Jews dance. We shimmer, sway, twirl between despair and joy. For every tragedy we sing to the promise of triumph. For every triumph we strike our chests and keen the memory of deep tragedy. We must stand still tonight.
I sit at my desk, leaning back in my chair and looking up at the volumes hanging over my head. La Nuit, Se questo è un uomo, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Todesfuge, The Painted Bird. The words of a generation stripped of all sense. This grappling with language rendered meaningless. Mother tongue cut out of mouths by perversion.
Levi writes how the Italians, the French, the Poles, the Greeks were subsumed into the quasi-language of the camps until all were lost. Arendt points to her inability to ever write in German after the Shoah. The meanings of the words she once knew became so fluid, draining into the cesspool of the Nazi machine, forever drowned. Celan could never escape Goethe, the golden-haired demons chased him to his death. Wiesel writes endlessly, in languages that are fourth and fifth, his mamaloshen purged.
They were there, and even they lack adequate language. There are no words. We dance around the meaning and the memory. We step together in their shadows, in their ashes, making promises to ghosts. We will never forget. Never again. We try to pin it down with images and statues, with lists of names and somber ceremonies. We build museums and wail our mournful songs. Yet we will never be able to speak or write or sing or dance the truth of this pain. There is no promise of triumph. There can be no remembering. There is only inexplicable tragedy.
The despair of meaninglessness is what is missing from our dialogue. We use words as if they can describe or explain: they cannot. We stand silent as if that will help us remember: it will not. We read as if it will help us understand: it will not. There is a darkness in our experience and in our language where this event lives, separated from time and space and anything that has ever been or will ever be. It will never happen again, but we will forget because we have convinced ourselves that we can remember.
As our pedestrian time marches on, invincible to the meek past tugging at its hem, the Holocaust will increasingly become a historical fact. Describable, an event like any other with causes and results, with victims and victors. But it is not.
How can we commemorate when every tool we have is so blunt? How can we sharpen an impossible memory before it fades into the annals? We send our kids with their shiny Ipods and flags tied around their necks to walk through the camps, to march the march of death and call it the March of the Living. We let them fly home to Israel and dance the dance of triumph. We stand in hushed mourning, contemplating the unimaginable for a few minutes before we go back to our living lives. How can we bear it?
It is time to recognize that our silence is the truest memory we have. It is not a moment of silence, it is an eternity. A moment that is separate in time. A moment that is separate in meaning. How can we make promises when we cannot even understand what we are remembering? Even those who were there cannot believe what the saw, cannot find the words to describe or explain or impart. For that which lacks words, all we can offer is silence.
This is the silence. In the silence we acknowledge how awesome the pain, how insufficient any measure of comparison is in description. In the silence, a moment separated in time and space and meaning we acknowledge the wordlessness of those who perished and those who survived. Even this word will never suffice: survive. No one survived. None of us have survived. We exist in a different plane, one that will forever be viewed through the fractured prism of banal and radical evil. A world after the Holocaust. We can never understand what reality was before every word in every language shifted.
The silence is different. Beyond pain, beyond hope, beyond word, it is a deep deep darkness. There we stop dancing. It is all we can offer, our silence is our promise. We cannot remember. We will never be able to remember. But in our silence we will never forget. We stop dancing and stand still in that eternity, soundless.