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The texture of memory

By RABBI LAWRENCE S. ZIERLER
Posted 1/27/20

This Monday, January 27, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The recent gathering in Jerusalem of some 50 heads of state to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi Death …

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My View

The texture of memory

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This Monday, January 27, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The recent gathering in Jerusalem of some 50 heads of state to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi Death Camp is an opportunity for us to pause and consider an overarching theme critical to our global and collective conscience, namely the role of memory in its variegated forms, as we recognize history's tragic times.

The Holocaust, in its enormity and scale of suffering, was an unprecedented case of a systematic, mechanized and hyper-organized killing campaign. Six million Jews in particular—two-thirds of the European Jewish community—and another five million innocents from other vulnerable populations were murdered, leaving a trying and painful legacy of myriad questions, debates and dilemmas in its destructive wake.

These include but are by no means limited to the issues of stolen property, art and real estate; proper recognition of righteous gentiles who risked life and limb to shield and save their Jewish neighbors and oftentimes complete strangers; how Holocaust memorials throughout the world choose to mark and memorialize their victims; revisionist claims and thinking by an ever-growing band of Holocaust deniers; the physical well-being of some 150,000 Holocaust survivors living in poverty; and Holocaust studies in our public schools and universities—all of which might be subsumed under the rubric of "the texture of memory."

Memory is a deeply differentiated tool for learning and inspiration, and for our successful use of the past to provide for the present and secure our future.

I wish to address one issue, 75 years later: namely the uniqueness of this epic tragedy in human history. Over the years, there has been a desire to universalize the Holocaust and generalize it onto other situations of human suffering.

Is it morally just or appropriate to refract other instances of human cruelty through the lens of the Holocaust? Should it drop its capital letter, lose its unique designation as a specific historic event and become a general term for other periods of mass killing and torture that still mar the human landscape?

Or must the Holocaust continue to stand apart from these other calamities? Its standing alone works to protect and preserve the lessons unique to that tragic time, while also safeguarding and preventing other tragic episodes from being diminished and diluted by this wholesale consideration of the prevalence and persistence of evil in society.

I would maintain that we descend a slippery slope when we aggregate these chapters of trauma and torture under one name. We deny the victims and survivors their voice, and the memories unique to their experience, and the full consideration and ultimate understanding of the factors that conspired to affect such human carnage.

Hence, the participation and presence in Jerusalem of an unprecedented diplomatic delegation pays homage to this dark time in history and is more than significant.

Memory is a porous tool in the creation of conscience. It is easy to deny and discount its message, especially when one chapter of cruelty is merged with another.

We will only be shaken at our roots, moved to eradicate hatred and stop its spread, if we privilege the pain of each epic event and consider its various lessons in its own right. Let each tragic case of human failing in the face of monstrous, diabolic forces be understood and learned from, for the repair and betterment of a world that is still broken and aching.  

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