Former YZ Editor and Member of the FZY Board of Directors, Sam Wagman, examines how collective memory has altered our communal understanding of the Holocaust and offers a powerful rebuttal to this damaging mindset.
Young Zionist editor Charles Burton recently published a superb article, exploring the shortcomings of John Boyne’s ubiquitous piece of Holocaust fiction ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. He posited some fascinating, and much debated, points – namely, the danger in releasing a work that so extremely and absolutely demands sympathy for a perpetrator of genocide. In this piece, I hope to expand on the foundations that Charlie laid – to more fulsomely explore the notion of ‘memory’ within the study of the Holocaust, and how memory so closely interacts with and warps Jewish internal and communal conceptualisation of the event, as well as, more broadly, how it impacts the state of Holocaust education as a whole.
As a community, there is a prevailing- if implicit- presumption that our own intellection of the Holocaust as an event is inherently correct; that we are not impacted by the same prejudices and political forces that may sway non-Jewish communities away from a full, nuanced understanding of events. I’d argue that not only is this premise entirely incorrect, but that there is also a danger in presuming a perfection to this process. Jewish communities have, when perceiving our own collective history and trauma, been influenced by the limitations of our insularity, and have therefore internalised and accepted certain, often flawed, narratives as objective truth.
Dr. Joan Tumblety, in ‘Memory and History’, suggests an understanding of memory as not just ‘source’ but also ‘subject’; memory is by no means concrete, and operates at a junction of varying mentalities – the job of our community today is to extrapolate where our perceived collective ‘memories’ have in fact adjoined to broader trends in Jewish politics, society, and culture. Whereas statistics rarely alter, testimony and witness are party to forces of identity that reshape our understanding of them. The Jewish response to a survivor’s testimony in 1946 would have been interpreted with a significantly different lens of Jewish identity and historical understanding than today. Most notably, modern Jewish identity today often forms around the opinions on statehood.
The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 fundamentally altered the conversation surrounding the Holocaust, for both better and worst. On the one hand, Israel provided a central cultural hub in which the contours of Jewish history could be more freely understood and historicised – scholarly freedom intersected with an independent future, to create new, exciting means of academic Jewish self-examination and self-understanding in the wake of the Shoah. On the other hand, it provided Holocaust education with its biggest detraction; politicisation. Israel became a tool by which to defend from the horrors of genocide – I cannot count the number of times I have heard a misplaced narrative claiming that the Holocaust directly ‘provided’ for a Jewish homeland. Whilst Israel afforded- and continues to afford- comfort and security for many persecuted Jews across the world, its usage in Holocaust education (as forming a part of a wider ‘story’ of Jewish salvation) is entirely reprehensible.
In my opinion, the central flaw in ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' is that it is predicated on an understanding of the Holocaust that, either consciously or indeed unconsciously, offers a sanitised, and understated version of events. The use, within Jewish communities, of a ‘grand narrative’ of Jewish redemption culminating in the formation of the State of Israel, falls foul of this same grievance. This process of harnessing memory through placing it in a misconstrued teleology only serves to minimise the Holocaust as an act of genocide independent of the later contours of Jewish history. On various occasions, oft in the defence against antisemitism, we have utilised our own collective ‘memory’ of pain and genocide (formed via the testimony and witness of survivors) in order to achieve communal aims. That is not by any means an evil in and of itself, but it requires introspection; we cannot intend on having a meaningful conversation surrounding improper representations of the Holocaust without first dissecting how our own shifting identities and priorities impact on our memory of the Shoah.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t disseminate the all-important message of ‘Never Again’ or that the use of testimony is by any means irrelevant. Neither should there be a moral panic within the community surrounding the way in which our young people are being taught the events of the Holocaust. Rather, it is self-evident that there should be a constant process of introspection, aimed as much at understanding our ‘memory’ as a historical process, as the Holocaust itself. We should be in constant dialogue with our past, and with our own identity as a force upon that collective history, and wary (not averse) of the usage of that history in any political or social dimension.
As a community, we have changed since 1945. Our understanding of the community we now find ourselves in should thus negotiate with those changes, and practice healthy criticism and standards so that we do not fall foul of our own, vital, responsibilities of remembrance.