Jewish History

Timeliness and (Holocaust) Memory

The aftermath of the Holocaust continues to shape both the field of Memory Studies and debates over the present politics and future directions of Israel/Palestine. In this month’s feature, we asked several scholars to reflect on the timeliness of historical memory through the lens of the Holocaust. The responses were varied, with Jordana Silverstein starting from her personal story as a member of the third generation after the Holocaust to reflect on the masculinist directions of the contemporary Israeli state. How, Silverstein asks, can we remember the Holocaust in what Michael Rothberg’s famously described as ‘multidirectional’ ways that do not result in conflicts over memory becoming zero sum games? Sander Gilman and Xun Zhou also start from a personal narrative of the Holocaust – in this case the much delayed retelling of Otto Dov Kulka’s story of Holocaust survival – to reflect on how and why painful memories are delayed, postponed or suppressed. For Gilman and Zhou, starting from the Holocaust opens up space to explore other suppressed memories, such as those of the survivors of Mao’s Great Famine, in which up to 50 million people in China perished.

These two articles do not offer a programme for change but instead demand an openness to how we understand people’s subjective relationships to the past. They suggest that in these difficult times, a commitment to that openness, and to a recognition of human vulnerability, might just allow us to together imagine paths forward towards that ever postponed ‘Never Again.’ Memorial wall with the inscription Never Again - Dachau Germany

Seeping Together: Timeliness and the Work of Holocaust History

By Jordana Silverstein

In mid-2013 I visited Berlin for the first time. In some ways, the city didn’t stand a chance: it was overdetermined long before I boarded the short flight from London. And when I arrived and presented my passport to the most Aryan looking immigration man, and then caught the train into the city, I couldn’t shake the feeling of discomfort. It wasn’t anything precise; just a sense of unease. The layers of memory can be hard to disrupt.

At the museum under the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, one of the first information panels – at least in my memory of it – mentions that all the Jews in Czestochowa were deported to Auschwitz. I’ve had those moments before – doing reading for a class I have to teach and coming across the sentence by Tadeusz Borowski: “For several days the entire camp will talk ‘Sosnowiec-Bêdzin… a good, rich, transport” at Auschwitz. My zaida came from Czestochowa, my booba from Sosnowiec. It was too much. I made my way quickly through the museum and waited outside for my friends. At drinks that night with some of their friends we talked about the stolpersteine: I described how difficult they were to see, how I really did stumble over them. A woman in our group tried to reassure me, I think, by saying that when you spend enough time in the city you stop seeing them. Memories can, of course, easily be dislodged.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany

Michael Rothberg has written about the idea of “multidirectional memory,” which “argue[s] against a logic of competitive memory based on the zero-sum game… In contrast, [he] suggest[s], memory works productively: the result of memory conflict is not less memory, but more – even of subordinated memory traditions.” This moment in time – I write these words shortly after the latest bombings of Gaza have ceased – is plainly saturated with Holocaust memories. We need to pay attention though to the work that such memories are doing. What do they authorise and what do they foreclose? What forms of understanding do they make legible and intelligible, and what do they obscure? These memories, if they were to be multidirectional, would open us out to consider the memories and histories of those who are not us. We would be able to see more clearly that jumps in time do not exist for everyone. For some, it is always 1939; for others, always 1948.

Elie Wiesel published an advertisement in a range of newspapers saying, in part, “In my own lifetime, I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire. And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields.” In doing so, he invoked a very particular memory of the Holocaust: one which narrates Jewish innocence through the paradigmatic figure of the child, while rehearsing that all too common colonial narrative of “why don’t they love their children as we do?” (We must remember the ways that the figure of the Child is, here and elsewhere, made to act as a representative of different imaginings of the future.) In response to Wiesel’s advertisement, hundreds of Holocaust survivors and relatives of survivors published a letter as an advertisement in a range of papers which ended with the words: “‘Never again’ must mean NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE!” Through these words they invoked a corrective to the common phrase which is issued in response to the events of the Holocaust. Never Again. What would a multidirectional memory of “Never Again” look like at this moment in time? How can this form of memory open up a new world of thinking for us? How can it help us to see the historical and emotional similarities in a way which does not cancel out the differences?

It is indeed clear that the Holocaust was not one singular ‘event’. It structures the Jewishness which has come after. It is, we could say, therefore always timely, and always past. In many ways – in its reverberations through times and places – we cannot but help having our minds cast back to what we imagine the Holocaust was. These are the postmemories, as Marianne Hirsch has made clear, which demand of us an ethical response to injustice. Hirsch has also recently prompted us to consider more carefully how vulnerability plays out, suggesting “Claiming vulnerability as a space from which to begin rather than as a stigma to overcome.” Judith Butler has written of this as thinking of ourselves as being “unchosen together.” If histories of the Holocaust were conceptualised as histories of vulnerability, how would this change the way we remember it?

Many of us are, as Rothberg has described, “implicated subjects,” and it is through this frame that we can perhaps talk and write with the most empathy and greatest attention to questions of justice when we consider Israel/Palestine. And it is here, in this implicatedness, that the work of history for those of us who live in the ever-present aftermath of the Holocaust can be most powerful, and most punishing. This history leaks out of us and swirls around us. At a family gathering on the weekend we stood around the kitchen bench and discussed whether the moments of antisemitism that are happening now in Paris and elsewhere in Europe are like the prelude to the Holocaust or something other. One person commented that denying their force was like the ignorance of those German Jews in the 1930s who said “we’ll be fine. It will blow over. It’s not a big deal.” Another said that we must continue to go about our daily business, and not be stopped by those who would try to stop the Jews. The emotions and memories of the Holocaust recur, reminding us of the nature of trauma: that past seeps into present, the two are not distinct. When it comes to trauma, there is no linear progression, no past/present/future. There is collapse, of time and of space. But then, this ‘remembering’ of these moments, these experiences of fear, these moments of collapse, could become also a way of imagining the fear felt by others. Of being vulnerable, together.

Yet, the militarisation has taken hold. It shocks me that people can only imagine a military response to the ‘problem’ of Hamas. It angers me that the mere existence of Palestinians themselves is deemed by some to be a problem. And in this way it seems that the masculinisation of the Zionist response to the Holocaust has won out. The message Zionist Israel, and its counterparts outside, seem to have taken from the Holocaust was that the Jews would never again be ‘lambs to the slaughter’ but instead would resist and fight. As such, the defence of the Israeli nation-state’s borders has become a protracted playing out of resistance to the Holocaust; the language of the Holocaust is used to encourage and support displays of Israel’s military strength. This militarisation is, of course, profoundly gendered. Its bravado and its invocation of a particular masculinised notion of what protection and self-determination involve barely requires repeating. And yet so many people miss this aspect of Israel’s work: as it aims to control and subjugate Palestinians, it also works against so much of Jewish history, wherein self-determination was not (just) about military might. This experience of the Holocaust continues to haunt those who would decide how Israel should act. This fear of repetition. This fear of being feminised. This very particular way of remembering a history and making this history work into the present in very particular ways.

Others respond though in ways which take up the ethical lessons of postmemory, and offer us multidirectional memorial ways forward. Mandy Cohen has written of the way in which time and space fold into each other, invoking both Warsaw and Gaza, wondering what would happen “if more of us came to Warsaw not to reinforce a history of oppression, but to study the legacy of those proposing ways to eradicate it?”

I don’t know what happened to my grandparents and their families during the war. We have brief snippets, and names of family members who survived and those who didn’t. We don’t (yet) have addresses of where they lived, or dates they were deported. We know that there was resistance in the Czestochowa ghetto, but we imagine that our ancestors would have been too scared to take part. What I know though, is that the memory of the Holocaust is always timely. The lessons I have learnt from being the granddaughter of victims/survivors is that these memories must always sit alongside the memories of others. While there is always forgetting in remembering, that forgetting must not function to obscure others sufferings (and most definitely not obscure the sufferings which I cause). If history is to be made to do work in particular ways, then I’d rather they were ways infused with a feminism and a feminisation. My rememberings are most important to me, but need not be most important to others; what is timely for me, might be obscure for others.

Daniel Kahn has sung of this, asking us to “learn to take the rootless cosmopolitan worldview, in the hidden interstices we all normally eschew,” but also to remember that we do so in the shadows of history, “not only as a victim, but a perpetrator too.”

These are difficult times.

Top of Page

‘But We Never Talked About It’

By Sander Gilman and Xun Zhou

Otto Dov Kulka, the Israeli historian and a Holocaust survivor recently published for the first time his account of surviving the camps. He turned 81 this year. In his autobiography he did not use the word “Holocaust” because he did not want to be identified as a victim. When asked in an interview in The Guardian on 7 March 2014 why it took him seventy years to make his recollection public, he explained that after he moved to Israel, he lived on a Kibbutz with other young people. They were so carried away by a spirit of optimism that their experiences in the concentration camp seemed inappropriate to the new state.

Kulka’s example is not unique. When can one speak about past catastrophes and when are they so overwhelming or censorious that they are unspeakable? In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Walter Benjamin argued that that “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it ‘the way it really was.’ (…) It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” This is certainly a question not only of academic history such as the work of Dov Kulka but also of the complex public acknowledgement of catastrophes as part of a collective memory of the past. One cannot explain this phenomenon by claiming that historical trauma marks certain events more than others. Indeed traumatic events may recede in memory or acquire new salience over time. Indeed they can even be instrumentalised for radically different purposes. Even in the accounts of the actual survivors, the question remains: when can such moments be explored and when and why are they sometimes taboo?

Take for example the public discourse about the Holocaust in Israel. While Israelis spoke of the founding of the state in 1949 as a ‘Zionist’ undertaking, its roots were much more in the immediate experience of the Holocaust than the very middle class idea of a Jewish state espoused by Theodor Herzl in the 19th-century. No longer willing to be understood as the ultimate victims after 1945, the citizens of the new state of Israel embraced a victor narrative that ran from the successful War of Independence in 1949 through the Six Day War in 1967. Even the evocation of past history, as in the catastrophe at Masada where a group of Jewish rebels committed suicide rather than be conquered by Titus’ Roman legion, came to be turned into a tale of moral victory as one of the founding narratives of the state of Israel. ‘Never again’ became the motto, but what was never again to occur was obscure.

Yad Vashem, the national monument to the victims of the Holocaust, was founded in 1953. However it was only when the State of Israel was felt by the majority of its citizens, most of whom had never experienced the Holocaust, to be a successful and permanent part of the stable global order did it become possible publicly for individual victims to remember their experiences. Yet, there were still voices like that of Yehuda Elkana, the late historian of science at the Hebrew University, who called for a systematic forgetting of the past. A critic of the “Holocaust industry” and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, in an article published in Ha’aretz on March 22 1988 Elkana wrote: “For our part, we must learn to forget! Today I see no more important political and educational task for the leaders of this nation than to take their stand on the side of life, to dedicate themselves to creating our future, and not to be preoccupied from morning to night, with symbols, ceremonies, and lessons of the Holocaust. They must uproot the domination of that historical “remember!” over our lives.”For him ‘Never again’ is for everyone, not just the Jews. “The past is not and must not be allowed to become the dominant element determining the future of society and the destiny of the people.” He urged Israeli Jews to be freed from “the deep existential ‘Angst’ fed by a particular interpretation of the lessons of the Shoah” and “To stand for life, to divert ourselves for building our future and not to deal over and over in symbols, ceremonies and lessons drawn from the Holocaust.” After the collapse of the USSR, the influx of Russian Jews brought new generations into Israel for whom it was the Soviet experience of survival from Stalinist anti-Semitism rather than the Holocaust (even in the USSR) that became the benchmark for the historical past. Entering into the 21st century, however, in the context of the politics of Israeli survival and the complex realities of the contemporary Middle East, public debate about the memory of the Holocaust once more became commonplace in the public sphere in Israel.

In the United States there seemed to have been a similar trajectory. As well illustrated by the NYU historian Hasia Diner in her We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945 – 1962, immediately after 1945 one could speak about the Holocaust as the ultimate Jewish experience of victimisation at least within the confines of the Jewish community. Her work was an answer in part to Peter Novick’s 1999 claim in The Holocaust in American Life that the Holocaust had become the new “civil religion” of American Jews only after the 1970s with a “perverse sacralisation” that valorised Holocaust survival over all other ethnic and religious identities. The assumption is that by then a new generation of American Jews felt themselves to be a secure and successful minority. This sense of security enabled them to speak about the past. The collection of Holocaust survivor testimonies in the 1980s, beginning in the United States and then spreading to Israel and Europe, was part of such a moment of “recovered memory.” For Novick the creation of this new public memory was represented by the creation of an increasing number of Holocaust Museums, monuments and archives that fixed the horrors of the past and defined the present against them. The children of Holocaust survivors in the United States, such as the literary critic Julia Epstein in 2001, demanded a twenty-first century reconstitution of memory. In her essay Remember to Forget: The Problem of Traumatic Cultural Memory, she wrote: “Giving some form to emptiness is, however flawed, a necessary betrayal, and we therefore find ourselves obliged to engage in the process as though to fulfill a sacred duty. It is a duty to participate in the making of cultural memory and not leave it to others.” The making of memory, however, has its problems: “Without memory, we cannot come to terms with human history and tragedy, yet memory also often gets in the way of coming to terms.”

Thus context remains paramount. To what function do we put memory is one way of answering Benjamin’s query about when memory surfaces. Not merely at “a moment of danger,” but whenever memory is needed for a present task. Indeed, then memory can become a burden to be shed or at least challenged just as the very act of forgetting can be a political act. Avoiding the confrontation with memory, as the French psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Török observed in the 1950s, creates phantoms that haunt the crypt of memory. They are never forgotten only unspoken. But memory too has its phantoms as it is mobilised for specific reasons at specific times and often with different emphasis and functions. If forgetting has politics, then too does remembering.

“Never forgotten only unspoken” is also an apt descriptor for how the famine survivors of Mao’s China experience their memories. To remember or not is all about politics. The Great Famine from 1958 to 1962 was the worst famine in human history; according to some recent estimates, it claimed 45 to 50 million lives, almost equivalent to the total number of deaths in World War II. Yet unlike the Holocaust or other major human catastrophes in the twentieth century, there is still, three generations after the event, no place in China’s collective memory for it. It is clear that the history of the Great Famine has long been obscured by official taboos and restricted access to primary sources. Until very recently no essential archival material on the subject was available for public access. It is not mentioned in any history text book in China, and it is written out of the official Communist historiography. The accepted term in China for this period is “The Three Difficult Years” or “Three Years of Natural Disaster”. Yet such official repression does not completely explain its absence from the public sphere. To this day the Great Famine remains a dark episode in Chinese history and is very much hidden and unspoken even by the survivors.

Private Famine Memorial in Guangshan county, Henan Province
Private Famine Memorial in Guangshan county, Henan Province.

As the generation of famine survivors grows older, and many have since died, so the private memories of the famine are slowly vanishing. To preserve their dignity, which enabled them to survive, few survivors have talked to anyone, not even their children, about their experiences of the long-since forgotten Great Leap Famine. Why trouble the younger generation with such anguish and suffering? It is all still too painful to think about. It is simply too upsetting. However, the memories continue to torment those who went through it. People still taste the bitterness of those dreadful years. As with the suppression of any public discussion of the Holocaust at different moments and in different spheres in Israeli and American history, the famine in Mao’s China belongs to a world of the unspoken yet omnipresent past. It is a phantom in the crypt of memory. On a number of occasions when the survivors were interviewed about their past experiences during the Great Famine, they immediately fell into silence. After a short pause, however, they began to talk and were unable to stop. For many of them to be able to tell someone the terrible events that happened to them some fifty years ago was a form of healing. But such healing can only occur when the political moment allows a form of public acknowledgment as Zhou Xun has shown in her wide-ranging interviews with famine victims. Similar experiences took place with the first interviews for the Yale Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust memories undertaken in the 1980s; by then the Holocaust had come to be an accepted part of Jewish identity in the United States. Once the topic was opened, silence gave way to the ability to speak, especially the ability to speak in the public sphere.

In today’s China – the world’s second biggest economy with a staggering, if rather suspicious, GDP growth – it looks as if Mao’s vision of the Great Leap Forward has finally come to pass. As the people in China, as well as the overseas Chinese communities, have been persuaded to embrace the new “Chinese Dream” envisioned by President Xi Jingping, there seems little need to remember the famine – a dark page in the history of humankind that occurred more than half a century ago. The present narrative of success and stability trumps even individual memories of a traumatic past. Inside China and among the overseas Chinese there is also a deep distrust about the success and stability. The ghost of victimhood and “national humiliation” continues to haunt the seemingly stable and successful China. For some time to come, it seems the unspoken nightmares of the past will continue to trouble the otherwise luminous “Chinese Dream.”

Builder of Famine Memorial in Guangshan county Henan Province
Builder of Famine Memorial in Guangshan county Henan Province

The memories of mass death in the Holocaust and the Great Leap Forward famine provide ample materials for any understanding of the complex spaces needed for memory to be articulated in the public (and perhaps even in the private) sphere. The politics of memory formation, structuring, and articulation are different in these two cases not because of any underlying difference in the experiences (which there are) or in the various cultures in which they are imagined (which also exist). They are different because over time the need for such memories, their suppression, or instrumentalisation is different. When one expands such questions to other histories of modern mass death, such as the Holodomor in the Ukraine or the mass starvation in North Korea, one is struck how such existing powerful models, such as those of the Holocaust or the Great Leap Forward famine, also then in turn serve as models for other forms of public memory. The politics of memory gives rise to other politics of memory. Memory is always contextual, even the recounting of memory by those who have experienced it. Historical memory is yet even more contingent and fragile.

Top of Page

One Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *