MEMORY AND MEANING IN THE SHADOW OF THE HOLOCAUST
Elie Wiesel has often raised the question: What does it mean to “remember” the holocaust? The material itself is too terrible, too vast, too cruel, too impersonal. It is also too painful to recall. Survivors who speak in public, and not many of them do, have nightmares for days or weeks afterwards. Students hide from the horror. Scholars and teachers recoil from the material. When a survivor tries to tell even part of the story, we, the listeners, try to block it out after the first few minutes. The human mind is very resourceful, and there are many ways to block out unpleasant information. We drift off into fantasies in which we play the hero (which I doubt we would have done in real life). We intellectualize or we moralize. We try to reduce the shoah to history or to lessons to be learned. That is not recall. To remember is to tell the story or to listen to it as best one can.
This resistance to confronting the holocaust in all its reality is deeply resented by survivors. They have been so abused. How can the world not listen? Why must the world cut them off? I think I understand their outrage, but I have a word to the survivors: to resist the reality of the shoah is a sign of humanity. It is a sign of humanness that we, the listeners—and most of us are not old enough to remember anything of the war—fantasize, that we intellectualize, that we moralize. It is a sign of human sensitivity that we are ashamed as human beings of what happened.
We, the listeners of all generations, owe it as a debt of honor to the dead as well as to the survivors to hear, to listen. We also owe it as a debt to ourselves and to future generations to be so embarrassed that we stumble over our own defense mechanisms when we try to grasp the event. I hope we will never be able to look at a survivor and hear his or her story without crying. I hope we will never be able to read a book on the holocaust or see an exhibit without wanting to reject the material by quickly putting it out of our minds or into mental cubby-holes. Elie Wiesel is right: to remember is to tell the tale or, at least, to listen to it. Memory is a communal recalling, no matter how painful. We must also bear in mind, however, that to resist the tale is human; to reduce and to interpret it is a sign of moral sanity. For interpretation moves us gently into the realm of meaning. The event, in its massiveness and horror, resists meaning. The listeners, in their humanity, resist the event, thereby giving it meaning.
In reflecting, then, on the meaning that we, the listeners, give to the shoah, what can be said in the presence of the dead and of the survivors? In reflecting on a memory that is becoming a collective memory rather than an individual one, what surfaces from the depths of our communal being? I think that there is no one meaning in the holocaust. The event was too vast, and we, its interpreters, too varied. There are many meanings.
The Jewish meaning of the holocaust is summed up well in “The Seven Commandments for Jewish Survival in the Post-Holocaust World.”
The first commandment is: “Be a little paranoid.” This is difficult for our non-Jewish neighbors to understand, but one of the main lessons of the shoah is that antisemitism is a permanent element in modern culture and it must be taken seriously. Neo-nazis cannot be ignored. When the PLO demands the “elimination of the Zionist presence” in its Covenant (section 15), the threat must be taken seriously. The Jewish community did not pay attention to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and to the antisemitic goals of its enemies in the 20’s and 30’s. We cannot afford another such stupidity, and we must be paranoid about such matters even, and perhaps especially, when it is respected institutions and persons who speak and not just individual people on the fringes of society.
The second commandment is: “Get organized and stay organized.” The post-holocaust Jew must belong to and support a whole range of organizations. There is a Jewish lobby. Why shouldn’t there be! There is a gun lobby, an oil lobby, and an Arab lobby. This is America. Lobbying is a right and a political privilege. There are organizations devoted to anti-defamation, education, and support of the State of Israel. There ought to be, and Jews must be active in these organizations.
The third commandment is “Educate.” The Jewish community must maintain a network of Jewish schools, synagogues, shoah centers, bureaus of Jewish education, adult educational programs, and so on. The Jewish community must support student trips to Israel to help develop a sense of pride in being Jewish. The Jewish community must also educate its members for solidarity and responsibility. No one is born shouldering the burdens of another.
The fourth commandment is: “Support the institutions of freedom.” Post-holocaust Jews know that their position is only as secure as the freedom of their society. If we loose our freedom as people, we are in grave danger as Jews. Where freedom is not in the air, the Jew cannot breathe. Conscientious Jews have no choice. They must vote and support the free press, civil rights for all, and the betterment of the lot of the oppressed everywhere.
The fifth commandment is: “Reproduce.” Six million Jews died in the shoah. We lost not only six million but their progeny as well. If each had had three children, there would be six plus eighteen million more Jews today. If each of those three had had three children, there would have been fifty-four plus eighteen plus six million more Jews in Jewish history. Today Jewish population growth is negative. More Jews are dying than are being born. Post-holocaust Jewishness needs bodies.
The sixth and seventh commandments are probably the most difficult for non-Jews and for many Jews to understand. The sixth is: “Confront your opposition.” Don’t stand idly by when someone says or does something anti-Jewish. I remember an incident at one of the great mid-western universities when a professor tried to keep me from teaching about the shoah. I resisted, at considerable cost, and taught it anyway. I remember reading about a student who came across a nazi demonstration and who organized a Jewish and Christian counter-demonstration which encircled the nazis and out-shouted them. I remember a group of Jewish faculty women who succeeded in having a university affair moved from a restricted club. “Lift up your eyes, don’t look down.” For a generation of Jews who believed strongly in a low Jewish profile, maintaining a high Jewish profile is difficult. But it is natural and necessary for those of us who have been brought up in the shadow of the holocaust.
In living according to the commandment of “Confront your opposition,” the post- shoah Jew must confront the issue of the exercise of political violence. There are three kinds of violence: organized crime, sporadic criminal violence like a mugging or rape, and political violence which is violence used for express political purposes. The Boston Tea Party is a good example of political violence. So is the American Revolution. In a free society, the right to organize in defense of one’s rights is basic. I do not advocate political violence. I say only that post-holocaust Jews must decide whether, in confronting their enemies, they would resort to controlled, carefully-considered political violence.
And finally, the seventh commandment is: “Be prepared.” Post-shoah Jews must confront the reality that they are responsible to Jewish history for the continuity of the Jewish people and its civilization. If this should not be possible any longer in any given location, post-holocaust Jews must be prepared to move. I am a rabbi, a professor of Judaic Studies, and the member of the Board of the Federation of my city. If Jewish life in my area should be so endangered that I would doubt its meaningful survival, then I, as a responsible post-shoah Jew, must be prepared to carry the light of Jewishness elsewhere. This means I need a valid passport, a place to go, and the cash money with which to go. Indeed, every post-holocaust Jew must confront these questions. There are not comfortable questions not are there any quick and easy answers. But being prepared is part of what it means to be a Jew living in the shadow of the shoah.
There are other meanings to the holocaust, besides that of the survival of Jewish life and culture. There is also the general human meaning. A student once phrased the issue very clearly: “The problem for me is not how to avoid becoming a victim but how to avoid becoming a persecutor.” By this he did not mean that he felt afraid he would become a sadist of the SS type. Rather, he was expressing his astonishment at the intellectual and moral ease with which so many people participated in the shoah. Think of the engineer of the train to Auschwitz. Did he not know what his freight was? Or think of the secretary in the office of the railroad who typed a bill to the SS for 10,000 Jews one-way to Auschwitz and 100 SS officers round-trip. Did she not reflect on what she was doing? Or think of the industrialists and their knowing use of less-than-slave labor. Or think of the labor unions of the city of Danzig, now known as Gdansk. Poland has been in turmoil since last summer because of their resistance to tyranny. But they did not act in 1939 when the synagogue was being torn down and the Jews deported for extermination. These people were not sadistic or mad. They were normal average people living out their lives in a society which accepted certain basic ideas, and those ideas then seemed eminently reasonable.
Are we so different? Is our society so different? We, too, live in a society where our very thoughts are molded by the media, where events are interpreted for us in the very process of reporting. We live in a society where consensus is the supreme goal, where communal unity is important. Yet, it is exactly that mentality of social conformity, of intellectual and moral oneness of mind, that was the heartbeat of nazism.
Let me ask a few questions to illustrate. Do white people really know what it means to be black, to have 28 children murdered because they were black? Do whites really know that all blacks on the street are not potential criminals? And, do blacks understand that all whites are not really racists? Do blacks appreciate how deeply whites fear black racist attitudes and rhetoric? In another area: Do Jews know what Christians mean when they say that they “have a deep sense of rootedness in Judaism, in the Bible?” I do not mean the offensive, proselytizing Christian; I mean the sincere, open, decent Christian. Do Jews know what such people mean when they “claim their Jewish roots?” And, do Christians know what an American Jew feels when our government gives military equipment to the enemies of the Jewish people, to persons sworn to its destruction—weapons which are capable of generating another holocaust? Do Christians know what it is to live in the knowledge that, if something were to happen to the State of Israel, my sons and my students will justly accuse me saying, “Where were you? Why did not you do more?” In another context: Do Jews really know what it is to be a Palestinian, deprived of political sovereignty in an age of nationalism? Do Jews really understand that not all Palestinians are members of the PLO? And, do Palestinians know that Jews, when they look at history, simply cannot trust the words of anyone, especially if the words threaten destruction? Do Palestinians know that not all Jews are territory-mad?
Each of us lives in a world of stereotypes, of “we and they.” We also live in a milieu of consensus and mass-thinking. But that is exactly what fascism and nazism were all about. It was not just the hatred and the racism. It was the reasonableness of what was then common talk. Now, after the shoah, it seems morally repulsive, but then it did not appear that way. The thousands of smiling faces that greeted Hitler in his triumphal parades, the millions who did what they were told to do, are not different from us. They were just ordinary people, listening to their news broadcasts, members of a society whose injustices did not seem an impossible burden. If there is a general meaning to the holocaust, then, for us as human beings—as Christians and Jews, as blacks and whites—it is: “Beware of political slogans. Resist conformity. Think about what you are asked to consent to.”
Sometimes this is simple. For years I went to large gatherings, and in order to be able to leave and re-enter, I permitted attendants to stamp my hand. But, then I said to myself, “What am I doing? Am I really going to let someone put a (temporary) number on my arm?” This is a simple case of resistance to social conformity.
There are, however, more complex cases: If you are a Christian, get up at a meeting and make a motion that the church renounce the missions to the Jews, that all funding for this offensive activity be suspended. Or, if you are a Jew, get up at a meeting and make a motion that not all Palestinians are PLO, that some deserve a state and that funding for the Israeli peace movement be included in the budget. Whatever you are, stand up and be a prophet. A former president of the Atlanta Jewish Federation once said to me, “The purpose of Jewish education is to train leaders.” I responded, “No, it isn’t. There will always be leaders because of the power and the glory. The purpose of Jewish education is to train prophets.”
To live in the shadow of the shoah, then, as a human being—especially as a serious Jew or Christian—is to cling mightily to the prophetic vision. It is to recognize that minorities have rights and majorities have responsibilities. It is to resist the tyrannies of anti-Semitism, intolerance, and social conformity and to advocate liberty and justice for all. It is to heed the cry of Psalmist, “Ye who love God, hate evil.” It is to have a dream—the dream of the prophet Amos—of a day when men and women “will let justice well up like the waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” To live in the shadow of the holocaust is to try, each in his or her own way, to be a voice for the prophets.
There is another general meaning to the shoah. We must reach out and touch the truly human-divine element in our fellow persons. A prominent news personality, in his coverage of the exhibit of the remnants of the Jewish community of Danzig, noted that it was the individual faces of the people that made the holocaust real. And so he concluded the segment with 15-20 seconds of silence, with only individual faces from the destroyed Danzig Jewish community on the screen. Fifteen to twenty seconds of dead time on television is an eternity, but the silence and the faces said more than any words could have said. The shoah happened to persons, to people just like us and our neighbors, to faces and to eyes. And we all have faces; we are all people.
One of the best docents during a recent exhibition of “Danzig, 1939: Treasures of a Destroyed Community” was non-Jewish. Her command of the material, even the Hebrew, was superb. Her knowledge of the history was flawless. And her sympathy as a sensitive Christian was deeply felt by all. At the end of one tour with a group of Jewish visitors, a man came up to her and, recalling a great biblical heroine who had saved his people many centuries ago, said to her, “You know, you really ought to change your name to Esther.”
The hosts of the exhibit were also told that, as the group began their tours, they were just agglomerations of individuals, even those groups that had come as a unit. However, as the tour progressed, those present grew into a community. As one of the docents put it, “At the end, they would stand closer together, touching each other, and they would stand closer to me too.” We all know of other such moments of deeply human communion, and, in the aftermath of the holocaust, we must dedicate ourselves to creating such moments of human-divine-human contract.
Living in the shadow of the shoah, then, is first telling the story and listening to it. But it is also resisting the story, interpreting it, and giving it meaning. Living in the shadow of the holocaust means being consciously and responsibly Jewish. It means striving to be a prophet. And it means reaching out and redeeming the spark of God in humanity wherever it may be.
 This article appeared as “In the Shadow of the Holocaust,” Jewish Spectator (Winter) 11-14; reprinted in expanded form as, “Memory and Meaning in the Shadow of the Holocaust,” Emory Studies on the Holocaust (1985) 114-22.
 On this, see now my The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition (Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press: 1999).