of becoming commonly known human history. If anything, that’s good for the Holocaust. It means that everyone knows about it, everyone’s aware that something like it happened, even if they’re a bit fuzzy on the details. But then again, a fair amount of people aren’t quite sure which countries were fighting in the American Revolution. Yet we all know what happened on July 4th.
The Holocaust has been imbued with so much significance, has received so much attention, that it can be difficult to remember that there once was such a thing as a Judaism that didn’t live in its shadow. But soon there may be again. The survivors are not immortal. At this point, there are no Holocaust survivors below the age of 70. Within 30 years, there will be almost none, period. It is very easy to keep something in the public consciousness when living witnesses to it are prevalent enough that administrators can call (at least) one in to every school on Holocaust Memorial Day. But as the survivors’ numbers lessen, and eventually, what they survived will fade to become another entry in the history books.
Historical events, as earth-shattering and history-ending as they seem at the time, eventually fade from the forefront of public consciousness and became memory: not the sort of memory that a person reflects on every day, but the sort of memory that sits in the back of the mind, always there but rarely focused on. And one must wonder, when the survivors are gone – when there is no more opportunity to let children hear firsthand testimony of the Holocaust – how much of a loss will that be? With all of the effort that has gone into recording testimonies of the Holocaust, from Yad V’Shem, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, and others, has it not been documented enough? What are we missing? What more is there? We’ve recorded all we can. There are few historical events that have undergone greater scrutiny and preservation. Perhaps we can finally rest and acknowledge that we’ve done enough to ensure that the Holocaust can never be forgotten.
In a recent poll, it was found that most young Jews do not see their Jewish identity stemming from the Holocaust. This might seem shocking to the baby boomer generation, the survivors’ children who were forced to confront their parents’ painful past after decades of silence. But it makes sense. Who defines themselves by a horrific genocide? Who wishes to see themselves as eternal victims? What kind of Jewish identity doesn’t extend beyond the attempts to systematically exterminate us seventy years ago?
As more time passes between the Holocaust and the present, it is only natural for it to fade into the background and become merely another historical incident. People can’t focus on the past forever. It’s only natural that they move on, and it’s time for Jews to accept that.
*A play on the Biblical verse “Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt,” considered the source for the commandment to eternally remember the Amalekite attack on the Israelites just after they left Egypt, and to ultimately eradicate the entire nation of Amalek. For more information:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amalek#Commandments_to_exterminate_Amalekites.
To read Mr. Weinreich’s follow-up article, please see: https://thebeaconmag.com/2012/02/letters-to-the-editor/apologies-and-explanations-the-holocaust-article-follow-up/