Corinne Berzon

The remembrance that forgets

My feed is flooded with Holocaust posts. I guess that is because most of my FB friends are Ashkenazi Jews who are third generation survivors. Who had the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of the horrors. Who went to Poland in high school. Who know some words in Yiddish. This is your story. Everyone says it happened to the Jews, but being part Sefardi and part non-Jewish I never felt that way. It happened to other Jews. That’s what I was taught.

This is a fatal flaw in the way the Holocaust is being framed. With Yiddish songs, images of Polish shtetls and wealthy German Jews dispossessed, the stories spoke to me in a visceral way and terrified me, but were never familiar. Just as they aren’t to a majority of Israelis.

For the Sefardi majority the Holocaust is being told and remembered in a way that is not relatable, and in the case of trips to Poland, not affordable. This will not be a popular analysis of the situation, but the Holocaust is decreasing in importance as the message gets lost in translation.

Most young people will never meet a survivor, most will never go to Auschwitz, most acknowledge the sad day, but there is nothing new to say and they are losing interest. Yom Hazikaron remains fresh to the kids still serving in the army, to a nation still losing its children to war and terror. The Holocaust, on the other hand, is over.

So how can we rescue the memories of those who perished? How can we make telling the story of the Shoah as persistent as telling the story of the Exodus? One day a year my feed is flooded by the grandchildren of survivors posting their personal stories based on first-hand accounts. We hear the names being read. We watch the candle being lit. We hear the siren. But what does it mean?

11 million people were systematically eradicated by the Nazi machine.  More than 60 million people died in World War II. Of the Jews murdered, entire Sefardi communities were destroyed. In France, Libya, Greece, Italy, Bulgaria. Gone forever. They never spoke Yiddish, but they had cultures and languages and stories that also deserve to be told. Why don’t we tell them?

The insistence on portraying the Holocaust as a European, Jewish, Ahskenazi tragedy makes it far removed from the experiences of many young Israelis and young Jews world-wide that may not associate themselves with any of these identities. Oyfen Pripichik is not a familiar refrain, so why keep forcing them to hear it? The Shoah MUST be told and taught. It must not be forgotten, so we must do a better job in the telling and the teaching.

The Holocaust is incomprehensible. There is no way to understand what happened. There is no way to imagine what it was like. Making it even less comprehensible by contracting the story into a narrow narrative will only undermine the purpose: teach it and tell it. To do that it must be made relevant, it must be made personal, it must not become a mess of jargon and catch phrases that lose all relevance through overuse.

I do not have an answer, but I do know that this narrative has remained unchanged as the Jewish world has continuously changed. The Holocaust is quite literally the worst crime against humanity ever committed. It is the measure of all evil. We cannot understand our world except as an aftermath of this event. It shapes everything we are, in the most global sense, so why not find a way to instill the information without having students glaze over with boredom? They’ve heard it all before, and their grandparents weren’t even there, so why should they care? It is time to find a new way to keep telling the same story; one that will acknowledge the ‘other’ Jews, the ‘other’ victims and the singular nature of the Nazi machine. One that will make them care enough to teach it and tell it to their own children.

We have not forgotten because we have shared the earth with survivors. But one day even we will be gone, and no one will be left to testify. We need to make sure this story is told as if every Jew was there. As if every human was there. Just as we tell the story of Egypt, we must find a way to unify the message before the Holocaust is remembered into forgetting.


About the Author
Corinne Berzon is currently getting her PhD in bioethics. When she is not reading dense philosophical texts or dancing around the house to dubstep with her three daughters, she teaches yoga, runs in no particular direction and watches inappropriate television with her husband; Corinne loves Israel, but remains deeply and darkly cynical because it is more entertaining than the alternative.