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Tossing memory and mankind in the dumpster

He's worried, very worried, about the elite college grads who tossed out classics on their way to forging the future

After my daughter’s recent graduation from an elite, liberal American university, I helped her to move out from her campus apartment.

I began to move her possessions, accumulated in boxes and bags, from her room, across the dorm quad where she lived and into the parking lot, where I slowly filled my car. Picking up some black bags of garbage, I asked her where I could leave them. “You’ll see two pretty full dumpsters near the parking lot. Just put them there wherever you find room,” she called to me from her kitchen where she was arranging her belongings.

Sweating in the late morning sun, I lugged the garbage bags out towards the two gigantic dumpsters, which in the distance gave the appearance of a mini-landfill. Flowing over their tops, front, and sides were hundreds of plastic bags and cardboard boxes filled with garbage, including some expensive looking items rather cavalierly tossed out by one of America’s most socially conscious student bodies: lamps, computers, furniture, clothing, kitchen items, and books. On the morning after they celebrated their graduations and pledged to make progressive change in the world, armed with their new degrees, these future leaders of society were throwing out what appeared to be used, but perfectly good items, presumably to purchase newer, better ones. As students, parents, and SUV’s tossed and packed, the mostly non-white maintenance workers, employees of the university, picked their way gingerly and quietly through the mountains of leftovers, retrieving for free other people’s refuse that they would likely never be able to purchase for themselves.

What scandalized me the most were the books that students had used in their courses and were now unloading into the dumpsters. When I was a child, my parents made clear to me that, unless they are phone directories or magazines, books are precious repositories of knowledge and ideas that we are not allowed to discard. This includes secular as well as sacred books containing God’s name within them.

I spotted an edition of Plato’s Republic lying forlornly on top of one garbage pile. In my adult years, I have come to regret not having studied Plato and the other great Western philosophers in college, so my horror at seeing this felt very personal. I quickly texted my wife to tell her about poor Plato having been consigned to the trash. I asked her, “What do you think some budding 22-year-old captain of industry and the intellectual elite was trying to say by doing that? Probably something like, ‘The hell with Plato! He was just a dead, white male from the oppressor class anyway.’” To which she drolly responded, “More likely, this person was trying to say, ‘I’m never reading this boring nonsense again!’”

I knew that our home and my office are already packed with books, many of which, like Plato, I might never get to read seriously before I leave this world. Still, allowing the great thinker to rot, forgotten in a dumpster, felt to me like a profound betrayal of every value and idea that we claim to cherish as a culture. I dusted the book off and took it home with me.

You might be thinking that I need to loosen up and not get so bent out of shape about a college student throwing out a copy of Plato at the end of the school year. I implore you to reflect more deeply upon the gravity of my concern.

Whether it was done out of ideological indignation or idiotic indifference, throwing out Plato is a tiny echo of our society’s propensity to ignore, then to forget, the past — its ideas, values, achievements and atrocities. Lying in the sleep-induced coma of historical and cultural amnesia so typical of American life, we put ourselves at risk of repeating those parts of the past which constantly threaten to become the present again.

Our teacher, Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, who died the week before last, was a Shoah survivor and witness who understood all too well the risks of forgetting. These are his words delivered in 1986, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize:

I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy, anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed. 

I remember he asked his father: “Can this be true? This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?” And now the boy is turning to me. “Tell me,” he asks, “What have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?”

 And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. And then I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent.And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

I know that there is absolutely no moral equivalence between forgetting Plato and forgetting the Shoah, between tossing a book and a book burning or committing genocide; but I would argue that there are insidious connections between them. A student who forgets the great ideas and books that form the bedrock of our civilization and its dialogues risks becoming one more adult who forgets how to think about and fight for the values that make us free.

A whole generation that forgets the past, both its grandeur and its grotesquerie, will simmer in a slow cooker of apathy and ignorance, its mind turning gradually into intellectual soup. A whole society that forgets how to think will become the slave of every demagogue, stupid bigotry, and irrational fear mongered as the next solution for making America or the world great again. We Americans, the ones with fancy degrees as well as the one barely able to read, are touching this kind of forgetfulness right now in our dangerously perverted political climate. We should be plagued with moral insomnia. Instead, we appear to be asleep at the wheel.

I acknowledge my penchant for melodrama, but I must admit that, looking at the lonely copy of Plato lying that day near the dumpster, I could not help thinking of the German-Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine. Heine, a German Jew living in the 19th century who converted in order to gain social acceptance, nonetheless suffered from anti-Semitic hatred all of his life. More than a century before the Shoah, he foresaw the satanic specter of Nazism rising in the plumes of smoke from the books that his fellow Germans would burn under Hitler’s rule. In 1821, in his play Almansor, Heine wrote his chillingly prescient warning: “Where they burn books they will also ultimately burn people.”

We who live in the aftermath of Auschwitz and other atrocities should take to heart what Heine taught. More so, we should take to heart the Torah that our teacher, Elie Wiesel taught: We must never forget.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.