A few years ago, I visited the site of the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside of Berlin, one of the first camps established by Hitler’s henchmen in 1936. For nine years it housed scores of political prisoners and functioned as an execution site for Communists, Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, and other groups consigned as enemies by the Reich.
In 2014, it is mostly a vast lawn. Lush and trimmed, I knew the secrets underneath only thanks to Stephan, my guide, a young German who excavates its history with visiting groups. Stephan described horrors, but I was refused the ability to imagine them, even relate to them, alerted instead to the sheer normalcy of my surroundings. I tried to look through, to look beyond, to pinch myself. Stephan said: “The history of mass murder is the history of things you can no longer see.”
On January 27th, we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the date on which Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Red Army troops in 1945. While a crucial opportunity to remember and reflect on the Holocaust, I worry more about its capacity to induce forgetfulness.
Ceremonies reign on these days of remembrance. Ideally, they can commit us to a process of introspection. But too often they are hollow affairs that, instead, acquit us. We hover around the event without actually accessing it, deluding ourselves into believing that we have thus fulfilled an obligation to the dead. The conventional proceedings encourage sobriety – candles are lit; poems speak to the tightening grip of persecution; an empty pledge affirms the pursuit of a more tolerant world, and we remember.
Yet memory itself is not an end. If January 27th breeds only gloom, it emboldens complacency, too. There is a place for mourning, but real commemoration entails more than weeping. Should we invoke the Holocaust in order to weep? No, Elie Wiesel told the audience at the inception of Yad Vashem’s new Holocaust museum in 2005. “If we decided to tell the tale, it’s because we wanted the world to be a better world.” Perhaps a better world that has heeded the warning signs, fractured the hatred of difference, engaged fiercely in the preservation of democracy – a better world that has sought not the resolution of the Holocaust, but its continued study.
In search of true commemoration, we may begin by framing January 27th around a thought experiment: what specifically about the Holocaust should give us pause? Which aspects of its incidence require our reflection? For example, recent scholarship by Donald Bloxham and others has emphasized the extent, in addition to the ideological intent, of the Holocaust. What role did the political aspirations of countries outside immediate German control, such as Romania, have in the annihilation of European Jewry? If, as Holly Case suggests, Romanian anti-Jewish policy during the war was shaped by territorial considerations—specifically that of Transylvania—how does this contribute to our view of the dynamics that enable and abet mass murder in a genocidal climate?
There are no easy answers, and sometimes none at all, but if we have an obligation to the dead, it is to ask difficult questions. With hope, these may serve our compass in navigating a greater understanding of this period.
January 27th is an opportunity to infuse Holocaust memory, so endangered by the passage of time, with a consideration of its very nature. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust in the United Kingdom is leading this charge, disseminating educational content and empowering communities to learn and host exhibits centered on a different theme each year in advance of the day itself. Indeed a ceremony to honor the victims ought only to serve as the rallying point around which to generate broader awareness, organize programming, and mostly, to learn from survivors while they are still able to bear witness.
Our generation, three times removed from the Holocaust, must fight differently to safeguard its memory. Few shy from invoking the Holocaust in today’s culture. To the contrary, we are over-saturated with crude references that trivialize its potency. “Never Again” is no longer a call to action; it is a call to lethargy, diffidence, desertion. Yehuda Bauer offers a poignant correction: “Ever Again.” Over and over again.
Harnessing Holocaust memory—inspiring a dialogue with the legacy with which it endows us—this is the new commemorative act.
At Sachsenhausen, I could not see the devastation of which my guide Stephan spoke, but I saw him working to retrace it, to wrestle with it – a young German trying to understand what the legacy of the Holocaust means for his country, what it means for the future. Walking together in the blistering Oranienburg heat, I was struck by his resolve to fight the currents of our societal fatigue, to protest history’s unyielding pace, to not let the silence of memory deceive him.
Now is the time to raise our voices. How will you commemorate?